Stirring Stories

Martinis and the Romance of Outdoor Dining

She was waiting for me at the bar. Leather trousers. Long boots. Perfectly coiffed. Hairdressers and nail salons opened for business today. I had a shrewd idea how she’d spent the morning. I had designs on her afternoon, but first there was lunch.

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I ordered a couple of martinis. Very dry. The bartender scanned the shelf behind him and selected a bottle of Konik’s Tail vodka, glancing at me for approval. Good man – he recalled my preference even though I hadn’t been here in months.  Two large measures of the silver liquid were theatrically poured into a tall mixing glass filled with ice. He glanced regretfully at the bottle of vermouth and set the ice rotating with a long silver spoon. Stirring slowly, he judged the perfect moment when the drink was cold, but not overly diluted by melting ice. I watched admiringly as he strained the elixir into chilled martini glasses and squeezed lemon oils onto the surface, wiping lemon peel on the rims of the glasses with a flourish.

We clinked glasses and I inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of fresh lemon and sunshine. The martini was good – cold, crisp and very dry.

We were celebrating the limited (outdoor dining only) re-opening of London restaurants at the rooftop restaurant in a private member’s club. The restaurant is a glass pavillion with retracting glass panels. Outside, pretty young things are giving their bikinis a spring outing in a heated swimming pool. Young men circle the pool with intent, clutching bottles of champagne. Spring is in the air. The sap is rising.

The food is unspectacular, but reliably good, and reassuringly expensive. In fact it is about 20% more expensive since I was last here – everyone appears to have raised their prices in response to the lockdown.

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Outdoor dining at Wright Brothers by the Battersea Power Station in London

Down at street level eating outdoors is a crapshoot, the British spring being notoriously fickle.

The skies opened while I was dining at Kanishka, Atul Kochhar’s Michelin starred Indian restaurant in Mayfair. There’s room for about eight diners on the narrow pavement outside the restaurant. But Kochhar had cleverly commandeered the pavement across the road to accommodate more diners. We watched waiters moving tables across the road in the driving rain and set up umbrellas that covered about two thirds of each table. Our table cloth was sopping wet. The food was exceptional – the goat curry a thing of beauty. We ate fast. Everything gets cold when it’s two degrees Celsius outside. Complimentary glasses of champagne appeared together with an apology for the circumstances. We expansively waved away the apology (though not the champagne). I’ve lived in this country long enough to recognise that Brits instinctively believe that no experience is authentic unless it’s a bit crap. This was exceptional.

Over at Coworth Park in Ascot the waiters were better prepared. Our martinis arrived with blankets and hot water bottles. Dinner was vaguely discomfiting – I spent it wondering whether the warm sensation in my lap was caused by the hot water bottle or because I had just wet myself.

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The menu at Al Hamra London

Al Hamra in Shepherd’s Market in Mayfair has proper outdoor heaters on both sides of the tables, enveloping diners in a welcome blast of warm air. My Iraqi dining companion rates Al Hamra as one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in London. Sadly they were out of lamb testicles, the speciality of the house. Apparently their nut supplier had been furloughed. Most of the street walkers of Shepherd’s Market appear to have been similarly furloughed – but the brothel on Shepherd Street was still open for business. The sign said “models upstairs”, and the red light in the windows cast a warm glow onto the damp street below.  These are hard working girls.

We are slowly emerging from the winter of our discontent. Many of you will have been vaccinated. I’ve been jabbed and have stopped washing my hands. I know that we have different risk thresholds and different health issues. When you are ready – get out there and support our restauranteurs. Many haven’t survived the lockdown, and those that have are relying on us for survival. Let’s make it happen! Happy spring!

2021-05-05T21:36:51+00:00May 5th, 2021|