Sunday, 30 January 2011

Abacus Bar, Bank

Guilty Pleasures are now a ubiquitous part of London’s nightlife. You know the drill. Take a once-famous nightclub, dress it up in ironic d├ęcor, and play music that you might love and even own (Toto, Foreigner, the Kids from Fame), but would never admit to. (Well certainly not to anyone that you were trying to impress.)

And in the City of London’s bar world, there is one place that is without doubt a ‘guilty pleasure’. Everyone I know has been at least once, and too a person, they’ve enjoyed it. But you’ll never hear them shouting it from the rooftops. In fact, people are embarrassed to mention it, and when pushed, claim hitherto unknown friends have dragged them there. Or they were in desperate need of a late weeknight drink. Or they got lost…

That certain bar is Abacus, located right in the hub of the City next to Bank station. So what is it about this place that makes the loud amongst us suddenly meek?

Looking at it objectively, Abacus has plenty to offer. At street level is a cocktail-cum-lounge bar where the mostly suited-and-booted male clientele chat in that uniquely City way, where their eyes focus on everyone except the person they are with. And downstairs is the bar/nightclub which with its charts-led soundtrack and cocktail-infused happy hour, creates an atmosphere that is festive to say the least.

So what’s the issue? Well, there aren’t many bars quite like Abacus. Actually, I correct myself. There are plenty of bars like Abacus in the North or the outer areas of Greater London, just not in the City. Because Abacus, along with the departed (and much-lamented) Prohibition, were bars designed with one objective. Euphemistically, it could be described as a place where people go to meet each other, but in reality, it's what Americans call a ‘pick-up’ bar. That’s right, most nights of the week from Wednesday onwards, Abacus is rammed full of (mostly) single people, drinking half-priced cocktails and dancing with abandon.

The dress is mostly office wear, although women occasionally indulge in a party dress and what seems like a gallon of the latest celebrity-branded perfume. The men, who are equally indulgent on the after-shave front, step out in the latest that Top Shop or Hugo Boss have to offer (depending on their age, of course).

The bar staff are friendly and ultra-efficient, especially at happy hour time, while the bouncers and waiting staff are all charm. Which is something that you can’t say about Abacus’s rivals. This is just as well, as the recent holiday season saw what is an always-bustling bar get even busier as hordes of post-Christmas drinks City workers gravitate there to strut their stuff.

So Abacus might not be to everyone’s taste, but it serves its purpose in providing a fun and flirtatious venue very well.

You might note that in this review I haven’t given my normal interiors description, or gone into detail about the food or drinks on offer. In fact, I haven’t really acknowledged that I’ve even been to Abacus. It is a guilty pleasure after all

Monday, 10 January 2011

Catch at the Andaz Hotel

Readers of the diatribes I pass off for reviews will be aware that I’m not a fan of hotel bars, and I tend to be similarly underwhelmed by their restaurant counterparts.
The caveat, of course, is that when the Northerner and I travel, we often eat in these restaurants, with the Malmaison in Edinburgh and the W Hotel in Istanbul being two examples of how well these places can work.
Closer to home, Catch Restaurant in the Andaz Hotel has a new chef in the house - Martin Scholz - and a new take on their seafood offering. Well, that‘s what the PR says anyway. Aesthetically, Catch certainly looks the part. Located in a not-entirely-desirable-but-very-convenient location just next to Liverpool Street Station, Catch features Grade II listed interiors (including some seriously bling chandeliers), seating for 70 diners, a Champagne bar, and an interesting crustacean on display.
The food in keeping with its nautical theme is based around all things seafood, with shellfish that includes three types of oysters, British-sourced river and sea fish, and for those not on a budget, Russian caviar. Signature dishes on the menu include smoked and cured Cornwall sea trout, barley crumble and saffron pear, and steamed 'Gigha Island' halibut, accompanied by coppa ham, truffle jus and Jerusalem artichoke.
My companion, the Hockey Playeress, started with the steamed mussels, while I went for clam chowder with foam. Despite four mussels being unopened and thus cast aside, she declared the rest of them delicious. My chowder was flavoursome, creamy in texture, and generously rich with clam, giving them that bite which other restaurants often fail to deliver.
For mains she went for the aforementioned steamed halibut, which was perfectly flavoured and seasoned with just the right texture. I unwittingly went for the chef’s recommendation of the crispy fried zander (apparently similar to the perch) done with pumpkin puree and a black pudding grissini. The fish was pan-fried to perfection, and complemented the puree very well. Black pudding grissini - which I subsequently discovered is like a breadstick - was delicious in its own right, but possibly a little bit overpowering for the accompanying fish.
We washed it down with a bottle of Gavi di Gavi which was crisp, dry, and full of flavours. It was the perfect accompaniment to our meals. We decided to pass on desserts and settle for coffees - not because we weren’t tempted, but because we were well fed and satisfied.
The atmosphere of Catch is warm but subdued, veering more toward formal than social. The clientele is mostly suited and booted City workers, which is hardly surprising given its location, with the odd hotel guest thrown in for good measure. The service is charming, measured and knowledgeable, a combination that I hadn’t encountered in a London restaurant for a while.
Catch works because it serves great food, in a convenient location and is underpinned by great service. It’s not the world’s liveliest restaurant, and I’m not sure if you would describe it as romantic, but to its credit it manages to avoid the feeling like a hotel restaurant.
Which is a good thing.