Experimental Cocktail Club, Chinatown

Type of Bar: Speakeasy
Damage£££
Ideal for: –

This concerns me.

When we arrive at what is meant to be a discreet door (the glaring bouncer hardly makes it discreet) on Gerrard Street, we have to scramble through our phones for the ‘passwords’ sent to us only that day. Our party of 3 arrived the same time as some other party of 4 strangers who booked a table a few days before us, mind you, is forced to wait because they can’t access their emails.

Said party was turned away.

Yes, their name was on the list.

They fit the dress code well enough.

Announcing the silly password (‘Marie Antoinette’, oh my, how libertine. In any case 2014 brings the death knells of speakeasies.) we are led upstairs and forced to share an extended couch with about a dozen other people at least. Suffocating just to drink. Searching for the WCs, I find the upstairs area with empty tables all round. These were never filled in the hour we were there. If this is their definition of optimism, I grant them they deserve an award for it (If it was a concern about clashing reservations, see: Zetter Townhouse’s 2 hour slots).

On the other hand: my drink was very good. La Medicacion contains Calle 23 Reposado Tequila, Ramazzotti, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, agave nectar, ginger syrup and Del Maguey Mezcal mist. Strong, full of kick, with harmonious flavours.

I would have enjoyed it, if I could shake off the memory of the party downstairs.

London gives one many, many, many places for an excellent cocktail. A bar is meant to offer respite, and is meant to care for its visitors. A bar is meant to show concern and welcome its customers. And the attitude at the door, added to the forcing of people onto one floor, not to mention the cold service – stole a major part of what could have been a night with wonderful drinks.

It is out of principle that I don’t return here. The drinks may have been pleasurable, but it can be anyone the next time they show up at the door, expectant after having made their booking 10 days prior.

If they have hired decent staff now, the best to them. Otherwise, a bar is meant to cater to you. You are not meant to cater to a bar. Never forget that.

Many people seem to suffer this illusion that a bar has to be ‘exclusive’. That you have to fight your way in to have a decent cocktail. This is complete nonsense. The best bars in London have the utmost respect for the customer, and their care at heart – not their own arrogance.

If you feel you deserve to be in a venue that appeals to your sense of ‘exclusivity’, by all means, go ahead and enjoy the ECC. Meanwhile you’ll find me at award-winning bars like the Artesian.

Please refer to my List of Reviews for other attitude-less bars who rival & even beat the ECC in drinks, and serve up fantastic scores for Atmosphere and Service that ECC fails at. Some examples are: the Zetter Townhouse, Megaro, etc. And if you’re looking for ‘Experimental’, check out Peg + Patriot for some serious experimentation.

Also, Opium opened next door, they delight in hearing stories about the ECC. Order The Feather of the Phoenix with extra chilli.

I’ve never liked a place with the word ‘Cocktail Club’ in the name, mind you.

Drinks: ****
Atmosphere: ** 
Service: For the first time, here is a 0.

ECC Chinatown,

13a Gerrard St, Chinatown,
London W1D 5PS

http://www.chinatownecc.com/

PortSide Parlour, Broadway Market

Disclaimer: This review was written for the closing weekend of PortSide Parlour’s Off Broadway venue in May 2014, PP has dropped anchor at 14 Rivington Street, Shoreditch, new review here!

Type of Bar: Basement, Speakeasy
Damage££
Ideal for: Date, Small Groups, Large Groups, Rum
 

Entering the basement venue through the false toilet, the PP is a dark, candlelit venue with red fabric sofas lining the walls, large wooden tables and leather armchairs. Though somewhat of an open plan seating, PP can be surprisingly intimate, and comfortable in both quiet and crowded hours – successfully channelling the feel of being under-deck.

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Voted the ‘Best Speakeasy in London’ according to their website, the PP also boasts an enormous selection of 50 rums, and certainly played a part in making long-neglected rum the spirit of 2014. House cocktails are primarily rum based; though also offer other, primarily dark, liquors.

Three drinks were ordered, let’s get to the *non-rum* based drinks first.

The Word of God is spectacular. Ambler 7yr bourbon carries Cynar and sea salt, garnished with pickles. This came with a bizarre ‘word of warning’ from the server, about it “tasting like straight bourbon” (which it didn’t). Funnily enough, the Word of God is as smooth and soft as you could imagine. The savoury Cynar complements the bourbon perfectly, with the added bite of the sea salt. Every few sips you reward yourself with a bourbon-soaked pickle. Absolutely adored this drink – flavourful, and layered wonderfully.

For the rum based drinks, these were interesting.

The Fishwife Punch brings El Dorado 8yr rum with lemon juice, rose syrup, Bitter Truth Apricot brandy and chocolate bitters. I normally have a bias against chocolate bitters, but these really didn’t play much of a part in the overt flavour. What we got was a long, fresh and fruity cocktail tasting primarily of the El Dorado 8yr’s toffee and apricot, with rose coming in softly in at the end.

Finally, the Grace Jones is probably as out there as its namesake. Appleton Estate 8yr rum, King’s ginger liqueur, fresh lime and mint, Angostura bitters, topped up with Piper Hiedsieck Champagne. You know, it was impossible to put a finger on what was going on here.  There seems to be this initial blast of mint, then somehow overwhelmingly fizzy champagne with a great ginger finish. Nonetheless, there was something about it we could put out finger on, it’s a drink we had difficulty dissecting, though overall had reminded us of… Soup? I think it might be the savouriness of the ingredients mixing with the dark sugariness of Appleton 8 yr. Not entirely sure what was going on here, but that doesn’t make it an unpleasant drink. Aromatic and, shall we say, complex? Or muddled, depending on how harsh you want to be. In the end, it’s actually kind of fun.

PP’s done an excellent job with drinks so far.

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And although it probably isn’t anything, we were all unsettled by the ‘warning’ offered with the Word of God. This seems to be another in a long line of strange remarks made to female drinkers I’ve witnessed when ordering ‘strong drinks’ (Skylon being the worst when accusing a seasoned drinking friend of not liking a badly made Vesper because “Women don’t drink strong drinks”). Not that that is what our server at PP was insinuating, I hope.

All in all, the PP was a great stop, and highly recommend it, and wish it the best in its new home on Rivington Street – of course, it will be competing with NOLA and Callooh Callay, so let’s see what the three do to up their game!

Drinks: ****
Atmosphere: ****
Service: ***


PortSide Parlour

Rivington Street address TBA upon re-opening.

http://portsideparlour.co.uk/

Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Parlour, Chinatown

Type of Bar: Bar/Restaurant, Chinese, Speakeasy, Lounge
Damage£££
Ideal for: Food, Small Groups

 

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.

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I think my issue with the chairs is just personal

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.

 

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The beautiful lower floor bar

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.

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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.

Drinks: ***
Atmosphere:  Upper floor: ***, Lower floor: ****
Service: ****

 

Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Parlour
15-16 Gerrard St,
London W1D 6JA

http://www.opiumchinatown.com/

5cc London

Type of Bar: Basement, Speakeasy
Damage££
Ideal for: Small groups, early evening

I’m sometimes surprised that the 5cc is often overlooked, especially considering how insanely busy the venues they are hidden in are.

I say hidden in, since the punters of the Well & Bucket, and Exmouth Arms, seem almost completely oblivious to the cocktail den hidden under and above (respectively) the said pubs. True, reservations are necessary considering the size of both venues, where visitors sneak in to the little hideaways.

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Image courtesy of 5cc London

Though they share the same furniture, the atmosphere of each venue is entirely different. When entering the Well and Bucket on Bethnal Green Road, you are met with a warped impression of a Victorian pub, with ceiling to floor length mirrors and mirrored portraits of decaying 19th Century gentry on dark wood panels. Impressive as the aura is, we take the stairs in the corner down to the basement, where leather couches line the walls and the tiny alcoves of the crypt with its exposed brick wall. Fleetwood Mac plays in the background while the Hoodooist and his friends excitedly charge in to possess a dark alcove for themselves.

The Exmouth Market venue is entirely different. The Exmouth Arms is a similarly dark pub decorated with Dan Hillier prints. Whereas the pub has terribly bad service (“What’s Armangac?” – it was on the menu.), you can escape up the staircase that’s rather well hidden near the fire exit. The 5cc upstairs is docked with black blinds and exposed bulbs, creating an aura of a Film Noir detective’s office – very different from the East London crypt.

The cocktail menu is vibrant and rum heavy, mezcal plays its part as well. Beginning with a Don Collins (overproof rum and grapefruit, charged with cider), was far more satisfying than expected, considering the Hoodooist isn’t a fan of tall drinks. The citrus of the grapefruit is not overpowering, and helps sweeten the cider’s acidity. This was followed by a 151 Express: Goslings 151 proof rum, coffee liqueur in espresso. With previous experiences with Goslings, I was, again, surprised – to find a smooth drink sneakier than you could imagine. A great digestif, the rum was subtle and would catch up with you by the end of the sweet, caffeinated cocktail.

I ended by asking the bartender for an off-menu cocktail off the top of his head. What I got was a ‘daiquiri with bourbon’ (I doubt it still counts as a daiquiri). Bourbon, crème de peche, orange for citrus, and sugar. My skepticism was sated with a short drink that perhaps was more of a sour, but an excellent one.  The right balance of tart and sweet in its etched crystal glass, and one you could take your time with.

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Image courtesy of 5cc London

House cocktails are excellent, in wonderful atmospheres away from the bustle. 5cc also provides ‘vintage cocktails’ with heavily aged liquors – a Martinez, and 7-gins-to-1-vermouth Martini at 45 pounds each. Don’t forget to ask for Forgotten Range: shaken moons ago and perhaps left behind.

5cc is a welcome bar with skill in both highly commercial areas of BGR and Exmouth Market that pay little attention to what they offer in drinks.  Pop by early on the in the evening for a quiet drink with friends, or surround yourself with strangers more than happy to be in conversation in the cosy environment.

Drinks: ***
Atmosphere: ***
Service: ****
5cc can be found

@ Well and Bucket, 143 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 7DG;
& @ Exmouth Arms, 23 Exmouth Market , London, EC1R 4QL;
& @ Harrild and Sons, 26 Farringdon Street, London, EC4A 4AB.

http://www.5cc-london.com/