The Foxlow in Balham 4/5

  

My friend invited me out to lunch at the Foxlow Restaurant just around the corner from Balham tube station in south London.
 

The decor has a 1970s Scandinavian feel to it, with lots of wood and chunky fixtures that say practicality as well as style. The staff were also helpful, friendly and knowledgable. 

  

The food menu is unpretentious comfort food – but of very high quality. The chicken sandwich was generous, tasty, comforting and a real treat of contrasting textures. All the meat and fish is carefully chosen from high value and sustainable sources by the way.

  

I don’t normally drink martinis at lunch but when I saw the unusual option at the top of their cocktail menu I had to try it. I was told it involved a honey and Manzanilla olive brine mixture instead of vermouth. If in doubt, I almost always prefer a traditional classic but this sounded like a very individual, striking yet simple variation that I had never seen before so it would have been rude not to order one.

  
I was not disappointed. The oily circle of honey oozed playfully around the surface of the drink until the end while the sweet and briny flavours swirled pleasingly over the stoicism of the dry gin.

If I could recommend any changes I would suggest, as I often do, keeping the gin and glasses in the freezer so that the drink was even colder. I also prefer to drink martinis from a V-shaped martini glass rather than a coupe glass, but these are minor points.

The drink was good value for money for London and I particularly salute the creativity of someone who can take a tried and tested classic, innovate it with a subtle but unique alteration and create something new and pleasing, yet also reassuringly rooted in the classic martini recipe  style.

  
The drink was not served with nibbles (perhaps it could be served with complimentary Manzanilla olives for martini greatness) but the nibbles on offer in the food menu were creative and highly tasty.

We ordered the anchovy, onion and goats cheese served on rounds of crisp bread. They were absolutely delicious, with strong salty and umami punch, finished off with the pungency of the onion.
  
They were a fantastic accompaniment to the martini, although given their strong flavour I would recommend only eating them with someone you are comfortable enough to share anchovy-onion breath with afterwards. If you’re on a date you’d better buy two plates to share – your breaths will hopefully cancel one another’s out if you end  up kissing later – and if you have one or two martinis let’s be honest, there will probably be a fairly good chance of it.

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The Merchants Tavern in Shoreditch 4/5

Passionate, friendly staff, a wide selection of vermouths and a respect for the classic martini make this place a top scorer.

 

I don’t get out to Shoreditch nearly often enough so I have to thank a lovely friend from back home for getting me out this time. It was a great err… afternoon.
Drinking martinis in the daytime is a dangerous pursuit but I persevere for the benefit of this blog. You’re all welcome.

  
We had a tasty lunch at the Turkish mezze-style restaurant Oklava just off Great Eastern Street. The raw halibut dish with samphire (a long standing favourite of mine) was delectable, as were the other dishes. Marinated cauliflower, grilled herb-encrusted chicken and a generous glass of Yeni Rakí to wash it down all made for some very tasty consumption. The staff were friendly and as odd as it might sound I also have to recommend their toilets which were stylish, clean and well-maintained (always a good sign of a restaurant’s overall quality I feel).

  
After lunch we nipped across the road to the Merchants Tavern for a continued catchup over some Camden Lager. Things escalated but it was all worth it!
The decor in the post-warehouse bar is refined, sophisticated and somewhat retro-London, blending hard Victorian industrial with plush continental. The crowd was youngish, trendy and mostly professional. How very Shoreditch.
Chatting to the bar staff it quickly became apparent that they were very passionate about mixology. What caught my attention was that they kept their martini glasses in the freezer. We started chatting about cocktail making and I have to admit, I am a bore. Whatever cocktail is in fashion or whatever new techniques are in vogue, if you mix me up a drink nothing will ever match a classic martini.

  
One of the bar staff was perfecting a sweet and sour cocktail that involved a hint of Mezcal (a personal favourite of mine). We tried it and it was lovely, particularly with the smoky aftertaste. Too sweet for me, but definitely very agreeable, similar in its tones to a margarita, but with a more lingering intensity, courtesy of the añejo Mezcal.
The staff were all very knowledgeable, creative, pleasant and passionate so I realised I had to try out their classic martini. They had several types of vermouth to choose from and a variety of gins. I was asked all the right questions (olive or lemon twist?) and I wasn’t disappointed with the finished product.

  
At £14 for a 100ml glass I would describe it as fair value for money for Central London, and especially given the pleasant setting and above all, excellent staff. I therefore award The Merchants Tavern a solid 4/5 for their martini, putting it right up there for London.
I would suggest two further things for martini greatness. I would recommend choosing one gin for primary use in a martini (such as the house gin) and keep a bottle or two of it in the freezer so the drink is extra cold. The fact that the bar does this with its glasses already puts it head and shoulders above most other venues.
I would also serve a small complimentary dish of nibbles of some form, like nuts, olives, edamame etc to accompany the drink. This might not fit in with the business model, but it’s what earns extra points for places like Bar Roka (spicy edamame), Skylon (Japanese rice crackers) and the definitive Duke’s Bar (nuts, crisps and olives). The kitchen bar menu of the Merchants Tavern is varied and sophisticated so if you want to order something to go with your martini I’m sure you won’t be disappointed with the options.

Good work guys!

A Martini with Hayman’s Gin

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while.

  
A very good friend and reader of this blog presented me with a bottle of this gin from Haymans. I instantly loved the branding and packaging. The colours, dark blue and gold, were positively regal.

So I put the bottle in the freezer and awaiting a visit from my friend so we could have a martini (or three… oops).

  

This is the Family Reserve edition, where the gin has been stored in Scotch whisky barrels for three weeks prior to bottling. This mellows the drink and apparently conforms to a traditional method popular in the nineteenth century. Bottles from this limited batch are individually numbered, adding to the exclusive feel of the brand.

  
I loved the detail on the neck of the bottle in particular; a little flourish of olde worlde meets sharp brand new, reminiscent of the barrel and bottling process perhaps.

  
The gin has a distinctive taste of liquorice. Not usually my favourite botanical (I’m a citrus and juniper traditionalist), it was very smooth and rich and I definitely enjoyed it. 

I made the martinis using my usual method – keep the gin in the freezer and mix with vermouth to taste as follows:

  • between 2tsp to 30ml vermouth
  • around 80-130ml gin

  

I served the martini with lemon peel garnish rather than olives as I wasn’t sure the latter pairing would work, although olives were served on the side and went very well. Black olives in particular could compliment the liquorice flavour of the gin.

  
Other nibble dishes that could go well with this martini include asparagus, cheeses of all shapes and sizes, seafood (including the classic martini accompaniment oysters) and strongly seasoned meat, cured, fried or grilled, particularly if it incorporates liquorice or anise-type botanicals.

Because of its distinctive flavour a martini made wth this gin works well as an aperitif to build ones appetite (especially if you are a liquorice fan) but could also break martini tradition and be served as a digestif as well.

Just don’t overdo it! The rule exists for a reason, it doesn’t matter how nice the gin is.

And nice it is. You can see the full range from the traditional family distillers here.

Bar Arabica, Borough Market, 2/5

A relatively pleasant martini was let down by bad service and poor value for money.

 

It wouldn’t take much to perfect their martini but some of the fundamentally poor elements of the restaurant will be more difficult to rectify.

  
Nestled under a railway arch in Borough Market, I had high hopes for this Levantine restaurant. However, the service wasn’t particularly attentive, the portions were small and the martini didn’t do it for me.

  
I was looking forward to a tasty za’tar man’oushe, even though I have regularly been warned that you just can’t get good Lebanese food in London. Sadly it didn’t match my Beiruti experiences. It was a little dry and lacking in fresh ingredients.

  
Other portions were small and not cheap, although we did like boregi (essentially the same as börek – a spinach and feta pastry) which was crunchy and satisfying.

  
The atmosphere was pleasant, with the rumble of trains and nice lighting, but some of our dishes were forgotten. Indeed we felt somewhat forgotten on occasion.

When I asked about the gin used in their martini I was told it was a home-made compound gin, but the waiter couldn’t tell me anymore about it.

  
It arrived chilled but not especially cold, in a coupe glass, with a strip of lemon peel. As always, I feel the need to urge London restaurants serving martinis to keep their gin and glasses (martini glasses, not coupe glasses!) in the freezer.

However, this martini was redeemed by its particular lemon flavour – it was especially citrusy which I like. The gin did not seem especially dry, which was perhaps a blessing considering its temperature, but all in all it wasn’t unpleasant.

 
So what to do? Larger portions would be nice. If you’ve ever eaten in the Middle East you will realise that it’s rare to leave a meal without feeling utterly stuffed and potentially in pain from your host’s kind and generous hospitality. This was not the feeling I had at this Levantine restaurant.  More generous portions and attentive service would be in order. Then keep the homemade gin in the freezer and serve it in a proper martini glass.

The Skylon Bar, London 4.5/5

If you’re in London, treat yourself. It’s not that expensive and you’re guaranteed a good quality cocktail in an excellent setting. 

 

This is a lovely bar in a wonderful, all-welcoming part of London. The brutalist Southbank Centre with its grand but minimalist polished concrete slabs enjoys a wonderfully soft form of acoustics. The diverse array of visitors range from pondering thespians to the philosophical homeless, their intriguing conversations all muffled into soporific unintelligible whispering by the imposing edifice of the building itself. It’s an ocean of calm just a few steps from the virulent masses thronging the banks of the River Thames. Wander around the building and you might stumble across a cultural performance by Zulu warriors or perhaps a fierce debate on the topic of lesbian poetry from the 1980s. Whatever you find, you will likely leave feeling a strange, deep connection with your fellow humans.

Anyway, one of the things situated in this strange, post-war monument to what communist Britain might have aspired to be, is a peculiarly yet perfectly juxtaposed bar and restaurant, very firmly on the free-market capitalist side of the fence.

  
The Skylon itself, after which this bar/restaurant was named, was a stylised metal structure erected during the Festival of Britain, a nationwide event held in 1951 commemorating science, art and architecture in an attempt to lift the national mood in the gloomy post-war years. With a very unstable economy, the loss of vast swathes of the British Empire and extensive, enduring human and infrastructural damage suffered during the war times were still very tough in the country.

  
As illustrated in John Ritchie Addison’s photograph above, the Skylon piece cut quite a striking image over the southern banks of the Thames. It was one of many features of art and design erected for the festival but its image remains one of the most enduring.

Nonetheless, it was seen as too costly for the government to bear. The re-elected prime minister Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about martinis, also reportedly hated it as a socialist symbol erected by the Labour government which had defeated him in the post-war election.

So naturally he had it torn down and sold for scrap.

  

Oh Winston.

However, while he may have hated the Skylon sculpture, I hope he would approve of the martini served in the nearby restaurant which has taken its name.

Apart from sometimes getting busy (for evident reasons) the only other downside of the bar was the fact that their diverse and highly creative cocktail menu didn’t actually have a classic martini option on it. I would recommend they include one in future as the one they actually served me was almost perfect.

 
I apologised for asking the waitress for an item not on the menu but she asked her manageress and returned to ask whether I would prefer mine made with gin or vodka, and if I would prefer it classical or dirty.

Excellent, I though, and ordered a classic martini (with gin, obviously).

It arrived in a small, but perfectly formed and indeed very elegant martini glass. Lemon peel had been squeezed into the glass and the lemon garnish was artistically cut and fastened onto the rim. I don’t think either the glass or the gin had been kept in the freezer but effort had clearly been put in to chilling both before serving.

  
I also took a moment to admire my friend’s choice of cocktail – the Jamaican Fury. Beautiful and creative, the smoke swirling in the bottle smelt simply of cigarettes, but when decanted into a glass it added a rich, savoury aroma to the otherwise sweet and powerful cocktail.

  
Moments later we were served a bowl of Japanese rice snacks for free. This may sound very simple, possibly even gimmicky, but it’s a vanishingly rare phenomenon in British drinking establishments and adds so much to the martini drinking experience.

Skylon gets 4.5 out of 5 for its martini. It was cold, lemony, in a martini glass, served with nibbles, with an additional selection of good food available on the menu, while the service was friendly and attentive and the setting was relaxed, ambient and stylish (and in one of my favourite buildings in London). For £12.50 I also thought the drink was very good value for money, certainly by London standards and in such a central, prominent venue. I would recommend booking in advance though as it will get crowded.

  
Otherwise, a victorious crowd pleaser. Well done Skylon, long may you reign over the banks of the Thames – but please put the classic martini back on your menu for good.

Mamuśka Polish bar and restaurant, E&C, London

  
This isn’t strictly a post about martinis but I am making a special mention of this tasty bar/restaurant Mamuśka, not least because of the way they treat their spirits (which is well, by the way).

  
The ultimately satisfying carb-fest ‘placki ziemniaczane’ (pancakes made out of potato) will put you into a sumptuous ‘food coma’.

For years Mamuśka restaurant has been a regular visiting spot for Elephant and Castle residents, as well as many from the Polish community throughout London. With the impending destruction of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre they have now moved premises all the way across Elephant and Castle roundabout to occupy the space previously filled by “My Big Fat Greek Restaurant” (where did they go by the way?). We wish them well. The new venue is bigger with additional outside seating.

  
There’s a fun atmosphere with some really friendly staff on hand to assist. The menu is also clearly designed to welcome non-Polish people to experience this rich culture and warming cuisine. Mamuśka (which means “Mum” by the way) also aims to provide lovingly prepared home cooking to the many Poles living far from home.

The simple, wholesome and extraordinarily comforting fare in an unpretentious cafeteria-type setting is perfect for either a quick meal or a relaxing evening with food and drinks.

Do note, however, that if you ever eat here with a hangover you WILL fall into a deep food coma afterwards. It’s cheap and deliciously filling.

  
However, I feel a particular need to mention Mamuśka on my blog because of the way they serve their vodka (they also serve a nice array of beers).

They keep the vodka and the glasses in be freezer. I sounds simple but there is a long list of London cocktail bars who do not do this. Temperature and simplicity are two key aspects when preparing a martini so if Mamuśka ever decided to add them to their menu I know they would do them well. Perhaps they could call them Mamuśka’s ruin.

Martinis or not, this is a favourite spot of mine. I would recommend dropping in for a relaxed, friendly and tasty visit with some excellent drinks to accompany your pierogi, śledź and other tasty bites. Your mother would approve.

MEATMission in Hoxton

  
A trendy-gritty burger bar with a creative menu and sinful atmosphere. A sister of Meat Liquor, MEATMission excels at ‘the dirty burger’ concept.

Expect greasy, gluttonous, satisfying burgers in good quality buns (or wrapped in lettuce if requested) to the backdrop of dark decor and an imposing musical selection (you might find it too noisy but I enjoyed it).

  

Their drink selection is also impressive. I obviously had to try their “Full English Martini”, a classic (Tanqueray and Lillet Blanc) served with egg and bacon.

  

Some of the non-burger items are also highly recommended. The fried pickles are to die for and given the calorie content it might be a price you have to pay. But still definitely worth it.
  

Make sure you’re hungry before ordering.
And be prepared for it to get messy.  

  

My friends and I ordered a selection of burgers and wings.

  

The diversity of the menu means it’s worth coming with a small group so you can try different dishes, but if you go with too many people you won’t be able to hear one another over the music. 

When my drink arrived the gin was cold (but not frozen) and it was served in a coupe glass rather than a standard martini glass (London needs to address this issue).   

Nonetheless, the martini was clean and crisp. I was also dying to taste the accompanying egg and bacon. It was a quails egg served in a shot glass with crunchy bacon bits and salt. Obviously it was a lot smaller than a full English breakfast but I was not disappointed. The salty/savoury flavour and contrasting textures were a perfect amuse-bouche, a delectable martini accompaniment and really whet my appetite before the food arrived.

The food arrived on retro trays with much needed paper and superb (and undoubtedly unhealthy) sauces.  It was all very tasty and satisfying. The wings were also exquisite. I particularly liked the sambal ones. Om nom nom.

You might need a wash after eating. I would describe the food as satisfying and dirty while the atmosphere was definitely a bit of fun for grown-ups.

 

And if you do like their “raucous, relentless and rowdy” music you can listen online to their radio station MEATtransMISSION.

  
In short, I would recommend visiting this place if you are hungry and in the company of people whom you don’t mind seeing your face covered in grease as you gobble down a giant meat sandwich. 

However, for the martini itself I can only award a 3.5/5. I loved the creativity of the garnish and title while the high quality ingredients (Tanqueray and Lillet Blanc) cannot be faulted. However, I would prefer if MEATMission kept its gin and glasses (martini glasses, not coupe glasses) in the freezer. And that’s it! That’s all that would transform MEATMission into martini greatness.

Oh and if you go, you’ve got to try the fried pickles with blue cheese sauce. The end.