Monday, 23 May 2011

Skylounge and Lobby, Mint Tower of London Hotel

I do not know many people who like estate agents. In most people’s estimation, they sit alongside tabloid journalists, parking attendants, and nightclub bouncers in the low-life pecking order. They’re still a shade above investment bankers, of course.

However, there is a reason that they are held in such low regard (estate agents, not bankers). Who else promises you an exclusive viewing of a property...with another couple? In what other industry can someone try to sell you something in excess of quarter of a million pounds, but only let you see it twice - for 15 minutes each time? In the dark. And where else do you meet people who have reinvented the English language as part of their business. OK, I admit, the last could apply to bankers, too.

But estate agents do have their purposes, most obviously around the brokering of properties. And they operate around certain dictums that are hard to argue with. The first is that location is everything. The second is that you can’t put a price on a view, a rule that SkyLounge, the rooftop bar in the Mint hotel, follows to the limit. Any place that takes in Tower Bridge, the Gherkin and the not-quite-finished Shard in one panoramic sweep has a head start on the competition. Factor in the Thames (admittedly at a tight angle), Canary Wharf, and the skyscraper in Elephant and Castle that nobody seems to know the name of, and SkyLounge is out-in-front, heading into the back strait.

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However, if bars were only about views, then we would all be drinking on the top of mountains. Situated on the 12th floor of the Mint in Tower Hill, you need to factor in the hotel impact when rating this bar. And although the Mint Hotel is several steps above a Holiday Inn or Ramada, it is not a Four Seasons. The main hotel reception aspires to Philippe Starck-like glamour, but actually comes across as...bare. After taking the lift up to the bar, you are reminded that the clue to this place is in its name: Skylounge and Lobby. To make sure that every viewing spot possible is taken advantage of, they have installed seating along the glass-windowed corridor to the bar. Which is all very well and good, except it feels like you are drinking in the hotel lobby rather than a bar.

Things improve when you arrive in the actual cocktail bar. The staff are attentive and very efficient, and they offer a good range of rather expensively-priced drinks. Two cocktails – the Sky at Night (blackberries and kiwi shaken with Bombay Sapphire gin, and Haymans Sloeberry liqueur served tall with elderflower cordial and pomegranate juice) and the Thames Timeout (fresh raspberries and basil leaves muddled through Zubrowka Bison Grass vodka, Passoa liqueur and raspberry berry puree topped up with rosé Champagne and served in a chilled martini glass) stood out as personal picks, although you won’t get much change from a twenty for them. We settled for the house Champagne, which was fairly priced and appropriately dry. The bar is enhanced by the two outside decked areas that give you the opportunity to take in those fabulous views al fresco. Perfect for a summer evening.

The punters were your mix of City drinkers muddled in with hotel guests. This is not a fashionable set, but there was plenty of that cheeky chap charm about the place to compensate for those in search of pretensions.

The trick to any good hotel bar (an oxymoron in my book, but I’ll continue) is to make you feel that you are in a funky independent cocktail club rather than an appendage to a skyscraper. Skylounge doesn’t quite pull that off just yet. However, for killer views and a pre- or post-dinner drink, you could do much worse than this place. And at least it hasn’t been taken over by estate agents.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Aurora Restaurant, Soho

When does a place officially become a favourite? The restaurant you always fall back on when you’re in the area or are making a recommendation. The pub where the bar staff recognise your face. The nightclub where the bouncers greet you with a nod and a smile.

We all have them. Some of them come about because they are so good we can't resist returning. Others are because they are convenient. Aurora Restaurant in Soho belongs to the former camp. It’s a restaurant that the Northerner and I have been to many times over the years, and never once has it let us down. We have followed on that by recommending it on to friends. A big deal, in the Northerner’s world, who similarly have been impressed enough to recommend it to their friends.

Aurora is tucked away in one of the more fashionable corners of Soho that is Lexington Street, and its customers reflect the location. Media, advertising and fashion types flock to this place and give Aurora an energy that is uplifting but unpretentious.

The restaurant is located in a cute Victorian cottage set over two levels. At street level, there is seating for around 20 diners in a space that some might call intimate, but others might describe as crowded. It's easy to feel like you’re part of the adjoining dinner. (Which is fine so long as neither you nor they are on a date.) To the rear is a stunning courtyard garden which is perfect for a long summer evening. There is a downstairs (read: basement) area that can be booked for private functions, and is used as an extra dining room in winter. I actually quite like it. With its eclectic design, it feels like you are in someone’s house rather than a restaurant. The Northerner is not quite so enamoured and prefers street-level dining - a point she has made on more then one occasion.

The menu is changed monthly, but can be best described as that catch-all basket which is Modern European. On our most recent visit, we started with salads of feta marinated in mint and red chilli on cannellini bean salad with cucumber, red onion and sultanas with salsa verde, and pan-fried black pudding with wilted spinach, red onion and dried cranberries on grilled aubergine and Puy lentils with red wine Balsamic reduction. Which were delightful.

For mains, I opted for a pork chop, spinach and mash which was much more appetising then this sorry excuse for a reviewer has described. The dish was perfectly seasoned and succulent. The Northerner went for the pan-fried sea bass which was melt-in-your-mouth perfect (her words).

There is a comprehensive, but not overwhelming, wine list that never fails to disappoint. Prices are fair, with most of the wines falling into the £15 - £30 camp. New worlds are mixed in with European stalwarts, with a white French Burgunday (2004) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine du Grand Veneur from the same year available for punters who want to spend over £50. We settled on a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Frentano – Abruzzo, Italy (2009/10) that came in and £18.50 and went down a treat. So much so that once the bottle was finished we ordered another couple of glasses - just to be sure of course.

The owners and staff are charming, relaxed and welcoming. They are occasionally too relaxed for our UK sensibilities and can be a bit casual. Also, while the food is very good, it is not by any means innovative. You won’t get any surprises at Aurora.

However these are minor criticisms in what is a consistently good dining experience. That Aurora has been with us and flourished since 1995 is testimony to its quality, versatility and price sensitivity in what have been interesting times. Nearly 10 years ago, the Observer’s restaurant reviewer Jay Rayner declared Aurora ‘the perfect antithesis of a Conran enterprise’. I’m not sure if by that he meant it officially became a favourite place of his, but that, along with all of the aforementioned factors, certainly works for me.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Laughing Gravy, Southwark

The Laughing Gravy, 154 Blackfriars Road, Southwark

Its funny where this job takes you to. When you first set out to be a bar reviewer you envisage that your evenings will be spent at the West End’s finest establishments quaffing champagne with celebrities whom you regale with Oscar Wilde like witticisms and anecdotes. Your celebrity grows and you become a brand in your own right, off to live the life of a Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay.
The reality of course is that for every high profile event, bar and club you visit there you are asked too there are 10 to 20 places that you review simply because you are there. Some of them are even south of the river.

The Laughing Gravy (isn’t that the most brilliant name) is one such place where I ended up as part of a result of some research into a new business idea. I was accompanied by the Author and her partner the Wine Merchant whose brain I was picking, and as it happens, who supplies the aforementioned restaurant.

The Laughing Gravy occupies the ground floor of an original Foundry building. A cheeky little bar greets you with the 50-seater restaurant to the rear. Wooden tables and chairs, cream coloured walls and skylights instead of a roof, give the place a relaxed ambience.

The head chef Michael Facey has worked alongside the likes of John Torode and Mark Hix and their influence is apparent in the menu. The food on offer is an English take on Mediterranean fare. Our starters included Aubergine Gratin with Montgomery cheddar crust and olive, caper and cherry tomato salsa which the Wine Merchant declared delicious. The Author and I went for the Chicken Liver Pate with farmhouse crostini (lifted by strips of green pesto), red onion dressing and pea shoots. The pate itself was smooth and rich with a hint of a liqueur. Although the waitress said it was alcohol free. So much for my sophisticated palate.

For mains we opted for the Sea Trout special with spinach and fried potatoes which was flavoursome and cooked to perfection. The Author took on the salmon and smoked fishcake – large, meaty and rich – with herb pickled cucumber and a side of chips.

For desserts the Author and the Wine Merchant tried the Rhubarb crumble with pistachio ice cream. Sharp fruitiness offset by a flavoursome yet light ice-cream. I went for the Laughing Gravy chocolate fondant brownie with vanilla ice cream. The crumbly biscuit texture, deep chocolate flavours with a hint of mint was lovely if not a little sweet to my taste.

We washed it down with a beautiful bottle of Grand Caprice from France. Its a favourite of my dining companions and easy to see why. I didn’t think you could have a big but subtle wine, but Caprice proved me wrong.

The service is friendly if not a little uneven. The waitress was lovely but slightly off her game. Perhaps she was new. However Jon the owner who was out front-of-house was charm personified. You could imagine that he has quite a following.

The Laughing Gravy is out of the way, and this is from someone who lives in nearby Brixton. Its apparently equal walking distance from the Young and Old Vic. Equal but far then. This is one place I might never have found on my own, or driven past it if I had. However that would have been my loss. It just goes to show. Every so often it’s good to eat south of the river.