Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Zetter Townhouse, Social and Cocktail review

Sometimes you have to do things a little bit strange to stand out from the crowd.  There are a few strange things (think stuffed cats with sun parasols) in The Zetter Townhouse but they aren’t needed to make it stand out from the crowd; the drinks alone make it one of my favourite places to drink. The Zetter Townhouse London

For quite some time 69 Colebrooke Row has been leading the way for bartenders across London.  The creativity of co-owner Tony Conigliaro and his passion for finding new techniques (69 Colebrooke Row houses its own laboratory upstairs) has changed the way bartenders think of adding flavours to drinks. Without sounding like the opening lines to an episode of ‘This is Your Life’, Tony really is a pioneer in the drinks industry and one of its most respected figures.  Alongside his business partner Camille Hobby-Limon he has made 69 Colebrooke Row a bar that is all about the drinks.  If you haven’t been and you find yourself in London, I urge you to look it up.

When I found out last year that Tony and Camille were involved in a project alongside Bruno Loubet to open a cocktail lounge at the Zetter Townhouse (an offshoot from the Zetter Hotel), I was unsure what to expect other than great cocktails. I was fortunate enough to be invited along with The London Cocktail Society to one of its launch nights to get a sneak preview when it first opened. While the décor of the two venues is a million miles apart it is evident that the cocktail lists share the same creators. Homemade syrups, cordials and tinctures are added to 3 or 4 ingredient cocktails.  It’s great to see a cocktail list that isn’t over-complicated where the ingredients speak for themselves. While the cocktail list does change, most of the cocktails I tried on my first visit are still on the list today suggesting an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality.

Décor wise, be prepared for the unexpected. It’s unashamedly Victoriana. Wing back chairs, curiosities including stuffed kangaroos and cats with sun parasols and a table tennis table in the basement all help to make the Zetter Townhouse unlike anywhere else. The Zetter claims to feel like the private residence of a most beloved, eccentric and indulgent aunt.  It certainly does and more to the point she’s an aunt who I’d like to have a drink with because she clearly has some stories to tell based on the items she’s picked up on her travels.

A year after opening, the Zetter feels as individual as it did when it first opened its doors.The service you receive is as you’d expect from the people behind it. Booking is advisable but whether you’ve phoned in advance or not you will be welcomed with a friendly smile by somebody at the door waiting to greet you; it really is like walking into someone’s house. There are some great tables, particularly in front of the fireplace where you can really get comfy for an entire evening of cocktails. Food is available in the form of nibbles and small eats and I would highly recommend them.  The Scotch egg stands out as snack I always tend to order.

Drinks wise, it’s important to remember that it is a cocktail lounge.Wine and bottled beers are available but you’d be a fool not to reach for the cocktail list. The list itself is not huge, only around twelve cocktails but each and every one has been perfected. In my personal opinion, the Pine Needle Gimlet currently on the menu is one of the best drinks I have ever tasted. It is nothing more exotic than a Beefeater Gin Gimlet with home-made pine cordial. On paper its simple, in the glass it’s perfection, perfectly balanced with a totally unique flavour. It’s hellishly cliché to say but it’s like sipping gin in the middle of a forest after a spring rain shower (that’s enough of the cheesy metaphors!). The rest of the list is pretty special too and accommodates most tastes; The Twinkle (Vodka, elderflower cordial and champagne) and the Pomegranate Kir Royal for the sweet tooth, the Somerset Sour (somerset cider brandy, lemon juice, sugar and Breton cider) and The Treaty of 1854 (Kigo, Yuzo juice, lemon juice, sugar and still water) for the sour fans. For the rum lovers, the Master at Arms is one to enjoy. Myers Rum, a port evaporation and homemade grenadine, it seems to be one of the favourite cocktails on the list and for good reason, it’s a Tony C special (only a few ingredients but perfectly balanced).

The bartenders are all professionals so all have great cocktail knowledge. If you want something that isn’t on the list, they will happily make it (as long as they have the ingredients). The waiting staff are all friendly and willing to help as well.  They don’t just ask the obligatory ‘what do you normally drink’ question, they actually take the time to find out what your tastes are. If they can’t help, the bartenders are always prepared to get involved and create something for you. Some bartenders tend to turn their nose up at you if you order a certain drink, but in the Zetter they embrace individuality and don’t seem to judge a man by his cocktail.

Price wise, the Zetter isn’t the most expensive bar in London but you will be paying around £8.50 for a cocktail. That may sound like a lot but you are actually getting an all-round experience as opposed to a half-hearted drink and a stag party for company. The Zetter Townhouse is the sort of place that you could use for a whole host of reasons. I wouldn’t recommend it for a lads night out but you would most certainly impress a date if you took them there. Similarly if you just need a bit of an indulgence with a few friends the Zetter could be just the place to escape the hustle and bustle of London life.

Friday, 6 May 2011

New quirky splendour: The cocktail lounge at the Zetter Townhouse

The light-blue front door leads straight into the cocktail lounge, where designer Russell Sage has taken no prisoners. Miss Havisham meets Ms Westwood. Over a bottle of absinthe.

One long room is bar (which does good snacks such as courgette fritters, roast head of garlic, charcuterie), hotel lounge and breakfast room. Framed needlepoint, velvet couches, polished oak, a stag's head, stuffed birds in a Victorian glass case, and – a triumph of taxidermy this – a parasol-wielding cat in a crinoline.

The bar is fashioned as an apothecary's dispensary. Staff wear rustic cotton jackets and neckerchiefs. Any minute now, surely, they will burst into a well-loved tune from Oliver!

A trip to the basement games room (3D TV, Wii, table tennis) reveals a glimpse of 16th-century priory wall.

The decor at Townhouse embodies a ‘more is more’ philosophy. Every square inch of surface area is occupied by something lovely, as if a couple of eccentric collectors moved from a country manse and felt compelled to fit all their possessions into two rooms.

The result: one of the most beautiful bars in London, and certainly the most unusual-looking. We’d come here for that alone, but the cocktail list is of fittingly high quality – not surprising, since it was devised by Tony Conigliaro (of 69 Colebrooke Row).

Even though Conigliaro is known as a techno-wizard, the original drinks here are fairly simple and restrained. And wonderful. Among the house cocktails, check out the Köln martini, the Somerset sour, and the jasmine tea gimlet.

Service is friendly and helpful.

For four to six people, the table to the right of the front door (two comfortable, mismatched sofas) is heaven.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Let Smithfield start the urban village revolution

If you're looking for London's liveliest urban village, it's hard to beat the streets around Smithfield Market, full of cafés, bars, pubs, pie shops and sushi bars. It's come to life, like Covent Garden before it, through natural regeneration. The only thing holding it back are the boarded-up Victorian market buildings at the western end, left to moulder for 12 years.

And who's to blame? The City Corporation, which built them. They were designed by the City's own surveyor, Sir Horace Jones, who gave Tower Bridge its lifting arms. He liked lively architecture, and at Smithfield Market there are cleverly turned corners, bulls' eye dormer windows and a charming fretted canopy over the street linking the old General Market with the Fish Market, where boys sit on dolphins above the doors.

The interiors are a still bigger treat, with cast-iron columns and glass roofs supported on flying ribs. This could be our answer to Milan's Galleria, with almost as many places to eat and shop as there were market stalls.

Plans to replace all this with a £250million office block were resoundingly refused following a hard-fought public inquiry. London's leading market entrepreneur, Eric Reynolds, has a £20million refurbishment plan at the ready. Reynolds is the man behind Camden Lock and other markets such as Gabriel's Wharf and Spitalfields.

Recently he's signed an agreement to take up all the unused space in the Shell Centre at Waterloo. He says: "They don't want hoardings. They want public access and lots of small businesses and employment opportunities. We hope to get planning permission in June."

Ian Lerner, the leading property agent in Smithfield, says: "The empty market buildings would fill up immediately. There's no prospect of major building work until at least 2016 as Crossrail is in the basements at work on tunnels for the new line."

Henderson Global Investors, the new owner, could cover itself in glory with London's liveliest new venue in the Olympics year. The firm has let just two units since it took over six months ago. All politicians, planners and developers have to do is to let it happen.

Battersea Power Station has been in a similar Catch-22 situation for 30 years. Successive owners have concentrated on getting ever-more-valuable planning permissions on the 35 surrounding acres. Then, instead of starting work, they just sell it on.

Yet when the previous Chinese owners put on a big art and photographic exhibit in the Power Station there were queues thousands of yards long over several days. The riverfront, with the great column chimneys, is potentially the best outdoor stage in London. It could be a fantastic venue for concerts, product launches, fashion shows.

Let's celebrate Olympic year by pulling down the hoardings around blighted building sites. It's insufferable that places such as Middlesex Hospital in Marylebone should be no better than Second World War bombsites. There's a huge hole in the ground at Aldgate and acres of barren land around Bishopsgate goods yard, where railway arches were demolished, driving out small businesses.

But the place to get the urban village revolution moving is Smithfield. Leaving it empty when others would rush in to take space is just selfish.