Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Callooh Callay, Shoreditch

Callooh Callay
65 Rivington Street

Callooh Callay

Excuse me please, my ear is full of milk—Oliver Hardy (Going Bye-Bye, 1934)

Wine comes in at the mouth, and love at the eye,
but any fule kno that milk comes in at the ear.
I hear that cocktails pour their thoughts
through the candlestick ‘phone at Callooh Callay
where patrons, wise and elegant, drink not
themselves under the table but clear through
the looking glass where the Jabberwock waits
with impeccable, unimpeachschnappsable taste.
If its brrr outside then there’s Byrrh within
knocking boots with a splash of Amer Picon,
Cointreau, anise, and a sly soupçon
of inside-out chat about this and that.
Fraternise with a passing Fratterwacken,
or pick from a platter of snicker-snacks
to whet the old whistle and I’ll come to you lad,
keep coming back for the Jubjub Bird
in its fresh minty nest of green olive eggs,
spirited anchovies pecking their way
through shell and through mirror to the secret chamber

Monday, 10 January 2011

Ninety Eight Bar and Lounge, Shoreditch

Ninety Eight Bar and Lounge
98 Curtain Road

Abby La Fée

As I descend the cast iron spiral staircase from the street level of 98 Curtain Road, I don’t feel a bit like Alice entering the rabbit hole. As far as I’m aware Alice didn’t have jaded expectations of Wonderland, but I feel certain I know what I’m going to get from this underground Shoreditch bar: low lighting, battered Chesterfield settees, wax-dripped wine bottles and hipsters discussing their next tattoos (“so, like, I think I’m going to get a double helix on my tit with the words ‘there’s no gene for the human spirit’ written underneath, probably in a foreign language ‘cause it looks better like that”).

Well blow me down, how wrong I was. On reaching the bottom of the stairs, I'm met with white walls, marble flooring, fresh cut flowers and a twenty-foot high conservatory, complete with pot-palms and a grand piano. It’s awash with pastel coloured Baroque furniture, vintage perfume bottles, white feathered lampshades and sheepskin rugs.  Not your average 'my sovereign is more ironic than your sovereign' Hoxton haunt. On the table in front of me is a white porcelain elephant with a Smartie tube sticking out of its back. Curioser and curioser.

The bountiful proprietor, Kath Morrell, is straight at my side explaining that the concept behind the bar is ‘fun’. Fun, fun, fun. She introduces me to some novelties:
“Dip your finger in, rub it on yourself, and lick it off”.  She says.
A bold, request, perhaps, but in the spirit of open mindedness I bashfully oblige. Edible candle wax which doubles as a moisturiser, who’d have thought? Love that sweet-grease taste. She also offers me fairy cakes, followed by strawberries dipped in rum and chilli sugar. I inhale some of the chilli powder and ineffectively try to style out my esophageal paroxysms with a spontaneous Horatian Ode. Quite the Tea Party.

I proceed to indelicately set upon the first aptly named tipple, ‘Off in the Clouds', with the relish of a thirsty hound. A martini glass arrives full of towering candy floss, which dissolves as a bright blue concoction of lavender-infused vodka, gin and blue Curacao is poured over it. A vesper it may be, but it tastes like a melted Refresher and white spirit jus. Not cool. My taste buds forgive me, however, when I get my lips around The Country Cottage Sour, a pink-drink of lavender-infused rum, apple and hazelnut; and they're rendered delirious little papillae by my next tryst with the Labito. If you can get past its unfortunately vulval appellation, you'll discover a most wondrous mojito made with lavender-infused rum.

Granted certain flavour and style combinations at Ninety Eight are verging on garish and would undoubtedly illicit a spontaneous ‘quelle horreur’ from the lips of my modest-tasted French mother (she can’t understand American accents and sushi conveyor belts make her seasick). And there are a few ‘okeeeeeeeeeeey’ ornaments (the rooster made of plastic bags is worthy of note here) but that’s part of Ninety Eight’s appeal. Like the decor, the unlikely experimentation with mixology is playful and somewhat nostalgic, contributing to the charm and whimsy of the place. Behind the bar giant perfume bottles hold spirits infused with many weird and wonderful things.

Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting. I reluctantly bid adieu to the Hatter and mount the spiral staircase, a little less gracefully than before.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

China Tang at The Dorchester

China Tang at The Dorchester
Park Lane

Glenn Fiddich

“So what’s it really like at the top of Mount Everest?” Ludicrously Hot Date asked me, popping a wasabi peanut into her mouth. As she leaned forward to pick up a replacement, I caught a glimpse of something black and expensive-looking underneath her dress.

“Oh, you know,” I said. “Cold. Snowy.”

“And you got up there totally without oxygen?”

“Well, I…”

“Wow. That is so… I mean, wow.” In went another peanut. Up went my blood pressure.

I stumbled across Ludicrously Hot Date in the personals section of a well-known newspaper’s website. She was naturally blonde, French-Canadian and a qualified masseuse. After years of dating wimpy acupuncturists and yoga teachers, she told potential suitors viewing her profile, she now wanted to meet a real man. Someone who could fix her car without looking at the manual and make a fire in a clearing whatever the weather. Someone born without tear ducts who could demolish one of those huge American-style steaks that flops over the edge of the plate in a single sitting. Someone, in short, who very definitely wasn’t me.

I climb mountains for a living, I wrote, emboldened by four hours of Boxing Day drinking with the retired Royal Marine who lives across the road from Mother Fiddich. And I once killed a deer just by looking at it. Drinks next week?

It was, of course, a joke. I really didn’t think I’d get a reply.

But I did, and in a hog-whimpering panic I suggested subterranean China Tang for our first – and almost certainly last – meeting. Ludicrously Hot Date listed Mad Men amongst her interests, and the place has a fabulously kitsch, Don-Draper-goes-to-Hong-Kong-and-wakes-up-next-to-Miss-Kowloon vibe. There are giant light-up soda siphons and jet-setting businessmen clustered around the bar talking in three-letter acronyms and spirits of truly stupendous quality. It’s also, crucially, very dimly lit.

Having hovered at a discreet distance from us for ten minutes, a waiter wearing trousers that were infinitely better tailored than mine arrived to take our order for cocktails. Ludicrously Hot Date batted her eyelashes at him.

“Surprise me,” she said. “I love surprises. Don’t you, Glenn?” She looked into my eyes and rested her manicured hand lightly on my knee.

“Mmph,” I said.

“And for you, sir?”

“Right. Yes. Sorry. I’ll have a…” With my glasses hidden at the bottom of my man-bag (which was, in turn, hidden in the furthest recesses of China Tang’s cloakroom), I thumbed blindly through the menu, desperately looking for something macho-sounding. “A Bullshot. Great, Thanks.”

Ludicrously Hot Date wrinkled her nose.


“Oh yes!” I squeaked. “Nothing like a nice Bullshot to start the evening.”

“It’s just that it’s got beef consommé in it. And that comes from cows.” She frowned. “Doesn’t it?”

“Yes, you’re right,” I said, very slowly. “It does. Yes.”

“But I thought your profile said you were a vegetarian?”

Since eating an ill-advised box of Chicken McNuggets outside the Bolton branch of McDonald’s on New Year’s Eve 2002, I haven’t touched meat or fish of any kind. I gulped. Behind me, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ was drifting out of the speakers.

I’d sacrifice anything, come what might, for the sake of having you near…

“Non-practicing,” I said.


“Oh, this is divine,” Ludicrously Hot Date sighed, setting her glass down on the table. “Aren’t you going to try yours, Glenn?”

I stared enviously at her bespoke Christmas Star cocktail – Ketel One vodka and something creamy with a dusting of nutmeg and a star anise on top. In front of me, in an enormous highball glass, was the Bullshot – all 350 menacing millilitres of it. It looked like Scotch broth, but without the carrots. Trying not to pull my coffee-face, I took the wariest sip since Rasputin sat down for dinner with Felix Yusupov and six of his closest friends.

“What do you think?”

I waited to pass out, or for my throat to close up. But actually, the Bullshot was just like a grown-up Bloody Mary – spicy, peppery and masses of depth. Not bad. Not bad at all.

“Delicious!” I said, grinning manically. “You know, I could drink these all night, I really could.”

“Well, I don’t know about that…” Ludicrously Hot Date moved a little closer to me on the plush banquette. “But how about we share some dim sum? I’m crazy about those cute little pork buns.”

I pictured battery chickens, and McDonald’s kitchens, and that horrible squeaking sound that Chicken McNuggets make when you bite into them. Then I pictured Ludicrously Hot Date licking barbeque sauce off her fingers.

“Count me in,” I said.