Time was when a restaurant bar was a place to have a drink while you waited for your mates to show up, or for your table to become available. These days however, several restaurant bars have become destinations in their own right. I love the basement vibe and cocktails at the bar at Hawksmoor Seven Dials, the subterranean steak house in Covent Garden. The bar at Hakkasan Mayfair is great for people watching and Chinese nibbles. My current favourite restaurant bar and certainly one of the hippest is Mark’s Bar at Hix Oyster and Chophouse in Soho.
The restaurant itself is on my recommended list, big and bustling with art by Damien Hirst and an edgy take on traditional British cuisine. Mark Hix used to be the chef director of Caprice Holdings (including the Ivy) and in addition to Hix Soho his current empire includes restaurants in Farringdon and Dorset.
I went to Mark’s Bar recently with some good friends who provide financing for businesses in Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs). These worthies included Gummy Bear (so called for his fetish for a green gummy bear in yellow Y-fronts featuring in the Gummy Bear video), the Cat Woman (a feline creature surrounded by cats) and the Bombay Roller. I naively thought a Bombay roll referred to a savoury snack until I checked out the Urban Dictionary. Look it up if you must.
Mark’s Bar is in the basement of Hix’s restaurant and is decorated in the inter-war style that is hip in London these days. A low zinc bar dominates one side of the room with smoky mirrors, tin ceilings, art deco lamps, arty prints and comfortable Chesterfield’s completing the look. This is an easy going place, heavy on style and light on attitude. It’s a place where you feel instantly comfortable. The best bars always are.
The cocktails at Mark’s were created by Nick Strangeways who also developed cocktails for Cecconi’s and Hawksmoor. We started with some light fun drinks including Mark’s Blunder made with a home made Somerset apple aperitif mixed with Aperol and lengthened with sparkling wine; a delightfully refreshing apple flavoured take on an Aperol Spritz. Aperol is an Italian orange liqueur with about half the alcoholic strength of Campari. The Bombay Roller ordered a porn star martini off menu. I’d never actually had one before – in a glass or in the flesh for that matter. Mark’s version is good; the passion fruit is fresh, the hint of vanilla in the vodka and the bite of fresh lime balanced perfectly with a hint of bitters which gave the drink a sophistication belying its name.
We moved the drinks up a notch in sophistication and potency. The Hanky Panky is done particularly well here. Legend has it that Ada Coleman, the second head bar tender at the Savoy Hotel was asked by the actor Charles Hawtrey to make a drink with a “bit of punch”. Her concoction, made after hours of experimentation drew the appreciative comment, “by jove, that’s the real hanky panky!” This is a classic cocktail made on a base of Beefeater 24 gin, Antica Formula red vermouth and Fernet Branca, finished with a bit of orange zest. Fernet Branca is an acquired taste but has legendary curative properties. Its ingredients are rumoured to include coca leaf, wormwood and codeine. Its taste has been likened to licorice flavoured listerine. The Hanky Panky is served in a small chilled metal cup. The rest of the drink is kept ice cold in a small carafe buried in ice. The long chill notes of the gin is given a slightly bitter, earthy complexity by the Fernet Branca. The orange zest leaves a citrus tang on the palate.
Keen to test a brown alcohol based drink I also tried The Avenue, a drink created at the Cafe Royal in London and served through the Art Noveau era of the 1890s right through to the high point of Art Deco in the 1930s. It consists of Four Roses bourbon, Somerset Cider Brandy (apparently brewed since 1678), homemade grenadine, passion fruit nectar and a dash of orange blossom water. The sharpness of the passion fruit made a nice counterpoint to the warm mellow, slightly sweeter flavours of the brandy and bourbon.
These are potent cocktails and we needed sustenance. Looking for a change of scenery we moved to Wright Brothers Soho Oyster House. Wright Brothers is a modest, casual restaurant with some of the freshest seafood in London. The oysters, shellfish, and “day boat fish” (caught by small boats during short day time fishing expeditions) they serve here are exceptional. I usually like to start with a British craft vodka or gin martini (Sipsmith vodka and No.3 gin are house brands here) followed by a made to order platter of fruits de mer. I’ve also tried their oyster and wine pairings which are unique – although making for a slightly befuddling menu.
Towards the end of the evening we were abruptly reminded that we live in a large city when one of our party had her purse stolen. Fortunately, nothing irreplaceable went missing, but she had lost the keys to her flat. In the best tradition of soused chivalry, Gummy Bear and I decided to sort the situation out for her.
There is always a strange gin-soaked quality to the wee hours. It brings out the best and the worst in people. Everything seemed to move in slow motion as my arm arced through the night, releasing a stone at a strange man’s window. He was a drummer in a rock and roll band. Fifty something with a beard and pony tail, he was apparently from Iran and spoke no English. We finally communicate that our friend had lost her purse and couldn’t get into her flat which was across the hallway from his. He makes contact with his Iranian friend, who was also her landlord and passes us the phone. It was on speaker. “Hello, if I help you will you be nice to me….” he asks the girl who’d lost her purse. Her voice is flat, her tone cold and non-committal “I’m always nice to you, ” she says. Twenty minutes later, Iranian lover boy screams up in his car. It’s after 2 AM but he is freshly shaved and in a suit. His crisply pressed shirt is unbuttoned to his midriff exposing a hairy chest and several gold medallions. A heady cloud of perfume hangs about him. He is ready for action. Our man is crestfallen when he discovers that his damsel in distress has company. Spare keys are handed over and the Persian love machine zoomed off in search of more action.
I went home and mixed myself another martini.