Rarely do I eat twice at the same restaurant in one week. I was happy to make an exception recently for Roast, the superb British food emporium in London’s Borough Market. I ate there one Sunday evening with family and then spent a louche Friday afternoon lunching with my friend, the Irish Media Svengali.
The restaurant boasts a cool urban view. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral looms large, bisected by a railway bridge. Nearby are statues of larger than life sized cows mounted on a roof. One red painted bovine has a sign on its flank which reads “love me”. This is not a new age Hindu temple, however. To prevent any confusion another cow has the word STEAK boldly emblazoned on its side; it’s all a tableau for the neighboring Black and Blue steak house.
At night the art work at Roast is thrown into sharp relief (currently a rather disturbing photo exhibit of castrated men by Shekhar Bhatia ). During daylight hours one is overwhelmed by the hubbub of Borough Market. A market has stood here since the 11th century although the current buildings date from the 1850s. It remains Britain’s pre-eminent wholesale food market and it’s retail market has become a huge draw for foodies.
Roast specializes in carefully sourced British meats and game – and some exceptional British intoxicants. We started one meal with British bubbly from Chapel Down in Kent. Together with Nyetimber (in Sussex), Chapel Down has been creating some rather exceptional sparkling wines. Both brands are based in Southern England where the chalky soil and weather is very similar to the Champagne region in France. Nyetimber’s British bubbly is favoured by the current German representatives of the House of Windsor, although Kate and William quaffed from the rival Chapel Down Estate at their wedding. The wine makers at Chapel Down make a special blend of bubbly for Roast. The Roast Chapter II NV we drank had a complex array of fruit flavours and a nice smooth finish. Pity the pricing puts it in the same league as the better French champagnes – one suspects that it gets consumed more for curiosity value than for flavour.
I stayed with a British drinking theme for the next meal and ordered a Hendrick’s cucumber martini. Hendrick’s is a venerable British gin; one of the pot stills they use famously dates from the 1860s. Hendricks is infused with cucumber and rose petal, making it particularly tasty in a cucumber martini. It comes in a marvelous black flagon for those who like to drink at home.
Cucumber martinis gained popularity in the early years of the 21st century, possibly as an antidote to the increasingly sweet and fruity martini concoctions hitting the bars. A cucumber martini is a halfway house between the savory tanginess of a traditional martini (particularly if drunk with olives) and the sweetness of say, an espresso martini. The gin is typically muddled with some fresh cucumber and sugar. Some steep the cucumber in the gin overnight and filter it. Personally, I like to see a little cloudiness in the gin from the muddled cucumber and inhale the scent of the fresh gourd. It is usually served with a slice of cucumber.
I first tasted a cucumber martini at Beach Blanket Babylon with my most glamorous friend, the Notting Hill PR. The dot com boom had gone spectacularly bust and my Notting Hill based media business was struggling. We had a decent mailing list and good traffic to our website so we frequently bartered advertising space for goods and services. One of my more enterprising sales lads struck a barter deal which provided us with free drinks every Friday afternoon at Beach Blanket Babylon. It turned out he also managed to get it on with our rather comely waitress, although I am not sure whether she was part of the original barter transaction! She made generous tips.
The original BBB in Notting Hill suffered through a period of neglect and the building began to literally fall apart. When bus loads of Eastern European tourists started arriving on a regular basis, the writing was on the wall for a bar once frequented by the likes of Madonna. Latterly its fortunes have revived. The space has been dressed up again in its inimitable dungeon meets Gaudi decor. It’s attracting a cool crowd once more. Its east end extension in Shoreditch is a gathering place for hipsters and fashionistas. The Shoreditch location in particular has been garnering favourable reviews from bloggers like VTravelled and Click Tonight. Both bars continue to serve decent cocktails although the waiting staff appear to have been hired for their looks and not their competence – your drink is likely to be served with a dollop of attitude. I don’t know what happened to our comely waitress. My enterprising sales lad has become very successful and continues to make creative deals.