It's officially the booziest time of the year once more and almost every week and weekend evening is filled with some kind of pre-Christmas catch up drink with old colleagues, school friends, family- you name it! I for one am always on the hunt for somewhere a bit special when it comes to cocktails and wine. Yes, a good old pub can of course more than hit the spot during the winter months, heck I can't wait to visit one asap to get my fill of mulled wine, but a place serving truly fantastic alcoholic beverages worth spending a little extra for, served in a unique environment is something I will always seek out. Below are three of my favourite recent discoveries that may not be the cheapest but are truly spectacular and worth every penny for the overall experience you get. I can only cheers to that!
Some of you may have already heard or been to the ever expanding 'Grind' coffee empire in London. Starting off with the humble Shoreditch Grind, serving coffee and cocktails by Old Street roundabout, they have quickly expanded into having several locations around East and Central London. But don't be fooled, Grind isn't some basic coffee shop chain, trying to be a hipster Starbucks. Firstly the coffee across the board is fantastic, every cappuccino I have sampled across at least 3 of their outlets amazing and that is not all. Every 'Grind' has a very distinct vibe about it that makes each one rather unique in itself. Shoreditch Grind for example has a slight Brooklyn feel about it with its exposed bricks, metal stools and open plan layout while Holborn Grind feels a lot more office worker and lunch diner friendly with big windows and coffee counter. And then there is of course the newly opened Clerkenwell Grind which is something else all together.
I have to admit I am sucker for a good interior concept and the minute I stepped inside Clerkenwell Grind I fell in love with just about everything inside...Why? As big film lover I have always been obsessed with the exquisite interiors in Wes Anderson's films, his set designs almost a character in themselves, and thus couldn't help but feel like I had walked straight into one of his features. Much like in his fantastic Grand Budapest Hotel the Clerkenwell Grind's interior is a fine marriage of pink hues and marble tones mixed in with flashes of gold and turquoise. Indeed every corner has been so carefully designed that I was even take some snaps of their bathroom with its pastel pink perfection. Maybe it is silly to get this excited about the interior of a cafe but everything about this is just so right and so well considered, starting with a rather provocative pink neon sign that you can't ignore as you walk in, that it adds as much to the overall experience to me than the food and drink served here.
Whether you sit down for a casual coffee, go for a weekend brunch or grab a bite to eat upstairs or head to the art deco dream of a bar downstairs you won't be left disappointed. I am yet to eat here (though I am already dying to go back for the small plates dinner menu) but as real coffee experts I can tell you that they make a rather banging espresso martini here, if not the best in town.
Will I go back?! Well considering that I have told just about every person since going how I have found my dream cafe/bar/Wes Anderson dream come true you bet I will.
There is no denying that my love of films somewhat explains why I loved 7 Tales so much. Why? Well Lost In Translation has always been my number one film of all time and this little basement bar in Clerkenwell, situated under Jason Atherton’s high end Japanese Sosharu restaurant does a pretty good job of transporting you to Tokyo. Walls are plastered with Japanese street signs and manga excerpts, the bar itself is accessed through a traditional Japanese slitted curtain and the whole room has a slightly red glow from an oversized neon sign at the back of the room declaring the motto of the place: 'Drink Sake Stay Soba'. To the soundtrack of the newest and best hip hop around I almost completely forgot I was still in London, so captivating was the overall atmosphere here and I haven't even gotten to the real highlight of my visit yet. In fact 7 Tales not only transports you to a little Tokyo basement without having to leave EC1 but also serves some rather mind blowing drinks.
I went for the Champagne Papi on this occasion (who wouldn't with a name like that and a natural affinity for anything Drake related) which at £15 was probably the most expensive cocktail I've ever order BUT OH MY GOD WAS IT WORTH IT. Indeed this wasn't a mere cocktail, this was a spectacle, a true show of creativity that I couldn't help but be left in awe of. How you may wonder?
Well the Champagne Papi is a fizzing glass of champagne and umeshu (a Japanese plum liqueur) lightly infused with banana and served with a side of ‘vending machine', essentially a token you are given that you are meant to pop into an arcade style venting machine, out from which then pops a Kinder Egg-style pod carrying a Japanese proverb and absinthe-soaked sugar cube presented in a baggy that then is meant to be dissolved in your champagne flute as finishing touch to the drink....I told you this isn't your average cocktail didn't I?
And yes, this could easily have come across as gimmicky and over the top but here everything just somehow works brilliantly- the concept so perfectly executed and the final cocktail now infused with the sugar cube so beautifully flavoured and ultimately delicious that all I could really say after leaving is "Wow". Don't come here to order the house white, don't come here to get wasted, no 7 Tales will take you on an unexpected and rather brilliant Japanese excursion that is worth spending a little more for, offering up cocktails quite unlike anyone else in London right now.
PS order the Champagne Papi. You will live to tell the tale.
69 Colebrooke Row or 'Bar With No Name' as it is also known has a real old school charm about it that in my eyes makes it the most genuine of the 'Speakeasy' style bars that have recently flooded London. Indeed one could easily feel transported back into the prohibition era here and down some dark alleyway in New York's East Villager with this tiny yet impeccably furnished space, all dark wood, leather upholstered antique seats and black and white tiled floors, all complimented by the dim lighting that isn't much more than the candles on the tables. Rather than a Spotify playlist, here a pianist will provide the soundtrack for your evening while the bartenders are not merely bartenders but in their smart white tailored coats become mixologists of the highest calibre, each drink almost like a piece of art they are more than proud to serve you.
If you want a proper cocktail bar that needs no modern gimmicks then this is the place for you - no tricks, no twists- just perfectly executed classic drinks in a sophisticated and grown up environment with a level of service that makes you feel like a royal or indeed a rich Mafiosi type in 1920s New York with wads of cash and the world at their feet. It's also the perfect place for a date, so small inside that one can't help but cosy up to your company but also with drinks so good that if all else fails including the date you are still able to enjoy some stunning cocktails in a bar you won't forget in a hurry.
My favourite cocktail after several visits here has to be the 'Death In Venice', Campari with Grapefruit Bitters topped with Prosecco and an Orange Twist, which served in a simple Flute is the epitome of a refreshing and perfectly mixed drink that you could more than easily drink about 10 of. It's a classic cocktail that is not easy to get right and the same can be said for 69 Colebrooke Row as whole, a real diamond of a cocktail bar that has rightly refused to move with the times, a classic that I hope will remain unchanged for some time to come.
My favourite sweet thing (bar a long standing obsession with Sainsbury's Taste The Difference white chocolate and raspberries cookies) has to be ice cream, in fact there is rarely a hungover Saturday that goes by without me finishing off an entire pint of the good stuff to myself. Of course I've got my tried and tested flavour favourites that never fail to satisfy my craving, ranked in a blog post not too long ago, but as variety is the spice of life I also always keep an eye out for new flavours on my supermarket runs.
Admittedly I may be a bit of a nerd when it comes to finding new ice cream flavours but at least it means that I've been doing the taste testing so that you don't have to, along the way finding some real gems that have seriously challenged the classics (though Haagen-Dazs's salted caramel and Ben & Jerry's sadly discontinued Cinnamon Bun flavour will always take some beating).
Below 5 brand new flavours available at most Tesco's and Sainsbury's and my honest rating out of 5 on them because hey what better time to get stuck into some serious ice cream then when you can hide away under your duvet, put on a Christmas movie and pretend it's not miserable and cold outside! Have you tried any of these and if you have what are your verdicts?
BEN & JERRY'S ONE SWEET WORLD
COFFEE CARAMEL ICE CREAM WITH MARSHMALLOW AND SALTED CARAMEL SWIRLS & CHOCOLATEY CHUNKS
Despite being somewhat of coffee addict in everyday life I was pretty sceptical about this flavour before I dug in, not usually keen at all on coffee flavoured ice creams or desserts as a whole, not even an amazing tiramisu or coffee cake able to get me excited. One Sweet World however changed everything. It may sound like there is a lot going on flavour-wise - coffee caramel ice cream combined with the most lavish and pillowy of marshmallow swirls, dark chocolate chunks and a decadent salted caramel swirl to finish it all off, but it all somehow works incredibly well together! The caramel is more of a background flavour in both the ice cream, which does mainly taste like coffee, and in the barely there but still appreciated salted caramel swirl. This ice cream indeed is all about the stunning combo of the ice cream with the marshmallow swirl which has an almost whipped cream like quality to it, it all broken up in its sweetness by the delicious chocolate chunks. Buy this now before Ben & Jerry's decides to discontinue another all time great. I will be stocking up my freezer.
JUDE'S BROWN BUTTER PECAN
DAIRY ICE CREAM WITH SWIRLS OF CARAMEL AND PECAN NUTS
I may usually stick to my B&J and Haagen-Dazs when it comes to ice cream (supermarket own brands and those disappointing carte d'or numbers generally a big no no in my eyes) but will of course occasionally give smaller, more artisanal brands a chance if I spot them down the frozen isle. Jude's is a independent British ice cream maker that has only been around since 2002 but has firmly established themselves in the market, slowly but surely expanding their range. Though I had previously been left rather disappointed by their salted caramel flavour I was more than intrigued by their Brown Pecan Butter flavour, particularly after stumbling across some rave reviews online. And indeed this was a rather pleasant surprise. Yes, it wasn't the best ice cream I've ever tasted but it's luxurious yet light texture and more delicate flavours gave it a real point of difference to the big boys in the ice cream business. This isn't about cramming as many flavours and textures into a pint as possible, no this ice cream shows real craft, quality and freshness that made it a delight to eat (and way less richer too) compared to my usual choices. In terms of flavour this is probably the closest you will ever get to eating a Wether's Original in ice cream form which in my eyes is a pretty dreamy thing. Give this ice cream a go on the occasions when you fancy something a little less full on and more grown up, you won't be disappointed.
BEN & JERRY'S WHOLLY COUCH
VANILLA ICE CREAM WITH CARAMLISED PECANS. BLONDIE BROWNIES & A SALTED CARAMEL SWIRL
This flavour had a lot of potential on paper and saw me seek out a big Tesco near me especially to get my hands on a pint, it for now exclusively stocked there. Sadly however Wholly Couch turned out to be a perfectly passable but far from memorable ice cream. Maybe this was because I am used to a more powerful base than vanilla when it comes Ben & Jerry's, maybe because the blondie pieces were few and far between or maybe because the salted caramel swirl on its own, without the aid of other strong flavours like in One Sweet World, wasn't quite of the standard that Haagen-Dazs presents us with. It's a real shame as this ice cream does have everything in it that I love and I even went on to buy and eat a few more pints thinking I had gotten a dodgy batch but sadly they all tasted pretty much the same. As I said this flavour is far from terrible and definitely worth a try if you spot it but it's also a missed opportunity to create another truly memorable flavour!
BEN & JERRY'S SOFA SO GOOD
CARAMEL ICE CREAM WITH CHOCOLATE BROWNIES, CHOCOLATE COOKIES & SALTED CARAMEL SWIRL
Now to keep these reviews honest I should probably admit now that I am not a big fan of anything to chocolatey. Sounds weird I know and I love anything to do with white chocolate, which I guess isn't really chocolate at all to purist, and caramel but when it comes to brownies, fudge cake and the like I would rather pass, which considering the main components of this ice cream being brownies and chocolate cookies made me rather predisposed to not like it. I did have hopes however that when combined with the B&J's caramel ice cream I loved so much in Karamel Sutra and with an extra bit of caramel swirl I would somehow change my mind. Unfortunately for me the whole pint was dotted with huge chunks of brownie that completely overwhelmed all other flavours while the bits of cookies added an almost savoury cocoa note that just didn't work for me with the other ingredients. Ultimately I ended up picking at the caramel ice cream while searching for a caramel swirl that was barely there and pretty much leaving the rest on the side. Not one to keep in the range when we could all be having B&J's Cinnamon Bun flavour!
HAAGEN-DAZS HONEY WALNUT & CREAM
An honourable mention also goes to Haagen Dasz's new Honey & Walnut flavour. It's a very sophisticated and subtle flavour combo that doesn't quite measure up to their Pralines & Cream or Salted Caramel variations but is definitely one worth trying for all nut lovers that don't like it to sweet!
As any regular reader of this blog will know I absolutely adore anything Middle Eastern when it comes to food, particularly fond of the mezze dishes that form such an integral part of the cooking in this region. In fact all of my favourite London dining spots serve this cuisine in some way, shape or form though of course focusing on different countries within this geographical area and adhering to varying degrees of traditional cooking methods and types of ingredients used.
That includes Israeli influenced Honey & Co, Morito on Hackney Road where Spanish tapas is fused with mezze to wondrous results and last but not least Haggerston based Berber & Q which on my various visits there has never failed to impress me with it's finely executed Middle Eastern fare, served up with a hip and slightly Brooklynite touch that shines through in it's modern approach to cooking, successfully pushing flavour boundaries without loosing the essence of what makes Middle Eastern cooking so great.
I was thus more than a little excited to hear that Berber was opening a new off-shot in the picturesque surroundings of Exmouth Market, a rather romantic pedestrianised street a stones throw away from Angel, lined with a fine selection of cosy looking restaurants that are ideal for a more relaxed and serene eating experience, away from the cocktails bars of Shoreditch and chain restaurants rammed with tourists in Soho.
At first glance the Shawarma bar may not have seemed the most obvious of dining options for a none meat eater like me- a whole section on the menu after all devoted to shawarma which is bluntly put a meat of your choosing spit roasted with not much else on the side. But veggies despair not- though shawarma may be the menu item the bar is named after, I can assure you it, at least in my eyes, isn't the star of the show here. No, where the Shawarma bar really stands out for me is with it's stunning array of mezze dishes that also happen to be a real steal.
Why? Well for a mere £22.5 you get to pick 5 of their near perfect vegetarian mezze dishes offered here which with an additional side of the infamous Berber & Q cauliflower shawarma, making a much appreciated guest appearance here, and the delicious fluffy toasted chollah, flown in daily from Israel, resulted in quite the impressive small plate feast being served up at our table. In fact where small plate dining can very quickly turn very pricey in London, at the Shawarma bar we were left stunned by how much food materialised in front of us at such a decent price.
From their smooth hummus that ranks in my top 3 ever, to the creamy yet tangy labneh served with pistachio and dill and the deeply rich blackened aubergine with chilli and anchovy- this truly was food to blow your mind and tantalise your taste buds, leaving me and and my dining companion in near silence as we mopped up the last juices to make sure not to miss out on even the smallest of morsels left on our plates. Other highlights included a sweet yet tangy beetroot salatim (a sort of cold shredded salad) that came served with walnut and orange and the so simple sounding yet oh so wonderful and strangely complex flavour combination of za'tar roasted tomatoes and creme fraiche.
In fact as you may be able to tell by now all five of the dishes we chose were stars of the bloody show because not one failed to deliver in it's flavour, no gap fillers or dishes to pad out the menu - no, from start to finish this was truly exceptional food for just under £17 a head without wine but with service included. We left stuffed and unable to shut up about just how good our dinner here had been. This isn't fine dining- of course you can't reserve, food comes out quick and service can feel a little brisk, but that didn't stop me from absolutely adoring it here. Indeed I even favoured the slightly less "hip" vibe here compared to it's sister restaurant, simple chairs and tables in this narrow dining room a little less forced than the copper, exposed brick and long communal benches so prevalent at Berber & Q.
Putting interior preferences aside though, what it really boils down to for me is the Shawarma bar's effortless ability to serve truly outstanding Middle Eastern food at a value for money you rarely ever get to experience at this level of cooking in London. To me this place is a real culinary treasure that I hope will elude guide books and tourists for a while to come. I will be back and if you like mezze even just a little bit you better be on your way there now. You won't regret it.