The London “High Class Martini Tour”

Note: the full set of high-resolution photos from this escapade is available on my Flickr account

What about Bob?

It started innocently enough, but it didn’t quite end that way.

I’m not sure I expected it to, though. After all, when @jezmd and I hatched the idea of doing a “High Class Martini Tour” around some of London’s more noteworthy cocktail caverns, it could only end in loss of sobriety and, quite possibly, much more.

I should start by saying that I’m not much of a drinker of spirits – wine has always been more my thing – but as of late, I’ve been trying to get my head, and my lips, around a range of liquors and cocktails that I wouldn’t have even been able to sniff five years ago without recoiling violently. I have a newfound appreciation of the nuances of single malt whiskeys (thanks in part to the resource otherwise known as @cowfish and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, also on twitter as @SMWSLondon), as well as gin and vodka in their various guises.

Anyway, @jezmd and I started bandying around ideas about this theoretical tour in the misty vapour of aptly named twitosphere and pretty soon a few others expressed interest. In the end, it was the two of us plus @chrispople, @essexeating and @vachonline who set quite an ambitious plan. Google walking maps were devised (you presumably already know I’m a geek), the stops of this whistle-stop tour were debated, and we finally arrived at that accommodating avenue called Consensus.

Yes, I clearly have too much time on my hands

The plan was simple enough: we would partake in a martini at as many of the following places as possible, and in the most logical order so as not to waste valuable time walking (and not drinking). Our hit list: Bob Bob Ricard would be our starting point (as it also seemed a good place to get a bit of sustenance before embarking on our boozy afternoon), then we would visit Quo Vadis’ private members club, the downstairs bar at HIX Soho, the upstairs bar at Rules (where spirit wizard Brian Silva resides), the civilized seats at Dukes Bar (overseen by the incomparable Alessandro Palazzi), and the rather recently revitalized surroundings at The Bar at The Connaught (whose Italian-led team has recently picked up some major awards in the land of liquids). LAB bar was also thrown around as an idea, but we thought there might be too many places to visit in one afternoon, so it was nixed. We realized this wasn’t totally comprehensive, but c’mon, it was pretty comprehensive for ONE AFTERNOON! 🙂

My golden ticket for a WUI (walking under the influence) around London?

The afternoon started off with yours truly meandering quietly through Golden Square, just across the street from our first target. Strangely enough, I spotted a golden elephant in the golden square and thought this auspicious moment worthy of a snap. But fare forward, travellers – no time for chit-chat.

Martini o’clock

I was late, I was late, for a very important date. Leonid (aka Bob [Bob]) had been kind enough to offer us a table at his deluxe deco diner, and had also generously offered to make our stay somewhat less of a (financial) burden, consummate host he is. Therefore we not only partook in some Bob-tinis, but also ate some Bob-burgers (but no Bobcorn, mind you – and that one’s actually on the menu).

We knew for whom this bell was tolling

Thus, we ordered our first round of drinks for the afternoon. Well, actually a few guys ordered a pre-first round of drinks, if memory serves me right.

Yes, that’s what we were there for

Chris had his eye on a perfectly translucent Bloody Mary (perhaps Bob let the vampires attack it before serving?), which I got a sip of and was…pardon me, I can’t help myself…bloody fantastic.

I had forgotten that they gave us some olives – but clearly that Martini ain’t clear (must have forgotten to photograph the one that was sans rouge)

I seem to recall Chris explaining that they exact the pure juices of tomatoes and let them extract overnight, or some such shenanigans – but the result is shockingly good, both for the shock of the lack of color and for the taste.

Cucumber Martini at Bob Bob Ricard

For my part, I ordered the Cucumber Martini, which is made of Hendrick’s gin (one of my widely available favorites), cucumber and elderflower cordial. It was okay, but I thought it a tad too sweet. I much prefer the rendition over at Dukes Bar, which is better balanced in my humble opinion.

Fresh Apple Martini at Bob Bob Ricard

Others opted for the slightly more feminine allure of the Fresh Apple Martini, composed of apple, Manzana Verde, Zubrowka, apple juice and lemon juice. This was better and I was sorry I hadn’t ordered it. But that was not such a big deal, because food was on its way.

The BBR Hamburger with a Single Slice of Kraft Singles

Unlike so many other places around London, which publicly extol and actively market the virtues of their beef patties, trimmings and buns, Bob had kept his burger more on the down-low. I can’t say I was surprised that it was good – most things I’ve sampled at BBR are pretty well executed and flavourful – but it was better than I had expected by a good mark. In fact, it was one of the better burgers I’ve had in London (it would probably make the top-5). Plus I love that he somehow sources Kraft Singles – which he said can sometimes be difficult – because it has that extra pang of nostalgia for me. At least he doesn’t tell you the ingredients of what’s in that nearly neon yellow-orange maniacal miracle of molecular mechanics, but you can find out here if you care to.

So we drank pretty well and ate even better and, with our bellies full, we were feeling confident in our ability to beat the odds and drag ourselves to all of the selected destinations. Luckily, pit stop number two was only a few steps away…

I may have been the only one slightly disappointed that I hadn’t pushed the button I usually do when sitting in a booth at BBR

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon

Exploring down under

Yes, we arrived at HIX Soho a few minutes later, and some eager beavers were already checking in on foursquare – as you can see from the image below (alright, alright, so was I, so was I).

Some geek ensuring he checks in first on foursquare

A neon sign instructed us that the bar was downstairs. By the way, I think the neon artist in question is the same one who does the rather funky ones that adorn Bloomberg’s London offices.

The arrow told us to go down below

Once in the engine room, we lined up along the empty bar, ready to get this party started properly – no food this time, you see. I had never been here before and, while I liked the way the upstairs dining room looked (based on my 5 second peek-a-boo), I did find the downstairs bar slightly odd. It felt as muddled as one of their premium drinks: mostly modern with monotonous white tiled floor, glass walls, stainless steel bar, fairly random slimline chairs, and then a token gesture of warmth layered on top in the form of a pool table (too squeaky clean), an oriental area rug (which just looked odd), a few soft chairs, an old-looking leather couch and various other elements…suffice to say, it just wasn’t working for me. But hey, we were there for drinks, not décor, so we made our orders with the very professional looking barman.

Our drinks being individually prepared

Said barman began preparing our beverages of choice. He was very silent and exacting, and took a very long time with them – so I was expecting something out of the ordinary.

Each was served in its own unique crystal glass

One nice touch at HIX Soho is that they serve each drink in its own unique vintage crystal glass. They also chill the rest of the drink in its own silver vessel, which lies submerged in a glass of ice.

Vodka Martini at HIX Soho

I generally prefer vodka martinis so that’s what I ordered. I thought it was okay, but it was simply too warm (despite all the ice?!), and therefore didn’t work for me. The flavours weren’t bad but the temperature killed it.

Dirty Martini at HIX Soho

@Vachonline decided to get dirty on us, and his choice of drink is pictured above – I recall that he liked it but didn’t love it…and that seemed to be the general consensus here.

An even number of odd quail’s eggs

Some brave cowboy had decided to order some of their quail’s egg shooters – we had heard they were good (or strange, I can’t remember), and were therefore intrigued. Composed of the eggs (of course!), streaky bacon, chives and sea salt, they were certainly odd and not completely appetizing for some reason. If you want more details (I don’t), you can see @gourmetraveller’s post on them, and other Hix creations.

We left on that savory note and wound our way to the next station on the Tipple Express train.

Hix on Urbanspoon

Cocktails fit for a duke

Our plans to visit another Soho haunt were scuppered as we weren’t able to wangle bar seats at Quo Vadis’ private members club. So we scratched that from our rapidly deteriorating memories and marched on to the posh backstreets of Mayfair. I was informally leading the gang to my own favourite martini hideaway, the serene surroundings of historic Dukes Bar.

Elephants on parade

As we passed by another surreal looking elephant – okay, it probably didn’t look that surreal, but I had a fair amount of ‘spirit’ in me by that point – I couldn’t help remember the slightly terrifying scene from Dumbo (well, it is terrifying when you’re 5 years old!) where the pink elephants are on parade – was I that little pink elephant leading the others?

“Look out! Look out!
Pink elephants on parade
Here they come!
Hippety hoppety
They’re here and there
Pink elephants ev’rywhere
Look out! Look out!”

The lyrics seemed apt to say the least…

We were heading into a place whose denizens are mainly hedge fund managers and rich American businessmen. Yes, this is the place that supposedly inspired Ian Fleming for his “shaken not stirred” martinis, and they are quite simply the best I’ve had to-date, probably aided by the fact that they are served by the legend that is Alessandro Palazzi, my favourite barman in the world. So you can see I a biased…but not without good reason. (For more details, you can see a previous post on the place here).

Luckily we had booked (even though you can’t technically)

I had pre-warned Alessandro that we were coming and he assured me he would “take care of you boys”, so I knew all would be well, and all manner of things would be well.

Dukes, it’s like really old n’ stuff

While this trolley doesn’t actually hail from 1908, the bar does, and they are famous for preparing your drinks in front of your eyes as you sit and marvel at their modest magicians.

The great big green olives

We were welcomed with the ginormous green Italian olives I have come to love, and also some silver bowls of salty crunchy things that taste great and make you want to drink more. These are bottomless and come included in the (rather steep) price of a martini at Dukes. But let me tell you – and listen well – one Dukes martini will do more damage than two at most other places.

The glasses were frozen

The Dukes martini is actually very simple in its conception, as are many of the best things in life. It all starts with frozen glasses. The vodka and gin are also frozen at a special constant temperature, ice is never used, and the martinis are never shaken (or stirred for that matter).

Alessandro got to work

As we nestled into our new surroundings, Alessandro entertained the gang with anecdote after anecdote about his favourite cocktails, a few of his secrets, his travels and other manner of things.

A little bit of Polish vodka here

The vodka they normally use for their martinis is Potocki, which comes from Poland and purely expresses the charm and full flavor of that country’s rye.

A little bit of discontinued Crown Jewel there

For gin, they often recommend Beefeater’s Crown Jewell which, as I understand it, has sadly gone out of production. It is known for its intense aromas and also its very high ABV.

And then some shaving of orange peels

Some of us were starting off with the Dukes rendition of Ian Fleming’s Classic Vesper, which is made from the aforementioned gin and vodka, plus Angostura Bitters and Lillet. There are some secrets to this original version, but I suggest you get yourself down to Dukes and discover what they are for yourself as there are many (and generally not very good) pretenders to the throne.

And artful placing

Alessandro put the final touches on our Vespers and we were off.

The unveiling of my new favourite gin

As we were having such an amazingly relaxed and enjoyable time, we went for a second round of drinks. For this, Alessandro suggested the gin lovers in the group we taste one of his favorite newer gins to hit the scene. It’s called Sacred Gin and it is distilled by a guy named Ian Hart in Highgate (Norf London) in his own micro-distillery that is housed within, well, his house. I won’t say much, but I thought it was phenomenal. You should really read some of the articles on his website as it is quite an interesting story.

Gin it goes...

Anyway, the next round of drinks was poured and we were ready for double trouble…

And there it stayed (for a minute)

There was a mish-mash of martinis and other drinks abounding:

One pretty lady

One standout Old Fashioned

Essex drinking (and not eating for once)

Painting the town, well Mayfair, red

After another hour or so of leisurely conversation and the revelation of a few of Alessandro’s secrets (see below), we decided we should be making our way, even though I don’t think most of us thought getting up was a very good idea at this stage.

We had moved from Bob Bob Ricard to Bob’s Bitters (a secret bar cabinet weapon)

In my opinion, the drinks were – as usual – little short of astounding. They had wonderful balance, finesse and beauty, and I think most of my companions would agree (if not, speak up). We asked Alessandro who he reckoned were the best bar men (and women) in London, and after naming Brian Silva (who inspires even him), we really thought we should pay Rules’ bar a visit. But sadly Brian wasn’t there on that day, so we opted to traipse over to Alessandro’s other recommendation, “The Bar” at The Connaught. As he is quite friendly with them (hey, they’re also Italian), he called ahead for us and made sure we had a seat…he also asked them to “take care of these boys”…you’ve gotta love this guy!

Dukes Bar on Urbanspoon

Posh Italians with white gloves

You have to admit, the UK does have the strangest signs in the world

As we crisscrossed the fine streets of Mayfair, we minded the sign on the side of the pedestrian crossing leading up to The Connaught – what is it with this country and its road signs? How could a pedestrian need to mind a ‘low tree’, and it wasn’t even low to begin with?!

We were seated in the middle of the poshest of bars, a little the worse for wear

Okay, this bar was, in a word, bling. This is where you’d take a girl for a drink if you wanted to impress. Somehow we didn’t quite fit in, but we weren’t in a state to care about that at this point. We just wanted our drinks.

Glitzy, eh?

Yeah, bling.

Amuse Bouche cocktails – now that is well classy

The Connaught was so refined, we even got a liquid amuse bouche before our drinks were prepared. I vaguely remember it was fruity, refreshing, nice and not alcoholic. The munchies were also good, sweet roasted nuts and black pitted olives, although no way as good as those monster green Italian olives at Dukes.

What am I going to do with these lowlifes?

The exceedingly professional staff must have been in quite a quandary with our motley crew occupying prime position at the dinky round table smack-bang in front of the bar.

I know, I’ll poison them with my medical-looking remedies

Therefore, they decided to poison us. But at least they had the good humor to let us choose our particular poisons. I seem to remember for some inexplicable reason that I went for grapefruit and vanilla…and I’m meant to have a palate.

And I’ll throw in some of these too, just for good measure

At The Connaught, they shunned Bob in favour of these bitter bottles.

The tiniest dose will take care of these squatters, let me just put on my white gloves...

They do take their drinks very seriously, and even donned white gloves as they carefully measured out the dosages.

I can cover it all up with this high falootin’ gin

They also seem to really like Tanqueray No. Ten, but I didn’t have it as I opted for vodka.

Then some vermouth

They then fiddled around with the other necessary components.

And Vodka for that weird-looking American guy who keeps taking photos of me (don’t you hate tourists?)

Adding vodka for me.

Yes, I’ll give them a show all right

Then a bit of a high-wire show.

Our Connaught concoctions

I didn’t get a great shot of the drinks, but they were very pretty.

They even gave us the recipe card (poison omitted of course)

In a nice (if slightly corny) gesture, they let us take a recipe card home with us so we could try it for ourselves.

As I said, they certainly take their cocktails seriously here, but somehow it was lacking in soul – it was almost as if they were trying to show off how good they were, rather than allowing their guests to discover this slowly for themselves over the course of a few drinks – which I much prefer.

Bar at the Connaught on Urbanspoon

After paying up, we stumbled out back onto the surprisingly bright streets of Mayfair and headed our own ways , vowing to organize a “High Class Old Fashioned Tour”, on the back of the outstanding Old Fashioned(s) served up at Dukes.

As Mr. T said, “I pity the fool[s].” 🙂

Long live these libations, I say.

Dukes Bar – The Martini that Inspired Ian Fleming

An oasis of classy, clubby and unpretentious charm & home to one of the best martinis in the world

An oasis of classy, clubby and unpretentious charm & home to one of the best martinis in the world

A few years ago, I got taken to the bar at Dukes Hotel for drinks after work with an old colleague. Dukes is one of the many wonderful hidden gems in London, off of St James’s Street down a little road and through a tiny courtyard. Why are so many of the great places in the UK so hidden, I often wonder. Anyway, Dukes is a discreet and understated 5-star hotel that exudes a traditional aura. The bar has historically attracted a lot of wealthy American executives travelling on business in London and also a Mayfair banking / hedge fund set. These days the crowd is slightly more mixed and the bar is busy, pretty much without fail, on weekdays after work.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, Dukes arguably serve the best martini in London and possibly one of the best in the world. In fact, legend has it that Ian Fleming himself got the inspiration for the ‘shaken, not stirred’ line used in the Bond films, from his time spent drinking at Dukes. Before going to Dukes, I really couldn’t stomach martinis. I am ashamedly quite a lightweight when it comes to hard alcoholic drinks (wine is definitely more my thing) and typically go for the sweeter side of the cocktail scale. However, once I had a classic dry vodka martini at Dukes, that all changed. Since my ‘virgin’ cocktail at Dukes, I have returned a number of times. In fact, recently, I have been organizing a monthly night at Dukes after work with a group of friends. We had one of our rendezvous earlier this week, and I thought it high time for a post about this wonderful oasis of class.

When you step into Dukes bar, you will most likely be greeted by Alessandro Palazzi, a consummate and immediately charming Italian host who is without a doubt one of the leading barmen in London. He has worked all over the world in some of the most exclusive places. In 2001, he worked at Dukes bar under the former lead barman Gilberto Preti, and then went onto roles at The Ritz , The Mandarin Oriental and The Great Eastern Hotel (now Andaz) in London, before taking the helm at Dukes again in 2007. You can always be assured of receiving a warm, professional and personal service from Alessandro and the three other Italian waiters that work with him. The bar was completely redesigned in the summer of 2007, and features dark navy blue velvet chairs and silk curtains. The small tables are dark mahogany, as is the bar, the curtains are silk and the fireplace is marble. Overall, it is a classic, refined and clubby atmosphere without ever being in danger of being pretentious or stuffy.

If you are there for the first time, I definitely recommend one of their classic martinis (gin or vodka – choose your poison). All of the martinis are made fresh in front of you. A small wooden trolley is wheeled out and parked besides your table while your waiter prepares it for you. And, if you want, they will explain the difference between the Dukes version of whatever drink they’re making and other pretenders to the throne. My personal favorite is the Dukes Vodka Martini. This consists of Potocki Vodka (Polish), which has been frozen at a very low temperature for a minimum of 24 hours. First, 3 drops of extra dry vermouth are put into the cold martini glass. Then the Potocki is added. Next, the waiter slices the peel of a fresh lemon off (the lemons are organic and Sicilian), squeezes a few splashes of the lemon oil in the glass, rubs the peel around the edge of the glass and drops the peel into the concoction. Sounds simple, right? Well, the best things in life often are. The key here is that the vodka is ice cold, so no ice cubes are used. Also, it is not shaken or stirred (take that, 007). The result is a perfectly balanced and highly potent drink that you can sip for an hour or so over good conversation with friends. The vodka martini is fresh, cold and transitions between the slightly vanilla flavor of the vodka to a zesty lemon finish which lingers on in your mouth. Another of my favorite drinks is ‘Ian Fleming’s Classic Vesper’, which consists of Crown Jewel gin, Potocki vodka, Angostura bitters and Lillet. Also good is the ‘Strangeways’, which is made up of Hendrik’s gin, fresh cucumber, elderflower and lemon. I would like to reiterate the strength of these drinks – one or two is certainly more than enough on an empty stomach. At least for lightweights like me.

Oh, and speaking of stomachs, be forewarned that there is not that much food on offer at the bar in the evening, but they do ply you 3 small silver bowls of nibbles that are constantly refreshed throughout your drinking. One contains small, crisp disc-shaped crackers; another houses a variety of salted nuts; and the third is home to some very nice, fresh green olives which I understand to be imported from Puglia.

The Imperiale 1811: one of the many rare & exotic liquers on hand at Dukes

The Imperiale 1811: one of the many rare & exotic liquers on hand at Dukes

Another nice feature of Dukes is the fact that they have quite a collection of rare cognacs. On our last visit, our waiter brought out a selection of them for us to gaze at and sniff. Most impressive are the Bignon 1800 and the Imperiale 1811. Yes, they are really that old, and the bouquets are really unbelievable, especially on the Imperiale. We told Alessandro earlier this year that if our companies have decent years, we will come in early 2010 and have a glass of each of these (I seem to remember the Imperiale is nearly £400 a shot!). But we’ll have to wait and see about that.

So, if you ever fancy a great martini in a refined and gracious setting, with excellent service, head over to Dukes. You probably won’t be able to find it straight away, but I guess that’s part of the fun.

Dukes Bar on Urbanspoon