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!

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Happiness Forgets in Hoxton 4/5

“Great cocktails, no wallies.”

A dreamy basement cocktail bar in central London with attentive, knowledgeable staff. 

  

The low level lighting is sublime but it means that my photos are a bit rubbish. Just trust me and pay them a visit if you’re anywhere near Hoxton square in London.

A classic martini wasn’t even on the menu – they have a wide range of other good quality cocktails that my friends sampled extensively and reviewed most positively.

However, when I asked if I could have a standard martini (I felt guilty and irritating whilst doing so) not only was my request graciously fulfilled, I was asked which gin I would prefer, whether I wanted it sweet or dry (I asked for medium) and whether or not I would like it with an olive or a twist of lemon.

I instantly knew I was in safe hands.

  
 

I asked for a Tanqueray martini to start. It came in a coupe glass with a twist of lemon and that much-welcome citrus aroma indicating that the barman had attentively squeezed the peel into the glass before pouring. The gin and the glass hadn’t been kept in the freezer but the barman had clearly shaken the drink with ice to cool it down. It was pleasant and clearly made with care, respect and attention. 

 

For my next drink I asked for another of the same but made with a gin of the waitress’s choosing. She regularly checked our table to see if we needed anything. One of my friends, a former resident of Finland, remarked that her style was very Scandinavian. She was straight forward, knowledgable but not fawning, fake or overly smiley: a professional.

She recommended that I try a martini made with Ford’s gin for its clean, crisp taste. It came very cold. I think they used a glass kept in the freezer this time – you can tell because you will leave your finger prints on a frozen glass.

Instead of lemon, it came with a twist of grapefruit to compliment the botanicals of the gin (it’s strong on juniper – as I like it). What an unusual treat.

So, allow me to summarise my review in bullet points:


PROS

  • Very attentive and knowledgeable staff.
  • A classic martini wasn’t even on the menu but two were happily prepared for me.
  • I was asked if I wanted them sweet or dry.
  • I was offered a choice between a twist of lemon or an olive (so simple, so crucial).
  • The waitress took time to talk to us about different kinds of gin and introduced us to some new brands, of which she knew a lot.
  • We were checked upon to see if we needed anything in a way that was straight forward and professional, not fawning or intrusive.
  • The setting is lovely.
  • The music was good and conducive towards conversation.
  • The lighting. I’ve already mentioned it.
  • The toilets were very clean and smelt divine.
  • There was a wide range of gins.
  • The martini glasses are kept in the freezer.
  • The crowd was nice – mostly couples of dates, rather than grating hipsters or stray city-types.

CONS
There’s not a lot for me to say here and my points are purely related to my martini preferences. Bear in mind that martinis weren’t even on the menu so the fact that the staff went to the lengths that they did is hugely commendable.

  • I don’t like martinis being served in a coupe glass but it seems to be very common in London.
  • I like some nibble options to go with a martini, even if it was just a small dish of olives at extra cost. Probably not within the style or business model of this bar but there you go, those are my preferences.
  • I prefer the gin to be stored in the freezer. This might be difficult in the bar as they have such a wide range available but perhaps I would pick a favourite and keep that one in the freezer for martini requests (I would suggest Tanqueray or Beefeater for commercial purposes). Otherwise they chilled it with ice in a shaker and the glasses were clearly frozen so I cannot fault the staff in any way.
  • I found the seating slightly uncomfortable. But hey ho, if you have a few of their cocktails your nerve endings won’t be that receptive anyway…

And that’s it. Minor points of fault. Otherwise it far exceeds most bars in London for its drinks. I’ll be back.

Their website is here and you can follow them on Twitter here.

Upstairs at the Ten Bells of Spittalfields (London) 4/5

The Ten Bells is one of my favourite pubs in the Shoreditch/City of London area. Victims of Jack the Ripper are reputed to have had their last drink in the establishment, whereas today it is frequented by a horde of almost-hipsters and occasional tourists, and it’s not clear which is more frightening. What it lacks in clientele, however, it makes up for with an interesting atmosphere and good staff (such a hard nut to crack). Downstairs also has a nice selection of ales.

  
However, it was serendipitous to discover their new cocktail bar, recently opened upstairs.

  
They have an interesting and well-thought through cocktail menu (which I explored later) but my priority was to examine their classic martinis. 

  
I was extremely impressed with their attention to the drink. The gin and glasses were kept in the freezer and the staff were the most attentive martini servers I have ever had. They were happy to talk at length about vermouths and gins and then introduced me and my friend to some of their other signature drinks. The lemon peel was squeezed, shaped and twisted and it was clear that a lot of attention had been paid to the process, presentation, quality and experience of the drink. So often, a classic martini is hastily added to a cocktail menu as a pretentious afterthought, despite the fact that it’s both simple yet crucial in a bartender’s repertoire. 

As far as the classic martini served by the Ten Bells staff, I would change very little. I would serve it in a classic martini glass myself (I am a purist) but I am confident they have put thought to their selection of the glass and there will be a reason why they chose the shape they did. I would offer more nibbles for the imbibers. I would stick to something simple but I believe the staff of this establishment are so creative that they would quickly come up with something novel and complementary to the drink. Otherwise I would change nothing. Except perhaps some of the clientele.

  
While it’s not a classic martini I have to mention the strange, subtle but intriguing jasmine, peach and grapefruit cocktail that one of the barmen has crafted. It was intense but light, summery and exotic but not too sweet and worth taking a moment over.

The extensive graffiti in the toilets is also worth a lengthy read but make sure you do that before you’ve exceeded the two martini rule because the stairs might finish you off. You don’t want to become another victim to have had their last drink in this establishment, but it’s worth the risk.

  

The Beet Up Vesper Martini at the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town 4/5

Behold, the oddest blog title I have ever produced! But you will see what I’m talking about in the bar review below. 

 

I award the above-mentioned cocktail bar 4/5 for its variation on the classic Vesper Martini. Given the strict criteria of my Martini Ratings I could only offer full points upon trying a proper classic martini but if I offer my review in word form rather than numbers I would say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the drink at this bar.

I went with a friend to the Breakfast Club near Spittalfields Market / Liverpool Street Station in London. I have wanted to try out the semi-hipster burger bar for ages but the queues on a weekend morning have normally been devastatingly long. This time, it was a Tuesday night. The service was fast, the burgers were tasty and the atmosphere was fun.

However, we had heard the rumours that a secret cocktail bar existed somewhere on the premises. To gain access you must utter a special code. After a little bit of intelligence gathering (Google and Foursquare) we deduced that we had to say “can I please see the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town?” in order to gain access. 

We uttered the words and the waitress said that one her colleagues would be right with us.

  

A few moments later, to our surprise, the fridge standing next to the bar opened up and a man stepped out of it. He asked us to join him, so we followed him back into the fridge, through a secret door into a hidden stairway, which led down to a dark, secluded bar with a surprisingly large number of drinkers and a very interesting cocktail menu. 

Obviously I ordered their martini variation on sight. 

It consisted of Tanqueray gin infused with beetroot (I am a fan of savoury infused spirits), as well as vodka, Cointreau, Lillet blanc and a red current garnish. It was a far cry from my normal classic martini but I liked it nonetheless.

Nice and cold, beautifully presented, tasty, with good, friendly service and with a lot of effort put into the venue I award the bar/diner with 4/5.  

From an objective martini-fascist perspective I would award 5/5 if they offered a classic martini with the gin and glasses kept in the freezer, a strip of lemon peel and maybe a small bowl of olives. However, you can do that at home! 
 Otherwise, come out to play, try out the food upstairs and the range of cocktails downstairs… but no heavy petting!

The Tramshed, Shoreditch: 4/5



Overall a fantastic experience. I really enjoyed this restaurant.

The martini I had was also very good, although I would prefer it a little colder (keep everything in the freezer) and with more lemon (squeeze the peel into the glass when pouring). Otherwise it was beautifully served.



While I’ve seen this on the Internet, it was the first time I had actually drink a martini where my “top-up” came in a small bottle in ice on the side. I have been skeptical of this before because while it means the gin will be cold for your second pouring, the glass will have warmed up. I prefer to serve my second martini with a fresh, frozen glass. Nonetheless this, to me, is an effective and efficient means of serving such a drink in a busy restaurant. Furthermore the gin was definitely nice and cold when I poured the second batch. The use of Noccelara olives also wins points.



I loved the old fashioned food, served with raucous panache. It was definitely comfort grub, with roast chicken, chips, steak and Yorkshire pudding, dramatically served as above; herb-encrusted with utensils inserted coquettishly into animal orifices.



The meat was good quality and nicely prepared.



The generously-sized Yorkshire pudding was one of the tastiest forms of carbohydrate I’ve ever eaten in the UK.



After the martini we drank some nice Lebanese wine (Massaya, from the Beqaa Valley).



And… prepare yourself for some innuendo… we also tried the “cock shots” and “shot of bull” which were basically vodka flavoured with chicken stock or beef consommé. We loved the beef one in particular. It had hearty and warming flavour, with the umami of a consommé rendering the drink almost like a miniature Bloody Mary with a kick of horseradish. The shots definitely weren’t a gimmick. I would strongly recommend trying them before eating.



Set in an actual former tram shed, the tiled walls and industrial layout added to the ‘rough and ready’ feel of the venue. The trendy staff, attractive diners and selection of art works (such as the Damian Hirst cow and chicken – above) also came together to produce a brash, fun, modern take on something very traditional. This combination of old and new is something that London continues to get right. Bravo!

Dishoom could pack a punch: 3.5/5

‘Dishoom’ is a traditional Bollywood onomatopoeic word (like ‘Kapow!’) used to express the noise of someone getting punched or slapped in an old film or comic book.

In London, Dishoom is a Shoreditch eatery inspired by Mumbai cafe culture. It is easily identified by the queue outside its doors most evenings.

Once again, from a martini perspective this good bar/restaurant loses points for its simple failure to keep its gin and glasses in the freezer.

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Otherwise, however, it gets points for its evocative, eccentric decor, attentive service and excellent array of food. Martinis probably aren’t their priority, but if they wanted to hit the full 5/5 rating I would recommend that they focus on the temperature of the drink, whilst serving them with a small selection of some of their fantastic nibbles (such as their delicious battered okra). Maybe they could try out the Raitini as well.

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Recycled cardboard menus, vintage posters and some other quirky features made it an interesting experience to dine there. I would normally refuse to queue for half an hour to enter a restaurant but at Dishoom they serve you warm masala chai while you wait, which is a nice touch, especially in winter.

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The actual cocktail making was also very impressive. I locked eyes with a Sri Lankan inspired Arrack-based drink on the menu (the Toddy Tapper) and asked which brand of Arrack they were using. The barman didn’t know but got out the bottle for me to read the label. I didn’t recognise the brand either. It looked very modern, whereas most of the (many) bottles of Arrack I’ve drunk in my lifetime have had very old-fashioned labels.

Anyway, the barman set fire to some alcohol and fennel seeds in a glass to release the flavour before adding them to my drink. This was visually impressive as you can see from the above photograph taken by my friend. Of course, we also ordered a martini to try.

The food was tasty, the service good and fast (after the queueing at least) and the atmosphere was pleasant. I would definitely recommend giving it a try, but be sure to wear enough warm clothing to queue outside.

Thai cocktail

I like spicy things and intense Thai flavours, so when I went to Translate Bar in Shoreditch I ordered their Thai Mizza Healer cocktail. It contains lemon vodka, coconut, lime, chilli, coriander and lemongrass. It was sweet, sour, tangy, hot and refreshing all at the same time.

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Be careful you don’t drink too many and end up snogging the wall though.