The Henri Toulouse Lautrec in Kennington, 3/5

 
The Henri Toulouse Lautrec is no ordinary venue. People travel here from all over the world for its live music performances. It also serves fantastic food.

However – the martinis do not hit the mark just yet, but with a little re-adjustment this place could be a cocktail bar with real punch – a Moulin Rouge of south London.

  

I would struggle to describe the venue accurately: the friendly, strange, shabby-chic, bohemian, French, Anglo-French, theatrical, run-down yet sophisticated Kennington brasserie and jazz bar caters to many tastes.

It’s not gimmicky or faddy, it’s more established and reputable than that. It’s got the staff and the skilled chefs and musicians too. The food is excellent by the way – and they deliver, although you wouldn’t get to experience the atmosphere.

  

The bar doesn’t seem to fit in with its Elephant and Castle environs (this is a good thing). Indeed it seems to have survived much longer than any of the other buildings in this part of the city. 

  
Something about it gives me the impression that we might have to sign petitions in the coming years to save it from ‘gentrification’ and being turned into a soulless block of luxury apartments. Londoners – you know what I’m talking about!

For now though, it enjoys a crammed timetable featuring live acts every night. This three-floor venue can get very busy. However, during the ‘violet hour’ – that precious cocktail moment that lasts somewhere from 5pm until dinner time – the venue is often virtually empty. In-keeping with continental culture, the diners tend to arrive later in the evening to eat.

I feel that some sort of invigoration of the cocktail bar, maybe the creation of an ‘aperitif happy hour’ could boost this place no-end, increase profits earlier in the evening, while enhancing rather than compromising its French ambience. For instance, they could name their happy hour cinq á sept (which literally means ‘5-7’ and is usually used to refer to a post-work drinks event in Quebec) or l’heure du bonheur (literally ‘the hour of happiness’). I would definitely attend.

  

Of course, the aspect I would focus on most prominently would be the martini. This bar has great potential. The servers ask all the right questions: which gin would you like it made with? Shaken or stirred? Sweet, dry or dirty? Olive or lemon twist?

  

However, neither the glasses nor the gin are cold, while excessive stirring and shaking the drink with ice left it noticeably watered down. The bar was also left unattended for fairly long periods of time. I believe the staff were helping out elsewhere. Perhaps if they had a dedicated cocktail waiter here during the crucial martini o’clock period this place would have a much higher footfall at that time of the day and we wouldn’t be left waiting around for service.

  
 
I liked the lemon garnish – an appealing shape to watch spiralling and contracting as you swirl the drink. I don’t think it was properly squeezed into the glass before pouring but it was long enough for the oil and citrus flavour to permeate the drink quite nicely.

I must also point out that their Negronis are excellent. Bravo.

  

The nibbles we ordered were also delectable. The Henri Toulouse Lautrec really excels at its food. I would otherwise prefer blinis that you can eat with one hand while you hold your glass with the other, but I will forgive this inconvenience purely because of the taste of this smoked salmon dish. It was delicious.

So, in summary:

Pros

  • It’s a great venue with charm and character
  • The food is excellent
  • It has huge cocktail potential

Cons

  • The gin wasn’t cold enough
  • The martini was too watered down
  • The bar was unattended for long periods
  • The place was empty during cocktail hour – perhaps the latter could be fixed by addressing the former three issues.

The Henri Toulouse Lautrec is worth many visits and I am very fond of this venue, so I hope that my criticism is seen as a demonstration of its huge potential from a martini perspective rather than a damnation. I will definitely be calling back for an encore or three.

  

Advertisements

The Gypsy Martini

A sweeter alternative to the classic martini.

  
This one is very straightforward. 

You will need gin/vodka, sweet vermouth and a jar of maraschino cherries. The following recipe is for a 150ml glass:

  • Add 3 teaspoons of maraschino cherry liqueur to a chilled martini glass.
  • Add sweet vermouth to taste (between 2tsp and 30ml).
  • Add chilled gin/vodka (between 120-140ml depending on the amount of vermouth used).
  • I would recommend that if you are using a 100ml martini glass aim for about 15-20ml vermouth and around 80ml gin.
  • Stir and drop a single maraschino cherry into the drink.
  • Serve.

  

Because of its sweet nature this martini could be served as a digestif instead of an aperitif.

  
I first tasted maraschino cherries at a very young age in the back of the Mishnish Hotel (above in yellow). A long-standing family-owned venue, a cousin sneaked me into the kitchen during some sort of gathering (a christening or wedding or something). I remember being confronted by a stern but caring member of staff who presented me with a cherry on a silver teaspoon to try before ushering me out and back to the family event. What a treat! I’ll never forget the taste.

  
Maraschino cherries were historically seen as a royal luxury in parts of Europe. A produce of Croatia, they have been picked, salted, pickled and sweetened in alcohol for centuries. What a luxurious addition to the classic martini.

Quite why it’s referred to as a Gypsy martini remains unknown to me. If anyone has any idea please comment below!

 
I also have to thank my latest martini guest CatLoud for some of these beautiful photographs. A former regular at the Mishnish, Ms. Loud is a cabaret singer (a perfect martini accompaniment) and a veteran of the Edinburgh festival. She will also be performing at the Canal Theatre Cafe in London in January.

 

Enjoy!

 

The Filthy Martini

Gird your loins and lock up your daughters – and sons, for that matter.

  

Martinis cause a lot of confusion. There are many myths out there over things like how to prepare them, how to drink them, who said what about them and where they originally come from.

 
Of course, a drink that contains 6 units of alcohol was always likely to foment disarray, but hopefully this blog is helping cut through the fog. And oh haven’t there been some foggy days putting it together (all that painstaking ‘research’ etc). 

Anyway, the filthy martini seems to cause quite a lot of confusion on its own, with many people, including those at well-known gin brands mistakenly believing it to be a dirty martini with extra olive juice.

 
This is incorrect.

In fact, the filthy martini is the creation of the above, humble caperberry.

Another delectable gift from Fragata, these berries are the matured form of capers (caper buds), endemic to many parts of the world with a Mediterranean or semi-arid climate. They are often pickled and regularly served with seafood or in salads. The pickled caper bud is a well-known constituent of tartare sauce.

The caperberry is juicer but still delightfully tart and was even once thought to have been an aphrodisiac (please see asparagus and oysters).

The berries are frequently pickled in brine for consumption in countries where they don’t grow naturally (such as in Northern Europe), which allows us to create this martini variation. The pickling process also seems to bring out a savoury mustard-like aroma in the berries which cuts in very well to the clean juniper of a classic martini.

I also love their texture, firm and fleshy on the outside, with satisfying crunchy seeds inside that pop, almost like a vegetarian form of Japanese tobiko (flying fish roe).

  

Anyway, here’s how to make the drink:

  • Take a strip of lemon peel and squeeze and rub it into a chilled martini glass to transfer the lemon oil.
  • Add caperberry brine to taste (usually between 2-6tsp).
  • Add vermouth to taste (usually between 2tsp to 30ml depending on your preferences and the size of your glass).
  • Top up with gin/vodka (usually around 90-130ml depending on the size of your glass).
  • Stir with the lemon peel (which you can then discard).
  • Drop a single caperberry into the drink.
  • Serve.

  

 
I would recommend serving more caperberries on the side, potentially with some other nibbles as well if you’re particularly hungry.

  
This martini works particularly well as an aperitif before some good seafood, particularly any kind of fish served fried in batter, from cod to calamari.

Enjoy.

  
#FILTH!

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.

Martinis y tapas

  
Having spent an amazing weekend in Madrid I thought I would write about the drinking culture in the city and see what inspiration I could draw from a martini perspective.

  

Los Madrileños know how to have fun – without feeling guilty, without getting stressed and without getting post-apocalyptically drunk. If you feel like having a drink or having something to eat then do so. If you feel like having a nap then do so. The time of day is irrelevant. You shouldn’t feel bad for doing what your body is telling you to do. Eating, drinking and sleeping when you please might sound unhealthy but these people certainly don’t look unhealthy!

  
Another conclusion is that alcohol is much better when accompanied by food.

Tapas or pinchos/pintxos (pronounced peen-chose) are small bites of food that accompany your drink. The adage “eating’s cheating” has few followers in Madrid and I am a faithful convert to the city’s attitude towards eating with booze. I always serve nibbles with my martinis but maybe we should be serving food with all alcohol. It’s not the most radical concept – it’s common practise in many countries (Sri Lanka for example).

If you are unconvinced about eating with your drinks then perhaps I can persuade you with some examples of the sorts of things you could enjoy with your booze.

   

Here is a mind-blowingly tasty assortment of morcilla (a spanish variation of black pudding) with apple, balsamic vinegar glaze and fried potato straws, accompanied with octopus and whole grain mustard ice cream. Yes. Mustard ice cream. Yes.

  
However, if this is too fancy just order your drink (such as a caños of beer which isn’t as much as a full pint) with something as simple as a piece of bread with a topping. Drink, taste and relax. It’s not a race to finish your drink in order to buy the next round.

  

Fried calamari is common. Ham, cheese and olives also feature highly.

  

There are many expert voices on the subject of tapas so this amateur is not going to bluff you, but of the stories that surround its history I have a favourite. According to my friend, at a point in its history Spain was undergoing a drought and food production was low. The people resorted to drinking more alcohol to make up for their lost calories, but this led to widespread malaise and drunkenness. A troubled king, seeking a solution, ordered establishments to serve simple bread and toppings over the top of alcohol glasses (the word tapas comes from the Spanish verb tapar – to cover). When eaten this would soak up some of the alcohol, reduce drunkenness and help feed the population. A cultural trend was born. 

Like martinis, there are several competing stories surrounding the historical origins of tapas. Without a time machine to verify which version is accurate the only thing you can do is believe in your favourite.

 Whatever the true origins of tapas there have been an infinite multitude of variations since its creation. Tapas now even extends to airline food, as demonstrated above.

For me, the most important concept is that the sharing of tapas is very sociable.

  It can be fairly hands-on; you might be called upon to mash your own guacamole.

 
It can also be very simple. Above is a delicious dish of peppers fried with salt. 
So what can we take from this fine Spanish contribution to human culture to try and improve the martini experience?

Snacks, bites and nibbles are a very important part of a martini so tapas can provide a wealth of inspiration for anyone looking to serve theirs with some added Latin panache.

The main point, however, is about relaxing and sharing good flavours, drinks and conversation with friends, family, lovers etc.

  

If you can get that right then everything else should fall into place – ojala.

 
But as a word of warning, don’t drink so much you end up naked on the ground in Plaza de Colón in the middle of the day, although evidently if you do you won’t be the first…

Sliced gherkins and Eastern Europe

IMG_8751.JPG
I’ve mentioned before that I like Eastern European (particularly Polish) bars that serve traditional vodka (kept in the freezer) served with good accompanying nibbles. Sliced pickled gherkins are a very simple but traditional example. They’re quick, crunchy and healthier than crisps or Bombay mix or any of the other things I like to eat with a martini.

IMG_8746.JPG
They are very easy to do at home, so I always have a large jar in the fridge in case of unexpected guests – the same reason I always keep my gin, vodka and martini glasses in the freezer.

However, you can also spot this sort of fare at some of my favourite Eastern European bars and eateries in London:

Mamuśka – cheap, authentic Polish comfort food in Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Mamuśka means ‘mummy’ in Polish (the mother kind, not the ancient Egyptian variety). As they say on their website: we don’t want to replace Polish mothers, we just want to take care of their kids while they are away from home. So sweet. And it’s worth scurrying through the occasionally alarming interior of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre to visit.

Bar Polskie – an unusual but relaxed and very good night out, with a fantastic vodka selection and good accompanying bites, hidden down an interesting alleyway in Holborn. My personal favourite is the Dębova (oak) vodka but they have dozens of interesting flavours that you will definitely never be able to get through in one sitting.

Baltic – a beautiful Eastern European restaurant with fantastic blini, wonderful food, gorgeous lighting, passionate, highly professional staff and a good vodka selection. Located near Southwark tube station.

Na zdrowie!

The Polish influence

I look forward to Poland’s rise on the world stage. I’m not much of a vodka drinker, but when I do drink vodka, Polish is my favourite. When someone says “flavoured vodka” they are either referring to chemical trashy flavours such as strawberry or chocolate, or they are talking about the real deal: the traditional Polish flavours. I’m somewhat of a traditionalist, but if you offered me a pineapple flavour vodka from a factory or a… Let’s say oak flavoured vodka from Poland, there is no contest in my mind. The classic, traditional flavours win hands down. The Poles are also excellent at nibbles to accompany drink. Pickled herring, pickled cucumber… Perfect. I love pierogi, but I think they might be a bit heavy to serve with a martini. Have them later!

For the purposes of martini and of this blog, please allow me to present two Polish themes. The first is the humble gherkin as an accompaniment. I slice them and serve them as a nice, natural counter-balance to olives. Green, crunchy and sharp, they just go well in my opinion.

The second theme is what I call the “mini martini”. It is prepared in the same way as a standard martini, but in a shot glass and garnished with only a thin sliver of lemon peel.

A shot glass you say? Yes some people might be appalled at this, but as I said, I am a traditionalist so rest assured, this is not some gimmicky concoction. It is an idea inspired by the traditions or Poland, a land where alcohol is respected and a great deal of care and attention goes in to making a good drink.

The mini-martini is ideal for guests who would like to try a martini but who don’t want to drink a lot. It is inspired by the frozen glasses used in Bar Polskie, a favourite little place of mine near Holborn tube station in Central London. It’s tucked away down an olde-worlde alley but it’s worth it!

I keep tall shot glasses in the freezer. When serving, rub the lemon peel inside the glass then trim it with a knife so that it’s just a thin sliver. Pour in the vermouth then the gin or vodka to make the martini itself. Zubrowka vodka works very well in a Polish-themed martini although I would be tempted not to mix such a drink with vermouth. I would just drink it neat, especially if it’s in a small quantity such as in a shot glass. Also it goes without saying that the alcohol used should be stored in the freezer in advance of serving.

I garnish the lemon peel sliver either by dropping it into the drink, or by dipping it in the alcohol then using the wetness to stick it to the outside of the glass.

Finally, I admire the tradition of Polish storytelling and speeches to accompany a drink. Similarly when drinking a martini you want to be stimulated and mentally engaged in something intense and entertaining. Good banter or a good story is essential so make sure you prep this in advance!

Nazdroviye!

20140421-000451.jpg

20140421-000459.jpg