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.

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