Monday, 28 November 2011

Baja Room, El Camion, Soho 17/20*

Location: 25-27 Brewer Street, Soho. Its just inside El Camion restaurant and down the stairs on the right

Visit: Various Saturday nights

To Note? Its open till 3am with no entry charge!

Ambaince 5/5
Design 4/5
Drinks 4/5
Staff 4/5
Extra LBS Star: * for playing Shake Shake Shake Senora, twice

“I only found it because you mentioned the sex shops!” declared one friend on arrival. That’s right; not only does the neon pink cactus outside look like a, well not like a cactus, but it is very cosily sandwiched between two of Soho’s largest sex shops and just a few doors down from Cocks, Cookies and Cakes – a great cupcake store with a twist. Once you find their door (there is a fair bit of scaffolding around it just now) then go in and take the steep stairs on your right down to the Baja Room.
This little nightclub runs till 3am with no entry charge and you can get food from the upstairs restaurant up to a decent hour of the night too. There is table service yet no service charge however we found it quicker, even early in the evening, to take your order to the bar.

You won’t have a long walk back to your table, this place is compact. We took a booth in the upstairs area (being up about 4 steps) which fits 8 at a squeeze and the table just outside for another 4 people. There is a similar booth beside it and two further large tables “downstairs”. How many people can the Baja Room take? 100 max, it was rather hot! The décor is simple “Mexican” but blessedly short of garish bright paint jobs or cactus, just stylish. The drinks menu covers an excellent range of Mexican beers (~£4), cocktails (classics and a lovely coconut/cachaca selection at ~£8) and a fabulous list of top notch tequilas. Simple food can be ordered to accompany the drinks too.

The staff were great, coping very well with the office overbooking their space and we were more than happy to squeeze up so that another group could take one of our tables that was further away. There were two girls taking orders from the floor but they were run ragged trying to get round all the different groups so we just made use of the bar, and the excellent bar tenders happy to make what you fancy with Margaritas available at least three ways.

The crowd was an odd mix of Clark-Kent-glasses-wearing media loves, a couple of birthday parties, some jeans and t-shirts and everyone hitting the “dancefloor” with relish! And the highlight of the evening – the music. An utterly bizaree yet truly inspirationally brilliant selection that started the evening with some chart trash, moved into 50’s rock’n’roll to get us on our feet, passed through some 80’s classics like “Shake Shake Shake” and Boy George and finished with 90’s hip hop by the time we left at 2am. I barely sat down.

What makes this place so special? Soho is a strange one with a real mix of people, nationalities, sexualities… but the Baja Room is just an unpretentious little hang out to dance your socks off and enjoy some fine drinks at very good prices. And the staff are truly outstanding.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Bourne & Hollingsworth: The Fourth Wall 17/20*

Location: Pop Up, so anywhere

Visit: Saturday evening

To Note? They will email you a map with cryptic clues such as the degree of longitude or street names labeled by their first letter and you work out where to go. It gets harder every week

Ambiance 3/5
Design 4/5
Drinks 5/5
Staff 5/5
Extra LBS star: * For the fun of it

Bourne and Hollingsworth are on the move. You will still find them - or you can try as the entrance is rather difficult to locate – at Rathbone Place however they are running a pop up of their bar for “a while”. I thought it was just the month of November however on asking at the bar they said that they were on week 3 with a further 4 or 5 to go.

This pop-up does what it says on the tin. The Bourne and Hollingsworth bar – floral wallpaper, Victorian fireplace, brass lamps, tablecloths and all – is roaming between secret locations on a Friday and Saturday evening, 5pm to 1am. When I went The B&H team had set up camp in a furniture storage unit round the corner from Shoreditch Overground. As we sauntered along the street – I worked here for a year and was confident I at least had the street correct – we spotted a half-open roll-up iron door with candles either side and – oddly - a clothes rail of lab coats just inside. The candles gave it away however we still asked, a little hesitantly, if this was “it”. In response we were beckoned onwards:

“Why not come inside and have a look anyway”

So we ducked under and headed round the corner of the MDF exterior into…Bourne and Hollingsworth. It was still early so we caught up over the first round, a Chimps Tea was my drink of choice and partly because I have always wanted a cocktail in a teacup. It was very tasty, well made and a reasonable £7.50 (with most coming in between £7 and £8). By the time I moved onto my … the bar had started to fill up with a mixture of couples, friends, gaggles of girls and even some people on their own. Had they wandered in or were none of their friends interested?! The DJ was also warming up but the music was mainly classics from eras gone by. They do recommend booking if you plan on coming after 7.30 but this is just a matter of firing off a quick email. There was a group of 16 booked in last weekend so this is obviously an option too!

I tentatively asked about toilets but no have fears; they have that covered with the permanent onsite “facilities” for the ladies and a portaloo for the men, which could get pretty dark considering the bar is entirely candlelit. The only gripe was that it was FREEZING. Obviously this is in a warehouse type space without radiators and they tried their best with portable heaters but we could not stay for much longer without loosing at least one or two fingers. Hot cocktails would be a great idea to wrap your hands around! The barmen were friendly but the set up left little opportunity for interaction; I always prefer the option to perch at the bar where available to watch the magic happen and have a chat.

B&H’s pop up has all the joy of a good cocktail bar with excellent drinks and its unique “granny’s front room” style but with the added fun of never being sure where it will be next. I am definitely booking in again before Christmas brings this venture to a close. Bravo for effort.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Presenting…Havana Club Rum (photos to follow)

Last Tuesday I returned to the scene of the crime – Callooh Callay – for another of their fabulous Jub Jub member tasting evenings. Actually I have always been remarkably well behaved at this bar; with it being one of my favourites I would hate to lose my privileges! And it remains one of my favourites as I arrived early especially to enjoy one of their fabulous scotch eggs, this time accompanied by surprisingly tasty tomato ketchup popcorn and predictably excellent “Fine and Dandy”, or figgy pudding as described in the menu.

So onto the main event with the glamorous Meimi, a self expressed “Scuban” – a Scottish Cuban. She was keen for us to try not only the different rum expressions but to put them in cocktail context and to add to food to really think about flavour pairings. Some facts:

  • Rums are aged in a Solera System, an idea imported from Jerez, Spain
  • The barrels go through Wild Turkey Bourbon and Scotch distilleries before arriving in Cuba
  • The liquid, when it comes straight off the still, is called Aguardiente – firewater
  • If you want to test the quality of dark rum, coat a wine glass with rum and leave upside down on the table for 20 minutes, when you return it should smell of rum, rather than distinct blocks of flavour

Havana Club 3 Year Old
-          in a beetroot daiquiri
-          served with stilton and walnut
It smelt fresh and almost grassy
It tasted like root beer, slightly medicinal and developed caramel notes with time but retained fresh nose
Smooth and good length

Havana Club Especial
-          Cuba libre
-          Plantain crisps
It smelt like caramel and nutmeg
It tasted like vanilla, green apple and spice
It was smoother, heavier and longer retaining grassiness at the end

Havana Club 7 Year Old
-          rich daiquiri
-          grilled tropical fruit and parma ham with spices
It smelt like 1&2 – caramel and fresh grass
It tasted a bit like damp earth (in a good way)
We should be picking up dried fruit, bitter chocolate, coffee, sweet tobacco – I didn’t!
One to drink straight due to elegance, to quiet for cocktails?

Havana Club Seleccion de Maestros
-          straight
-          with an orange flavoured chocolate
Unblended 10 year old aguardiente with needs all 6 blenders to agree on quality and style before it can be released, rare and clearly more expensive
It smells like fresh caramel, coffee and orange
It tastes like fire and has more bite but a smooth finish

Now if you want to go all out, look for Havana Club Maximo Rum at £1500 a bottle. With only 1000 bottles a year we’d all by lucky to ever try this.

Great night had, again. Thanks!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Graphic Bar, Soho 17/20*

4 Golden Square

Visit: More often than I care to tell, mostly Monday evenings

To Note? Gin tastings by their Juniper Society on a Monday (almost weekly, check their website) are free and well worth popping in for, but be warned, you’ll get hooked!

Ambiance 3/5
Design 5/5
Drinks 4/5
Staff 5/5
Extra LBS star: Oh go on, * for the Juniper Society

I do not feel I can properly judge the ambiance here. My trips tend to be a Monday evening, the least popular night of the week (?) and offering the almost weekly gin tasting to us gin enthusiasts, with a fairly regular crowd who love introducing new people to this experience too.

The design is great; practical, large and with plenty of seating, and tables, as they offer a decent menu being an all day bar so covering lunches through to close. My brother had to be restrained from stealing the posters off their walls and their corrugated iron garage doors running along one wall remind me of my old school gym.

Drinks, well, if you don’t like gin it is not a problem but you will have found paradise if you do. These come by the glass or the small bucket – literally – and the bar men like to have fun. They will mix up all sorts of flavours on your command and are constantly working with the guys they stock (100’s) to develop unique recipes to bring out the best from the varying botanicals.

And the staff, Sarah and Adam I salute you. This chirpy pair run these Monday sessions flawlessly and always with a good pinch of fun. We’re not here for a lecture, we’re here to enjoy new gins and if we learn in the process…bonus!

If you are out in Soho and you just want something a little more…normal, this is the place to go. And book ahead into Polpo for a great culinary treat after.

Happiness Forgets, Hoxton 19/20**

Location: Hoxton Saquare

Visit: Several Thursday evenings

To Note? Another basement joint, go past the Hoxton Grill and the stairs are to be found below the Thai restaurant (which will also do some nibbles for the bar)

Ambiance 5/5
Design 4/5
Drinks 5/5
Staff 5/5
Extra LBS star: For the sweet 1920’s jazz and the fact I never want to leave**

This is my favourite hang out so far. Seriously.

From the excellent drinks (and they are more than happy to mix you up anything you fancy) inspired by classics alongside interesting beers and some reasonable priced wines to the Thai nibbles that come from upstairs to absorb your excesses. From the no-standing policy so we are all comfortable to the candle lit bathrooms with a hint of incense. From the moustachioed barmen in braces who move seamlessly between host, mixologist and server to the crowd who simply enjoy a first class drink (at about £7.50) to the dulcet warbles of the jazz greats.

A mix of cushions, red light bulbs and 60’s chairs make it comfortable and cosy. The pitch of a conversational buzz mixed with smooth tunes makes it romantic. The chat of the barmen when perched on a stool makes it a friendly local.

So what’s the catch? It only serves till 11pm. Boo.

Monday, 17 October 2011

London Cocktail Week Day 6 Covent Garden to Embankment

Saturday 15th October

We started the weekend's drinking at the Hendrick's Unusual Umbrella Emporium. This pop up on Monmouth Street was...unusual. We wondered in past the Victorians mulling around outside into the ground floor with glass cases of curiosities and a bath tub full of rose petals as well as tempting libations on the walls. About to place an order, we were promised a free drink if we submitted a - cocktail - umbrella design. A limited number of tables meant we were leaning on our knees with just a red, black and green pencil to use. We held our breath as they barely past muster. So we enjoyed a classic
Hendricks and Tonic

This was everything you'd expect from Hendrick's, refreshing, clean and very drinkable.

We headed back out into the sun and on finding Covent Garden Cocktail Club closed for another 30 minutes, we moved onto St Martins Lane - part of my favourite hotel chain the Morgans Group. Again, the bar had just opened but we picked a seat overlooked from above by leering children's faces with a display of ancient glass goblets. No water was offered but menus were presented. Signature cocktail
Light Bar Punch 

remained undefined by staff who could not quite remember what it was; there were pomegranate seeds floating in it and it tasted fine. Onto The Savoy to browse the Cocktail Museum - not too impressive - and serve £10 taster cocktails! I think not! Why even bother if you are not going to give customers the chance to sample what you do at a special price. They claimed that they were not consulted.

So we left to return to the South, and onto the ever popular bar, The Loft around 6.30pm. Their signature cocktail was called a
Spiced Lemongrass Collins

All the tables were booked - 300 people expected in apparently - but we chose comfortable leather recliners on a table reserved at 8.30. As our drinks arrived, a bar man came over, removed the reservation sheet and changed it. Apparently the table now reserved at...6.30. What a joke. We sipped our drinks - my friend thought of lemon drop sweets, i thought of cleaning products - and left as soon as we could since we were apparently imposing on someone else's time. Will i go back? Debatable.

London Cocktail Week: Day 5 and Day 7 Bits and Bobs

Friday 14th October

This was possibly the most disappointing day of the week, which is not altogether negative considering the very high quality of Thursday (Callooh Callay, Happiness Forgets etc) I popped into Village East, Bermondsey, straight after work, something I had been meaning to do for some time. Despite there being at least two bar men, two hosts and several waitresses, we got fed up of sitting at the bar ignored and after 5 minutes asked for a menu. I went for the signature

Sake to Me

Which was a short drink of sake, apple juice, lemon and a cape berry decoration. On leaving my friend asked how me what my cocktail was like and one the verge of saying it was good I thought, actually, it wasn’t. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad. It was boring.

Later that night we headed to my most local cocktail bar – Venn St Records – in Clapham. The menu said the drink was Lynchburg Lemonade but for some reason they served us something else. I am not sure what it was, there were large chunks of lemon and lime, and it was a bit bland. It was however midnight on a very busy Saturday night in a heaving bar. So it was fun none the less.

Sunday 16th October

Day 7 only left time for one more visit before my weekend drinking companion headed home, and this was courtesy of The Blind Tiger/Lost Society, Clapham. This is another venue I had lost since planned to visit, and it sis not disappoint. Once we found out how to get in (buzzer beside the garden gate to the left of the establishment) we were led by 1920’s dressed staff to the brighter front area – as opposed to the dark 1920’s cubby holes towards the back or upstairs restaurant – for a

Gentleman’s Mojito

Mojito for me is always a good test of a bar, and this far exceeded expectations. There was gin, homemade elderflower, apple juice, mint, lime and more and was not only refreshing but well balanced for a 2pm drink. I would have stayed for more but there was a train to catch. I will be back.

Friday, 14 October 2011

London Cocktail Week: Day 4 The Doctor and more

Thursday 13th October

Well, on day 4 I certainly worked my wristband hard. I started a restaurant highly recommended by my (vegan) friend – Saf, 152 Curtain Road. At just past 6 o’clock I was the lone drinker at the bar but all the more time for me to really find out what these guys are up to. To start with their signature cocktail was
Milk and Gin

It was their final hoorah to summer with their autumn menu coming in next week. This was reflected in the freshly picked rosemary, bringing out the herbaceousness of the Scottish Caorum gin, mixed with white tea infused almond milk, sugar syrup and lemon juice. By the name and the ingredients I expected, well, a sweet tea. What I got was a clean, fresh uplifting drink that was delicious. I will go back to drink in this lovely airy space, but I am not yet sold on raw mange tout noodles!

Next Callooh Callay offered
The Doctor Will See You

With the inimitable Colin Dunn. A diagnosis of Diphtheria got me a prescription of Lagavulin 16 yr old mixed with lemon and…various other yummy things to enhance the overriding yet delicious bonfire notes. Scarlet Fever was cured by The Dogs Nose which was gin, porter, egg white and a sprinkling of nutmeg. This surprisingly creamy drink was also fabulous and I loved the old style half pint it was served in; also available at £4 as the Jub Jub signature cocktail. We also tried their signature
Cuban Heat

Although I did not have time to discuss ingredients before drinking, it was very Daiquiri like, and strong! This was countered with scotch eggs, honey sausages and piri piri chicken, and once again the food here never disappoints; flavoursome, well-priced and inventive.

Onto Happiness Forgets, perhaps my new favourite bar. We were welcomed as we wondered into this basement bar (I was looking for a sign on the wall, my companion was following the “look for the windmill” advice; don’t worry there is an A-board outside) and confirmed we were more than happy to take our seats at the bar. They operate a no standing policy, which I baulked at on first hearing this but it makes sense. The bar tenders need time to make their creations and you do not want to push through a crowd to the toilet or have people hovering behind you. The music is chilled jazz, and the drinks are amazingly well priced at £7. We went for the signature


Which combined Kettel 1 citron vodka with yellow Chartreuse (everywhere nowadays), pink grapefruit, soda and the usual lemon juice, sugar etc. This was very nice. I cannot say more. Water infused with cucumber was replenished regularly, a must-have detail for me in cocktail bars.

Lastly, we begrudgingly left this little den for NinetyEight, 98 Curtain Road. A descending metal spiral staircase would be tricky when wet, or if drunk. On arriving the door was open to us but then where do we go? Can we sit down? What was going on with all the fruit over there? We were confused. The representative of Bloom Gin gave up her table (soon to do a smell course on cocktails) so we went to the bar to order as no one seemed particularly switched on. The bar really lives up to its reputation, Louis Quatorce style furniture, elaborate wall designs, white textures mixed with multicoloured mosaic. I liked it. Their cocktail for the week

Over the Clouds

Was, unlike most places, chosen from their menu. You cannot deny the theatrically of this one. A martini glass is filled with candy floss and a beaker of blue alcohol (lavender infused gin?) in poured over the top, dissolving the sugar and revealing a slice of lemon peel. I was convinced there was Cointreau in it but the menu did not confirm, not did the waitress. Other friends that night said they got a whole story on the bar and the drink; we got a shrug of the shoulders. On giving up to leave we met the delightful owner who was so keen we shared our experiences I thought that this relative new-comer could still easily bed into the high caliber of bars the East end offers. She also let us try the Café Patron (coffee tequila) I have heard so much about. I will definitely be back when the craziness of Cocktail Week is over, there is much more to explore here.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

London Cocktail Week: Day 3 Rum

Wednesday 12th October

A rapid dash from the office to Barrio Central wasn’t, after all, necessary. Their 6 to 8pm time slot included a welcome drink and platters of food before the master class proper started. So a rather flustered Bar Hopper arrived at Barrio, followed the signs downstairs to the “private event” and promptly collapsed on a sofa with a Claro Daiquiri (2 yr old rum) paired with a Sea Salted Caramel – for this was not any rum tasting. This was a rum and chocolate tasting.

Now I cannot honestly say that this was a perfect pairing, though I see where they were going with the salt and citrus combination classic to the margharita. What did go well were the enormous platters of food that were soon parked in front of me (my friend looked hungry apparently) with ribs, steak, patatas bravas, calamari, nachos and more. We made our way through as much as we could before moving to proper tables, all official set up, and opened our minds to this Venezuelan rum experience.

The first drink was
Lady Rosetta

Made with 2 to 5 year old rum, which for me was more attractive on the nose with a sprinkling of nutmeg, unfortunately not following through on the palate. There was a lot of peach on this, too much of the Archers about it. A white chocolate infused with rosemary and lavender was paired with this drink. It looked like an eyeball but really brought out the herbaceousness of the drink, very pleasant.

The next drink was
Fallen Leaf

And combined coffee, ginger and bitters with a hint of tobacco and strongly reminded me of an updated Black Russian. This was perfectly paired to a milk chocolate with notes of ginger and spice with set off the flavours wonderfully.

Finally the straight rum
Ron Santa Teresa 1976

Which smelt of caramel but clearly expressed the bourbon and cognac casks it had been aged in. This could happily sit with the best digestifs. Paired with 60% dark chocolate with a rare peppercorn, the two flirted deliciously with each other.

The only drink I did not try, never enough time, was the Ron Alejandro – the week’s signature cocktail – which sounds naughty: a heady mixture of chocolate, rum and cream. One to return for another day I feel.

London Cocktail Week: Day 2 Kammerlings

Tuesday 11th October

I was very disappointed to be hosting a work event just as London Cocktail Week kicked off…but delighted that by 11pm as it drew to a close, I found myself next door to long time favourite The Zetter Townhouse. I was not going to pass up the opportunity of being so close so nipped in for their £4 offering of the week

The Townhouse Tonic

This gorgeous little medicine bottle contained Kammerlings, Tanqueray, lemon juice, homemade lemon sherbet and a dash of tonic and bitters. And for all that when I poured it into the glass it had a curious orange colour. And it tasted of memories!

My companion smelt something coniferous – perhaps from the juniper in Tanqueray – and I was sent back to some sweet from my childhood that I could not quite place. Despite this sweetness this delight was perfectly balanced, so I ordered another one for the road.

As we tried to pull ourselves out of the reverie that deep leather armchairs and old French classic music will create, the rest of the Zetter team arrived with the news of winning Best Hotel Bar at the CLASS awards. Well done guys, thoroughly well deserved.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Presenting...Edgerton Pink Gin

To be continued

Presenting...Bombay Saphire (and London Cocktail Week Day 1)

I was chuffed and privileged to make it to the Juniper Society’s much demanded Bombay Sapphire tasting (250 years of their recipe!) on Monday 10th October. I also liked to think of this as kicking off my London Cocktail Week with a really good education on what would be in several of the week’s drinks.

On arriving, there was a mysterious black curtain stopping us peeking into the space. If this is to be done for all the events it would certainly help considering the noise levels in the main bar can get…rowdy. I was handed an Aviator – Bombay Dry, lemon juice, maraschino syrup and crème de violette. It was very sharp and although I like my cocktails bitter, needed some more syrup. We were welcomed into (very chilly) the room where 8 glasses and the revered Bombay Tasting Kit awaited us. Were they trying to ensure we stayed awake?

After a brief history and drawings of rectifying columns for vapour infusion (whew!) we started with our kits, and the various manifestations of Juniper. There was pine tree on one, more citrus on another, then resin on another. We tried some others such as orange and coriander. And soon we felt prepared to venture our noses into the glasses

Glass 1 – Single note spirit, front heavy = vapour infused juniper
Glass 2 – More weight at the back = juniper steeped for 24hrs
Glass 3 – Juniper, angelica, coriander and liquorice vapourised
Glass 4 – Juniper, angelica, coriander and liquorice macerated

Glasses 3 and 4 were, for me, much harder to tell apart

Glass 5 – Very pine driven nose but lots more orange on the palate
Glass 6 – Raw pepper on the palate from quiet nose, spicy wood notes, almond finish, smooth
Glass 7 – Some pepper, some flower, bit indistinct
Glass 8 – Lots of lemon on nose and develops more over time, cucumber palate

So the conclusion, 1 to 4 were all varietal aspects of Bombay

Glass 5 was Beefeater, glass 6 was Bombay Sapphire Dry (watch this space), glass 7 was Bombay Sapphire and glass 8 was Hendricks – the modern option less juniper driven. We then let them set up for round two and had a final glass of Bombay Punch, a little forgettable after the screw-up-your-face Aviator and the amazing education we were just privilege to.

I have always been a Bombay fan, and I freely admit this is partly down to excellent branding. However reading back over these I cannot wait to see the Dry come to the fore on the UK market.

Monday, 26 September 2011

New Evaristo Club aka Trisha's, Soho, 17/20*

Location: 57 Greek Street, Soho

Website: Just a number, 0207 437 9536

Visit: Saturday evening after dinner

To Note? Another unassuming entrance. Apparently a member's club but they seem happy to let you off if it is not busy. If you do get caught the hefty fee of £5 will sign you up for the year and allow 5 friends access.

Ambiance 5/5
Design 3/5
Drinks 4/5
Staff 5/5
Extra LBS star: Absolutely worthy *

The label on the buzzer is the only clue that you are at the right place. But grit your teeth, hit the dirty red carpet to the basement...and prepare to be amazed. Well, perhaps the amazement comes not from the bar itself but the surprise at finding this little gem down such a salubrious corridor. And wait till you hear the price of drinks...

Seating choices are either at the bar - the locals will give you cockney lessons if interested - or on one of three shared tables covered in wipe-down covers. And do not hold your breath for a menu, it is whatever you want, if they can do it, for £3.50 - IN SOHO!!

Once settled take in your surroundings. The walls are a mixture of peeling paint, Al Pacino film posters, MDF panelling and various flags. Frank Sinatra is not only pumping through the sound system setting you tapping your foot but also painted on the wall. In fact the guys at the bar looked like they had just come from a Rat Pack concert! Downside - avoid the toilet

The crowd was mixed - both in age and style - but perfectly friendly and we were all delighted when "a guy with a saxophone" turned up, sat on a chair and jazzed away to the tunes. This bar is not trying to be cool. Someone has just set up a bar, thrown in some dining room tables and wobbly stools, and run with it. It will not suit everyone - if you're suited and booted for cocktails this is not your place - but I feel like I may have just found my second home. For utter casual with top tunes, try Trisha's.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Venn Street Records, Clapham Common 17/20

Location: Venn Street, 10 seconds from Clapham Common


Visit: Sunday afternoon

To Note? Kitchen is due to open very shortly with the promise of excellent pizzas
Ambiance 5/5
Design 4/5
Drinks 3/5
Staff 4/5
Extra LBS star: Not this time, but maybe after 2nd Oct...

Venn Street Records opens at 5pm on a Sunday. We were allowed in at 6.05. That is a full 65 minutes of happy hour missed - I have had better starts to bars that I am going to review. Saying that, we were obviously not the only ones waiting as within half an hour most tables were packed and the atmosphere was buzzing.

We based ourselves at the bar where we talked to both the barmen (thanks Aaron!) and the locals whilst they ordered - we even had a Will Ferrell look-alike pass by. The only difficulty was hearing my friend as the music was pumping out from every corner and as good as it was - and yes, records are their hallmark - at times it seemed like I would be waking up with a sore throat. Thank goodness we left before the live music got started in that small space.

We worked our way through a Strawberry Mule, Venn Street Manhattan, Sour Record and Stairs Julep. These were all good, and were sweetened up or down on request with generous portions of alcohol too. My question is can these guys really go off the menu? I am not sure...perhaps it was too busy a night to fairly judge.

The bar was all brick walls, neon lights and stacks of vinyl. It worked, and it was refreshing following the endless vintage bars of the East End. We all love a speakeasy but sometimes we just want a bar that is a bar. So it does not make it to the "special LBS star", but it is a good venue for cocktails in an area that specialises in substance over style.

And the mysterious reference to the 2nd October - a 16-piece big band is stopping by for the evening, where are they going to put them? Hang them from the ceiling? I don't know but I am definitely going along to find out!

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Hide Bar, London Bridge 14/20

Bermondsey Street

Visit: Friday after work, mid-week evening date

To Note? With some affiliation to WSET just next door there are some interesting wines and spirits behind the bar

Ambiance 2/5
Design 3/5
Drinks 4/5
Staff 5/5
Extra LBS star: Just not there

The Hide Bar should be cool. It’s on Bermondsey Street, an already popular area getting better by the day with neighbours like Jose and Zucca. It has a good name, making you think of nooks and crannies to tuck yourself away with a drink for the evening. It sits downstairs from the UK drink experts – the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. It has leather sofas and an interesting cocktail menu.

But… somehow it just does not quite work.

The space, although difficult to see into from outside thanks to darkened glass, is large and airy, and gives the dreaded fish tank impression. There are plenty of seats but wooden chairs are uncomfortable for longer than a drink and too high to cross your legs under the table. They seem to be half way towards the speakeasy design, popping up over London, but ducked out from going all the way. And this all leads to a lack of atmosphere, even on a Friday night. And I’ve been to a fair few here.

Staff are great, knowledgeable and happy to help. Similarly the menu is worth taking your time over with a well-considered wine list for a bar including a range of sherries, specialty beers changing regularly (the chocolate ale was especially interesting) and a good range of cocktails, never more than £8, with my stand out being “Blood and Sand”, a whisky sour with a twist. However – here it comes - it is very difficult for the quality of the drinks to live up to the time it takes to make them. There are a lot of theatrics form the bar men and when a group of friends are after a round of pints before heading out to eat, well, don’t hold your breath for that order.

Don’t get my wrong, I am sure being local I will be back and I particularly like the booths at the back. The issue is The Hide Bar could be a really great bar, but instead it is one I would not push with classic pub Woolpack and trendy Village East just a 5 minute saunter up the road.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Presenting... Mr Colin Dunn

Tasting Tuesday in Callooh Callay this week brought Mr Colin Dunn, Diageo whisky brand manager extraordinaire, and six whiskies which were almost all new to me. I could spend hours writing down Colin's pearls of wisdom here but I will stick with his first rule when tasting: The Nose, which came with:

"I am very much into foreplay with my whisky"

And onto the palate: Hold the whisky in your mouth 1 second for every year of age. So a 12 year old gets 12 seconds in the mouth...if you can handle it.

We started with Johnny Walker Black Label (a blend of 39 single malts and 1 grain don't you know!) which was sweet vanilla all the way through. Next came a 10 year old Talisker (age doesn't always matter!) which gave us both a mouth of bonfire smoke and a beautiful cocktail from Julien Lafond, Grand Marnier brand manager, which was a twist on the whisky sour:

50ml Talisker
20ml Rhubarb Puree (try the Chase brand) 
20ml lemon juice
20ml Black Cherry syrup
Some egg white and topped with a black cherry spray

The last of this flight was a whisky I had neither tasted nor heard of - Mortlach from Speyside. This was very fresh and almost green with a white pepper finish. And if that was not enough a 19th Century appeared on the table.

30ml Talisker
A bit of Lillet Rouge
20ml Creme de Cacao White
20ml Lemon Juice

The next round compared Lagavulin 16 year old to 12 year old and the colour difference in just 4 years was huge. The 16 year old was firey lapseng tea and notes of caramel and although starting soft it powers through and finishes on a bitter note. The 12 year old is floral but in the mouth rich and almost thick with smoke tearing across the tongue and leaving smokey bacon at the end. 

A special treat ended the tasting - a whisky called Saint Magdalaine. This distillery closed in 1983 so although age is not everything this is a piece of history. From the lowlands, it is unusually triple distilled. And what a burn. An honour to try but my favourite of the night - Lagavulin 12 year old, definitely.

And to finish where we started with Colin:

"Smells like teen spirit, tastes like Nirvana"


Saturday, 10 September 2011

Bar Nightjar, Old Street 17/20

Location: City Road, just off the Old Street roundabout

Visit: Friday after work

To Note? Sandwiched between two dodgy cafes, a wooden door with an engraved brass plaque is all that gives it away

Ambiance 3/5
Design 4/5
Drinks 5/5
Staff 5/5
Extra LBS star: 'Fraid not

Google it. That was advice given to me and I am glad I followed suite so when I headed along City Road and saw the almost hidden entrance I felt very smug as my companion walked straight past, still talking. What was more difficult was navigating the almost pitch black staircase, luckily the heels were not on yet!

Once in, the staff were an absolute highlight. They were very accommodating as although it was almost empty it seems all the tables were booked from 7pm onwards. This is why they receive a measly 3/5 for ambiance. I was very happy there, loved the music but without only 3 or 4 other tables it wasn't buzzing...yet! The decor is spot on too, real 1920's feel and very comfortable to boot; again, did feel a little empty at the time.
What a drinks menu! (I am ashamed to say that with barely an hour to stay we dismissed the food menu, will go back) I opted for "Remember The Maine" - entirely alcohol which may sound like an odd statement about a cocktail but absinthe, brandy, cherry liqueur etc all added up to a potent but utterly delicious offering with a curious BBQ-ed baby corn decoration. My companion's "Japanese" was beautiful. A ceramic cup presented on mung beans with recipe playing cards was like a mince pie in a cup - yum!

I will definitely return to work through more of the menu, get an idea of the bar in full swing. It doesn't get a LBS star yet but I may have just found a new favourite, watch this space...