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.

  

A Martini made with Absinthe

“Oh god… is my face melting?”

 

I didn’t invent this one. Some other crazy person did.

What’s more, it’s evidently been ordered and drunk often enough to have earned itself a name: the Mystic Martini.

  
Absinthe is typically 45-74% ABV and therefore highly potent.

Invented in Switzerland, its alleged psychoactive properties led to its prohibition in many countries for decades, before decriminalisation led to a comeback in the 1990s.

Flavoured with botanicals including sweet fennel and wormwood, the drink is anise-flavoured and usually green or colourless. It turns milky/cloudy when mixed with water.

  
The drink was traditionally served via ‘the French method’ whereby a slotted spoon holding a sugar cube was placed over a glass containing a measure of absinthe. Cold water was then poured over the sugar cube, running into the absinthe, turning it cloudy and bringing out its complex flavours.

  

Social folklore and urban legend, now largely disproved, claimed that the effects of absinthe on the drinker were different to that of other types of alcohol, such as hallucinations and temporary insanity.

The ‘absinthe fairy’ is also associated with a wide variety of artists, writers and other cultural figures, earning the drink a reputation for bohemian creativity – as well as danger.

  
So back to the cocktail. The Mystic Martini is basically a classic martini with approximately one teaspoon of absinthe added to the mix.

Some bartenders rinse the glass with the absinthe before pouring the martini, others stir the absinthe into the martini after it has been prepared. I prefer the latter method, so you can watch the absinthe swirl into the already hypnotic drink. To evoke ‘the French method’ you could serve a classic martini with a measure of absinthe separately in a silver spoon, so the drinker can add it themselves and watch it ooze into the mixture.

Traditionally you are supposed to garnish this martini with a single green olive (largely for appearance purposes) but I actually think a wrinkled black olive goes better with the anise flavouring. I made the above drink with lemon peel which doesn’t compliment the anise flavour quite so well. If you really want to appreciate the complex botanicals of the absinthe you might also want to prepare this drink using vodka instead of gin – sacre bleu!

Personally anise is not my favourite flavour so this isn’t a drink I will be revisiting, but if it’s your thing, give it a go. Just make sure you’ve got life insurance first.