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.

  

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L’Escargot Restaurant, Soho, London, 3/5

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I went with some friends to this French restaurant in London, located on Greek Street in Soho. It was an occasionally perplexing and even tense experience, although the martini I drank before my meal was nice.

The staff were friendly and pleasant but there was a strange, intense and even chaotic element to the service. It was difficult to book a table, despite the fact that the place was empty when we turned up at our allotted time.

When I ordered two martinis for the table there was a terrifying episode when the first waiter couldn’t tell if I was saying two martinis or two ‘martinez’ (a variation on the classic martini recipe). The situation escalated until another waiter was called to assist in the translation but he was equally unable to understand my order. There followed vigorous pointing at the menu and eventually they seemed to understand, although during the time they were making the drink I was on the edge of my seat, terrified that they had made a mistake and that I would have to do the British thing of not mentioning it to them once they had served me. The trials of life!

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Fortunately one of the waiters soon returned to ask me how I would like the martini (sweet or dry? Olive or twist?). The drink arrived 10 minutes later and while I don’t think the gin or glass had been kept in the freezer it was still very cold. They had made the effort to serve a good quality martini.

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It didn’t come with any nibbles but we ordered snails which I have to say were utterly delectable and definitely the highlight of the meal.

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The decor of the restaurant was nice, my pate starter was tasty although the main of trout was a little underwhelming. Nonetheless, I will stick to reviewing the martini which I thought was a good effort. It wasn’t just a drink option the management had put on the menu out of pretension. It was made attentively and with care, despite the stressful ordering process.

In short, I would recommend you drop in for a martini and escargot, but probably eat your main course elsewhere.