I’ve gotten used to this corner of Soho metamorphosing into different hotels each time I visit. Though the last time was a while back when the Talented Mr. Fox resided on the upper floor (Mr. Fox, who is now focusing his energy in the Bethnal Green destination, Peg + Patriot: Click HERE for Review!)
Leicester House has turned the eerie abattoir chic of its previous incarnations to much more welcoming hues that strongly echo the designers’ work at the Firmdale Hotel group with cerulean and flame orange. Screaming European contemporary, the design is not what you’d expect from a restaurant that identifies itself as ‘French-Vietnamese’. In fact, the meal reflects the continental décor more than its South East Asian heritage – but we’ll get to that in a moment. After all, we are a cocktail blog first and foremost:
Seated on a banquette, the Hoodooist could hardly nurse a Sangiovese – handed by the charming and experienced Michael who runs the show with incredible finesse and efficiency – much longer when they word TALISKER screamed out at him from the menu.
Beginning with a Smoking Negroni: Talisker 10 yr Whisky mixed in with Campari, sweet vermouth, garnished with an orange twist. The nose is distinctly that of the Skye whisky, thick smoke and brine. The first sip instantly hits you with the same flavours, as well as white pepper peatiness, and pronounced heather as the flavours begin to move to the citrus sweetness of the vermouth and the Campari bitterness. The finish has a lingering malt from the whisky.
The first glass was beautiful – however, a friend on the table with the same cocktail received a drink distinctly imbalanced in comparison to the one above, a lot more heavy on the Campari, and skimping on the vermouth, a more medicinal cocktail was produced.
Done well, the Smoking Negroni is wonderful, though one needs to be very precise.
The Kaffir Gimlet brings together Sipsmith Gin, lime, and Kaffir lime leaves. The nose is beautifully floral, with the playful citrus of the Kaffir leaves. Flavours of strong juniper, marmalade, sweet citrus and even (somehow) rose comes through, with a dry, zesty finish. A drink that manages to be simultaneously rather sweet and dry, and perfect for summer afternoons. Simple and refreshing.
The French ‘Pisco’ Sour is a tragic name for a perfectly good drink. Yes, Armagnac and Pisco are similar in many ways: though the grapes are different, both are distilled from wines to produce intense and ludicrously strong brandies – the name French ‘Pisco’ Sour is a worrying attempt to make it familiar, I suppose.
Armagnac Blanche, lime, sugar and egg white. The wheatiness of the Armagnac still soaks through with its earthy terroir flavours, softened by the lime and sugar – a good aperitif in any case.
Finally, the Perfect Calva mixes Calvados, Sweet and Dry Vermouth, garnished with Grillotines cherries. I think it’s the choice in vermouths here that plays an important part – the finished drink is harsh, confused, and could probably benefit from using Cognac as a base. Though the bar menu at Leicester House focuses on simplicity, this cocktail verges on amateurish.
One realises that being a bar is not what Leicester House was going for, the main focus would be the French-Vietnamese cuisine – which would be interesting considering how impacted Vietnamese food was by the French when colonised. Though the dishes were distinctly Vietnamese, they were also distinctly European in that the Vietnamese flavours of citrus and pungent spice were heavily toned down to the point of becoming an Anglicised palate of ‘Vietnamese’ cuisine (why is there Italian ham here?). Many spices seem to have given way to the use of salt and pepper. A tendency to overcook slightly (particularly scallop) is evident.
That is not to say there were no must-order dishes – a simple and satiating starter of green papaya and daikon salad, along with blackened squid and samphire are excellent options. The cod XO sauce may be cooked to perfection, but lacks punch.
What stood out the most as a hit across the table would easily be the rich dark chocolate pot layered with hazelnut coffee cream. Star.
The Leicester House certainly does not aim at focusing on its bar, although could benefit dramatically with more experienced talent behind it. The tendency to simplicity can be a double edged sword, on one hand easy to knock out and reliable – on the other possibly lacking lustre. But hopefully consistency in the cocktails can improve with practice, since the Smoking Negroni is entirely too good when prepared right.
Also hope to see more of a Vietnamese edge in cocktails, the use of more Eastern flavours and possible the host of Rượu rice liquors that Vietnam has to offer.
1 Leicester Street,
London WC2H 7BL