Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Refinery Bar, Bankside

According to Wikipedia, déjà vu is the feeling that one has previously witnessed or experienced a new situation, which is what I felt when I stopped by The Anthologist bar in Gresham Street to catch up with Pinstripe and the Detective.
And not just because my so-called friends didn’t shown up. The reason became clear when I visited the Refinery Bar in Bankside later that day.

For those of you who never venture south of the river, Bankside is the former no man's land that sits behind the Tate Modern and runs from Borough Market in the East to Blackfriars to the West. The old warehouses and theatres along Southwark Street have been joined by cafes, restaurants and retail shops which are mostly concentrated around three modern office behemoths imaginatively dubbed the Bankside Three. Tucked in at ground floor level of Bankside One is The Refinery Bar.

The Refinery screams of a marketing plan that aspires to be ‘edgy’. Wooden floors, exposed pipes, Chinese-style screens, padded booths, chalkboards, chandeliers, oversized light bulbs, leather sofas, glass staircases and marble bathrooms. It even has a DJ and decks from Thursday night onwards. All of these ingredients, plus the fact that it has very good outside space, makes the Refinery very popular. The wine selection is broad in terms of region, grape and price point. The food is drawn from a comprehensive menu that includes flatbreads, burgers, salads, and your classic pub-grub staples. The staff are friendly, mostly Antipodeans, and enthusiastic. And the punters are not as stiff as your typical City crowd, nor as pretentious as the nearby Bermondsey cool set.
However The Refinery feels like a bar that wants to be a funky independent in Shoreditch but settled for being in an office block south of the river. The fittings, good looking as they are have an All Bar One feel to them in that they are clean to a fault and contrived. For example, the mismatched furniture is by design rather then necessity. The bar as a whole lacks character. The same can’t be said for the staff, however, despite their charm they can be inefficient bordering on disinterested. Many times I have seen punters front of queue while the staff merrily ignore them, or congregate around one corner of what is a very long bar.
The déjà vu experience is of course down to the fact that the Refinery Bar is part of a new chain which features the aforementioned Anthologist bar and also The Parlour in Canary Wharf, which I have yet to visit. Although, given the déjà vu feeling triggered by the two venues that I have seen, I think I know what to expect.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Luxe, Smithfield Market

"It doesn’t get any better then this!" shouts TV Chef and entrepreneur John Torode on the Masterchef television show.
But is he referring to his landmark bar/restaurant - the now legendary Smiths of Smithfields (SOS) - or the relative newcomer that is the Luxe in Spitalfieds?
What was once a Grade II-listed flower market building is now The Luxe with high windows, framed in ornate wrought iron, and an exterior that is reminiscent of a Victorian era birdcage (albeit on a much grander scale). Inside, the Luxe has a bar on ground level, a restaurant on the first floor, private dining area on the top floor, and a basement bar/club area which seems to be permanently hired out for parties when I visit. Clearly not everyone was hit by the credit crunch.
The bar itself is all black, brown and grey, with a low seating space and stainless steel tables on the perimeter, and standing room around the bar itself. Come 8pm, and the '80s soundtrack is pushed aside as the now de rigeur check-shirted DJ cranks up some tunes making the place almost club-like in ambiance. (Except, of course, there is a high propensity of men in suits who seem to career between foot-tapping and stumbling.) Fun, sure, but hardly cutting edge.
The drinks menu is as extensive as everywhere nowadays, with a broad selection of fair-to-expensively priced wines, and European beers that border on the upmarket without being pretentious. They do have a decent cocktail list, but given that the bar seems relatively understaffed in proportion to the number of punters (I’m not sure that three people is ever enough in a bar of this size), you do have to wait. But the caipirinhas are certainly worth it.
I haven’t eaten at The Luxe, but two of my drinking crew swear by the weekend brunch, which apparently is a meat fest that makes a hangover worthwhile.
The staff are charming and efficient, although not exactly personable. The punters are that curious hybrid of architects and graphic designers out on the pull, and City workers trying to be venturesome (but for whom Shoreditch is a step to far). The Luxe has filled that perfect niche between the edgy pubs on the Brick Lane side of Commercial Street and the chain bars in the City, however having done that, it seems to be lacking an identity. It’s not quite as good as the sum of its parts, and is certainly not a patch on its older sister in Smithfields.
The Luxe is beautiful to look at and be in. However I think that even John Torode might admit that some places, most notably his own Smiths of Smithfields, get a little better than this.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Redhook, Clerkenwell

If Mad Men’s Don Draper lived in noughties London, he would probably hang out at the Redhook.

89 Turnmill Street London
EC1M 5QU, 020 7065 6800
With its '50s and '60s furnishings, lush leather booth-style seating, and mix of chrome and exposed brickwork, Redhook transports you into 1960’s Manhattan. Or even to the neo-lounge world of Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn’s Swingers. Oysters Rockerfeller, steaks and martinis are complemented by Clerkenwell’s fashionable constituents of architects and designers. I half expected Dean Martin’s Volare to blast out from the sound system.
Redhook is part of the Rushmore Group, which seems to be on a bar/restaurant opening blitz since the East Rooms burned down. ("Must be an insurance job," opined the Northerner, whilst sipping her second bellini.) And it follows their now-familiar template of stylish ambiance and dazzling array of cocktails, fine wines and exotic lagers. Deriving its name from a Borough in Brooklyn, New York, Redhook’s American influences are obvious in both the food and drinks menu.
The bar staff can apparently pull together over seventy cocktails, which is a lot even for the Northerner and me. Drinks include boutique and rare beers (rare for this country, anyway) like Moosehead, Brooklyn Lager and Honker Ale, and a comprehensive selection of US wines, mostly of the Californian and Oregon regions.
On the food side the Surf and Turf theme (great idea, terrible name) is evident with Canadian lobster, diver scallops, king crab legs, clams and oysters on offer alongside Scottish skirt steak, American grain-fed T-bone and the supreme Japanese-Australian Wagyu fillet.
And it doesn’t come cheap. For a bill that include two bellinis, two beers, a bottle of Californian pinot noir (superb, I might add), two courses each and a shared cheese platter, it didn’t leave me much change from £200. That would be fine if this was five-star dining, but it didn’t quite reach those dizzy heights.
The waiting staff are young, charming, and gorgeous, which just about - but doesn’t quite - make up for their casual approach to service. Raising your eyes for attention proved more likely to attract a smile or a wink. But perhaps that’s just me. The atmosphere is laid back and affluent, and you can tell that the punters have money, which is just as well given the prices. It was quiet on the Friday night that we ate there, but having tried to book and popped in during the week, it does not seem to be suffering for a lack of customer.

Busy and buzzing, the place is clearly working. I think Don Draper would be pleased.