Friday, 30 July 2010

Hix, Nick's and Dicks, cocktail hour in Soho

Generally I dive into a hotel bar when mid afternoon the overwhelming desire for a glass of champagne hits me. But in Soho one Spring afternoon my fashion maven friend Katie Chutzpah and I plumped for Hix. Probably much more suitable for a fashion maven, but vintage ladies are quite happy cradling their glass of cider in the French House. But there were a number of reasons to opt for Hix. A spirit of adventure, because I had never been there, because I am aware it is really far too trendy for me, so I can tell my mum I have seen a chef from the telly and finally that for me the word 'Hix' sounds comfortably like 'Hicc'.

Sign directing you to the bar at Hix. I'd like it better if the fingers were the other way around.

Hix is on the Picaddilly end of the ever insalubrious Brewer Street, to get in you have to push a big wooden door that was worryingly like the one that almost killed me at Trinity College during a misspent youth. The cocktail bar is then downstairs and the sign above directs you to its delights. The bar itself is a curious room, very high ceilinged compared to most Soho basements. Decor wise it had an eclectic mid-century shoreditchy vibe. But there were things to like, bar billiards for one: there is nothing quite like the sight of those little shiny wooden mushrooms to cheer you up even if, as you only play it when drunk the rules have to be explained to you every time you try. It is the groundhog day of bar games. The kitchens could be glimpsed through a door to the side of the bar, but the bar itself was long, full of bottles and looked pleasing. I am always cheered by gleaming colourful bottles, my version of a candy shop. But it also gave the impression of being a ‘working’ bar; by this I mean the bottles of most of the things might actually come off the shelves occasionally and be used, rather than sitting there being dusted. A bartender I met in Japan complained that he hated the keeping of unnecessary bottles in bars, but you can't trust that lot, all that tatami and minimalism. Hix's bar is manned by a well known bartender called Nick Strangeways who has an uncanny resemblance to the Wynd brothers. He was there whilst we supped our champagne. This was served in champagne bowls which was another good thing about the place, I really don't like flutes, they seem frugal. Champagne bowls speak of belle époque excess and decadence. Champagne flutes are more holiday inn wedding reception in Maidenhead. Mr Strangeways seemed a fun and faintly louche cove, he fell up the stairs whilst saying hello to me and at one point was wearing the top of a monster cocktail shaker on his head.

I liked the place, certainly in the afternoon it was relaxing. The one annoying little kid kept away from us..more or less...maybe it was aware that we were the kind of women who'd like to to have seen him impaled on a cocktail stick. Like many cellar bars it had a cosy womb like quality and it took all of our efforts just to lift ourselves reluctantly from our soft chairs and move on.

Nick Strangeways without cocktail shaker cap fascinator.

Having met up with the bearded one we decided to go further along Brewer Street to Dick Bradsell's bar under the Mexican restaurant El Camino's. This was a marked contrast to Hix's. Small, intimate and simply decorated, the point here was the range of Margarita type concoctions and Dick himself. A bit of a legend (some may remember him from the Atlantic/Colony), but one of those straight forward self-deprecating ones who know they are good at what they do and don't feel the need to go on about it. He is also from the Isle of Wight, one of those places that bad things never come from. I had a good, straightforward Margarita of the kind that I used to knock back during various sojourns in Southern California. I have a photograph of myself behind a mountain of empty glasses in San Francisco's spanish bit and this was a glassful of the same stuff in the same kind of glass. The bearded one is currently testing White Ladys, Dick's one was delicious and well balanced (the sherbet/sharp/boozy ratio is tricky). The place got much busier later on. Someone doused me with perfume that must have smelt nice on them, but smelt like loo freshener on me and didn't get on with my tequila at all but I've been covered with worse. Full marks for the music too.

A picture of Dick Bradsell I lifted from t'internet, he is not making a cocktail...

Some people don't know I was once a cocktail bartender myself. It was a long time ago, I am not an expert and don't recall most of the recipes. But I am aware that the extremely busy South London place I worked in produced good drinks, and at speed. The customers would be three deep from the bar on a Saturday and Sarf Londoners are not an easy clientele, for the best of reasons; they are fussy. Everything was spotlessly clean, full measures were always used and there was no time for flim-flam.

What I find now in many mixed drinks is a lack of strength/crispness of flavour and a loss of texture. Too much syrup, not the right cream, powdered nutmeg, too much ice in shakers. I don't think cocktails are complicated, but like anything else seemingly simple they are really easy to muff up. There is a skill to making drinks that taste good, look good (and whilst I love a gaudy tropical cocktail and plastic monkeys simple is often best on that front) and don't take 10 minutes to appear. Some famous hotel bars could do with remembering this (yes, the Ritz, I am talking about your dodgy drinks and even dodgier service). Maybe it seems pretentious to rattle on about it, but cocktails are expensive and most people wouldn’t pay a tenner for an incorrectly prepared plate of food. Seems that the art of the well made cocktail is being appreciated again and that can only be a very good thing as is the fact that people like Dick have never stopped making the things properly.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Terroirs Wine Bar.

It is funny, but for a nation infamous for it’s love of wine there do not seem to be many good wine bars in London at the moment. Of course the ‘wine bar’ had its heyday in the seventies. Especially the wine basement. But these seem to have disappeared as their owners sink into a hopefully grape happy retirement. But the new attitude is to have a kind of hypermarket attitude to wine bars, they are consituents . Walk into any such gastropolis and you will find yer brasserie, yer posh restaurant bit plus odd little organic bits. Usually something cavernous is going on, and perhaps a zinc bar. Just sticking a zinc bar somewhere however doesn’t work. The one that Kettners stupidly put in their main entrance area has I notice been ripped out.

The intimate wine bar of the past, indelibly stamped with the tastes and décor of its owner is what I miss, even if that owner was a bit of a bore. Somewhere for people who really like wine, not just the latest fashionable grape or witty label. Somewhere that serves cheese, and salty bits. Somewhere that wine comes first, not décor. I like mustiness, old barrels as tables, bits of wine crate on the walls. A bit of tattiness does not go amiss. But slowly all the die hards are going.

One new wine bar to open and whose success is encouraging is Terroirs in Covent Garden. Well, not so much Covent Garden as, behind the Strand, diagonal from Trafalgar Square, a spit from the National Portrait Gallery and in front of the cop shop; 5 William IV Street WC2 to be precise. Very handy in fact and rather tucked away. Not that this prevents it from being crowded. The first time I went, on weekday, we were only just squeezed in front of the zinc bar, on a Saturday the bar remained packed but there was the odd table. I was taken by a wine obsessed friend from University days, now a barrister and we proceeded to drink the best part of 3 bottles of wine, leaving us just capable of getting off our bar stools. In my case I did manage to flag a cab, and turned up, very merry at the bearded one's home waving the remainder of a bottle of red (which the staff insisted I take) around like a captured roman standard. My companion was found by his wife, the following morning, fully dressed and fast asleep on the sofa.

The reasons for our enjoyment were, in no particular order: the quality of the wine, the chumminess of the staff and the moreishness of the nibbles. It sells by both the glass and the bottle an interesting range of wines, largely by small growers in France and Alsace. Unsurprising as it is owned by the wine merchants Caves de Pyrenes who supply many famous restaurants. For those avoiding the dreaded sulphides or of an ecological bent many were organic. But the wines are clearly chosen for taste, rather than worthiness. They are served in simple yet not too sparse surroundings in stylish unusual glasses. My champagne came in something that seemed to be a compromise between a flute and a balloon. I’m a martinet when it comes to glass cleanliness and these were clean and polished. Snack wise I recommend the fresh anchovies on toast, the duck rillettes and the duck scratchings (I like eating quackers). There is a fuller menu that looks tasty but so far being the lush I am I have not been able to tear myself away from the zinc bar. This does what it should do, provides a feature for the place and although noisy I like perching there examining the bottles of calvados sitting on the shelves, winking at me like fat tempting little devils.

It is nice to have a choice other than the redoubtable Cork and Bottle in the area if you want some decent wine, something that the pubs in the area rarely supply. It has a friendly relaxed atmosphere, French without the Café Rouge piffle. When you go the staff castigate you for leaving, telling you that wherever you are going the wine won't be as good and they are probably right.

VIEW: Mainly subterranean, French stuff on the walls, zinc bar and flitting staff.
FOOD: rustic tasty charcuterie and unpretentious tasty French stuff.
ENJOYABLE: Duck rillette, friendly staff and lots of quaffing.
WINE: Very good but mainly limited to France and immediate neighbours.
CRITICISM: has set sittings in one part of the place in the evenings.

The Retrometropolitan would take: Wine lovers, nibblers, people who like to drink…lots.

Welcome to the Retrometropolitan.

Welcome to The Retrometropolitan. It is the greedy little sister of another blog and has been set up to feature reviews and thoughts about establishments largely, but not entirely in London. The author was born and bred in London from a family full of butchers cooks and bakers. Retrometropolitan has been a waiter, a chef, a cocktail bartender and was on the wine tasting team of a venerable old university.

The reviews and descriptions here are intended to give a personal view of what a place is ‘like’a vague term that encompasses food, service, atmosphere and looks. A particular bias will be towards individualistic and distinctive places. Retrometropolitan is not concerned with modern fashion, could not give a plastic monkey where her polenta comes from and is unconcerned with celebrity chefs. Her inclinations are retro and vintage but she loves her grub and is often drunker than she should be.

Views are entirely personal, may strike some as being un-pc and may be opinionated. The hope is however to be helpful and contribute to some one else’s good dinner, lunch or even early morning kebab. If anyone disagrees with my views they are welcome to contact me. If you wish to have your establishment honestly described, again contact me. If a review by someone else is featured it will be by someone I personally know and whose judgement I trust. Comments are very welcome.

Butler's Wharf Chop House.

'chop·house (chphous)
A restaurant that specializes in serving steaks and chops of meat.

The appellation 'chop house' has become trendy, a consequence of the recent resurgence in good native produce and British cuisine. Some of us never stopped enjoying our lamb shank, sausages and fried fish but the chattering classes finally hooked onto the fact that good meaty wholesome food is a desirable thing. The old London chop house was a smokey darkened room full of mutton chopped chaps eating chops, steaks and oysters. The modern chop house is not quite the same (sadly) although those using the name 'chop house' are often nodding to a more savoury carnivorous cuisine. For the real thing London's clubland serves the closest to a traditional chop house menu. But we tried one of these nouveau chop houses recently.

A Georgian Chop House.

Four of us rolled up to the Butlers Wharf Chop House. They in fact have a very good value lunch, 3 courses for £26.00 which for the location and the food is a steal. Sadly the sun had gone in by the time we arrived but on a sunny day there a very few restaurants in London that can compete with it for views. Straight out across the Thames and right in front of the enduringly pretty Tower Bridge. It is the perfect place to bring parents visiting from the sticks.

The Chop House's schtick is British food, an ex Conran eatery this is naturally presented through the lens of Sunday Supplement food design. Condiments and sauces are served in those little twee preserve jars and our asparagus was placed on a completely erroneous piece of paper, on a wooden platter. The family matriarch pointed out rather tartly that good old fashioned china would have been more elegant and functional. The food however was pretty good. The asparagus and oysters consumed as a starter were excellent, the meat dishes, as you should expect from a chop house were tasty and the desserts which included Yorkshire Rhubarb and ginger ice cream were tasty. In fact tastiness and decent proportions were the most obvious components of the meal. The bread that arrived with the starter and continued to be offered was excellent and the one bit of unripe rhubarb was promptly replaced. It is worth pointing out a fit for purpose wine list. These can be rarer than hens teeth. This list was well chosen, our white, a Chilean Chardonnay I think, was lovely and slipped down our thirsty throats a little too easily. In short the lunch was extremely good value and the view hard to beat.

Why to go here:

VIEW: one of the best in London.
FOOD: good quality set menu for lunch, good meat and bread.
WINE: large selection across price range.
CRITICISM: too many twiddles.

The Retrometropolitan would take: Older less adventurous people will appreciate the traditional dishes. Parents visiting from the sticks. Foreign friends.

Chop House balcony with view of bridge.

Did I say it had a nice view?