Organised religion is a mass of contradictions. Ostensibly about peace, love and brotherhood, it is also a justification for war, killing thy neighbour and stoning people you don’t like. The priesthood reflects the contradictions. Religious clerics are a mixed bag of the selfless, the charming, the boringly righteous, the political opportunists, the odd child molester, and people wanted for questioning by the CIA.
Growing up in Sri Lanka we practised a cafeteria style approach to Buddhism, picking and choosing the bits we liked and blithely ignoring the inconvenient. We dislike killing animals (it is banned), but rather like eating meat. So the country has Muslim and Christian butchers. Goats run scared because unlike pork or beef, its meat is not banned by any religion and can be happily served to Hindu, Jewish and Muslim guests.
Christians are great – they eat everything, unless they are from California in which case you have to convince them that everything is organic. I did make a fish curry recently for some Californian friends who worried that the fish I chose was not organically raised. One woman worried that it may have been contaminated by swimming in sewage infected waters. I told her not to worry, pointing out that sewage is organic. Somebody kicked me under the table.
I was gazing at a rather interesting wire frame image of the Buddha whilst sipping a cocktail at the newly reincarnated Buddha Bar in London. Naming a bar after a religious figure is a risky proposition. Pick the wrong religion and you could have a fatwa on your hands. Fortunately, Buddhists are a patient lot – they’ll probably wait and get you in the next life.
The Buddha Bar concept was kicked off in Paris in 1996 by Claude Challe, a one time rabbinical scholar turned hairdresser. It offers a seductive mix of cutting edge world/ambient music, creative cocktails, Asian fusion cuisine and beautiful people. Some years later the concept was franchised and went global. The London branch was a victim of bad timing and lasted just 18 months before closing down in May 2010.
I have a soft spot for the old Buddha Bar in London, having spent a fun evening there with some accountant friends (yup, they do let their hair down sometimes, if they have any) on its last night. Once we left, others from their firm came in at dawn, bolted the doors and shut the place down! Back then it was located on the embankment, a few doors down from the Walkabout, where antipodeans go to drink cheap beer and meet cheaper dates. The reincarnated Buddha Bar is in a posher location in Knightsbridge across from the luxury development at One Hyde Park, where the apartments retail for between £20 and £140 million (US $ 31m-190m).
While the location is posh, Buddhists would argue that it has bad karma. Many restaurants have come and gone from this venue, the Chicago Rib Shack being the last.
There is a bar upstairs and a large restaurant space in the basement for 240 covers. It is an open space decorated with a vaguely Asian motif. The aforesaid Buddha wireframe dominates, throwing interesting shadows. The floors and ceilings are in dark wood, while the chairs are upholstered in oriental fabrics. Asian woodcuts separate the dining areas.
I like the room, but it felt like a transplant from another era. I guess this happens with reincarnation sometimes. What was edgy once seems slightly dated and cliched now. The music is still good, but not that special anymore. The cocktails have intriguing Asian ingredients, but others do the same thing now. The nearby Mandarin Bar at the Mandarin Oriental hotel does Asian inspired cocktails rather well.
The menu at the Buddha Bar is pricey – £28 (US $50) on average for a main course reflects a pre-Lehman pricing strategy. £75 (US $ 120) for the cheapest bottle of sake is plain bonkers. Thankfully the wine list is more accessible.
The Buddha Bar cocktails are good and not unreasonably priced at £10.50. I tried a Ying Coco Yang. Made with coconut cream, fresh lime juice and chilli infused gin, it was an interesting take on a piña colada with the chilli punch nicely counterbalancing the sweetness of the coconut cream. The So Be @ Miami was light and refreshing, made with fresh mint, grapefruit, vanilla sugar and teo infused gin. It was reminiscent of a longer, lighter version of a mojito made with gin instead of rum, with some citrus highlights. It looked fabulous! The Manhattan made with Japanese whisky, umeshu and plum bitters was less successful. I had an intriguing version of this drink at Bugsy’s in Prague a few weeks ago (see 40 minutes, a large cigar and an Arabian adulteress) The proportions and the ingredients in the Buddha Bar version didn’t quite work – the whisky flavours dominated and burned without being mellowed by the other ingredients.
The Buddha Bar had been open less than a week when I visited. There were rough edges still being worked out, service being one of them. It’s in a good location for a post retail cocktail; Harvey Nichols and Harrod’s are around the corner. The music is good, as are the cocktails. Can it avoid the life and death samsara cycle that affected other restaurants at this address? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s time for a prayer.
The Buddha Bar in Paris is still a fine venue. For a different take on the ambient sound and fine cocktails experience I like the Hotel Costes in Paris. Apart from a groovy sound track you have the advantage of being able to roll into bed should the cocktailing leave you unsteady on your feet. The rooms at the Costes are very nice.