Sometimes I feel a bit like Goldilocks in my quest for the perfect London drinking den. This bar is too exclusive; this bar is too incompetent; this bar requires a second mortgage….
My ideal probably belongs to a different era: small, dark, a little louche with top-notch drinks. I can’t say I’ve found an exact match as yet, but in the meantime from the upper end of the market, the basement bar at HIX offers a nice line in compromises.
Yes, its sleek decor aspires to attract a glamorous crowd; yes, there are door-staff to negotiate your way past (the entrance to the bar is via the restaurant so you declare the purpose of your visit rather like going through customs); and yes, it’s not exactly a bargain.
On the other hand it’s stylish in a subtly eclectic way. Uber-design features such as the silver panelled ceiling and sunken bar are offset by low lighting, Chesterfield sofas and bar billiards (with the Owl and the Pussycat that’s two places I know that have a table – must find more..), resulting in a modern interpretation of a cosy gentleman’s club. And prices come in at just under a tenner with service charge, which compares favourably to other bars at this level.
The menu designed by the legendary Nick Strangeway certainly picks up on both the eclectic and traditional feel. There is a section entitled ‘Early British libations’, Charles Hawtrey’s favourite drink is included and elsewhere prominence is given to Nick’s homemade ingredients such as fruit cordials, infusions and juices. Large preserving jars of these concoctions flank the bar providing a cheery touch of colour.
It all adds up to a bibulous complement to the restaurant above, whose ethos is a “passion for UK-sourced produce; a love of erudite ingredients and an appreciation of simplicity in their preparation”.
On my latest visit, a Negroni was beautifully presented with a single ice ball, a nice touch which ensured the drink was kept chilled without too much dilution. My Scoff Law (Rye, Noilly Prat, orange bitters, lemon and homemade grenadine) came in an exquisite silver goblet. Again, a theatrical touch with a practical purpose; the superconductivity of the metal helps keep the drink cold. It was sweeter than I’d anticipated but beautifully balanced. Our third drink, The Culross (Havana Club, Cinchona infused Lillet, lemon, apricot brandy), was pleasant and pretty enough if a little unexciting.
On the downside, opening is occasionally erratic (the bar is a popular venue for private parties) so ring if you want to be sure of entry. Also, although the menu is one of the most interesting around and Nick is clearly an erudite guy with a genuine craftsman’s love for his art, quite a few of the drinks I’ve sampled have verged on too sweet. Recipes from the 19th century often call for a liberal hand with syrups and cordials to mask inferior spirits and can be cloying to 21st century palates.
So, as lovely as all his homemade touches are, perhaps Nick should take some inspiration from his surroundings. Forsake devotion to authenticity and add a few extra modernising touches to his classic repertoire?
Anyway, I’ve yet to try the cocktail utilising a peaty malt whisky – as a scotch lover, a repeat visit is already planned. At Whisky Live last year, there was a valiant attempt to prove this pungent spirit can be used as a mixer but not one cocktail on offer had me convinced. I will be impressed if Nick pulls this off.