I do like Opium. But you have to be there at exactly the right time.
There are two floors, both are not always open at the same time, but each feels totally different from the other.
In the evenings, the bar can be absolutely empty, and though I do love a good empty bar – Opium’s upper floor is one of those that really needs every seat filled to make it a great experience. Those bizarre 70s grandma’s living room seats need to be hidden from view. Especially when randomly placed beside black leather alcoves. It’s why I prefer to snatch the bar seats, which are in a kitchen setting with wonderfully engaging bartenders.
The upper floor bar is unnaturally dark, making it reminiscent of the Shochu Lounge at Roka. The best way to enjoy it is to get a reservation for a late Saturday evening, crowded and pigeonholed with a few good friends, with each drink accompanied with the bar’s dim sum menu.
The lower floor, though, has an excellent atmosphere, better lighting. But the bartenders are just as engaging and thoughtful. They’re half the experience here.
Said bartenders are excellent for crafting personal cocktails with good reason. The menu comes with a custom cocktail section, where filling out a little questionnaire on your tastes in flavours and drinks will have them craft a little masterpiece for you. The cocktail list in itself is a treasure for making itself accessible to the less libationary-aware. Other than an ingredient description, each drink is given a three word summary. For example, the Long March (Bombay Sapphire gin, Plymouth Sloe, pomegranate juice, cinnamon and sweet red bean puree) is ‘Long – Complex – Fruity’.
On my first visit, I went straight for the Blind Date: Heaven Hill bourbon, Pedro Ximenez sherry, date puree and szechuan pepper. Definitely an after dinner drink (necessary, following my lunch at the Holborn Dining Room), the intense date flavour might have needed more pepper to balance it, but for the sweet tooth, works perfectly. Perhaps too many ingredients in each cocktail, but I’m willing to let it slide, since they end up working. The Feather of the Phoenix is an excellently contradictory cocktail: Olmeca Altos Blanco meets blood orange puree and ginger beer in a long drink, topped off with smoked chilli infusion. I needed a bit more bite in mine so asked for more chilli, which makes the drink what it is. It’s up to you to judge whether or not a good drink hinges on one ingredient, but I certainly won’t turn it down.
Maybe I’d be a bit more forgiving if each drink came at 10 pounds instead of 11.50 to 13. Please do not ignore the tea, a great break from a long night out – and hey, no one said you couldn’t add some G to your Tea. A dim sum box comes at about 6.50 to 8 pounds, or grab a platter at 16.
All in all, besides the peculiar environment, the Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Parlour does a good job as a hidden away den, and certainly makes a much less pretentious alternative to the Experimental Cocktail Club next door that I abandoned because of terrible service. Opium has gone for the speakeasy-but-not-speakeasy feel by simply avoiding the conspicuous bouncer or massive signs – just come in through the Jade Door.
Also, for those in the know, query about a certain New Orleans tune, or perhaps an old Soho brothel of the same name that dear Nina Simone crooned about. The waiters will first insist they have no idea what you’re talking about. But at your own risk, Nina did tell us that it brought down the reputation of many of the curious over the years.
Atmosphere: Upper floor: ***, Lower floor: ****
Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Parlour
15-16 Gerrard St,
London W1D 6JA