Tonight I took a friend to a screening of Chris Morris’ Four Lions – it was pretty darn funny by the way, although I’m not usually a fan of Morris’ oeuvre. A Jihadist tragicomedy obviously needs a thorough discussing afterwards and preferably somewhere loud and buzzy to offer cover for any controversial statements. So, being in the heart of Soho, we popped in to Lab (London Academy of Bartenders).
Lab used to have a reputation for some of the best drinks and bartenders in London and, in spite of a gradual slide in standards, I have gone there a couple of times a year since it opened. One reason I don’t go more regularly is that the bar gears itself to a party crowd and at the weekend gets hellishly packed. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely like to party but I usually prefer to drink cocktails in a more laid-back atmosphere.
However, tonight loud music was just what was ordered and Lab provided such good cover I couldn’t help thinking it would make a fantastic venue from which to plan a secret operation, Jihadist or otherwise – it even has a delicious alcohol-free choice of cocktails.
This latest visit threw up all the usual gripes as well as the usual tributes. Firstly, there’s the door policy – what is it with checking your bags on the way in? It sends out a message that this place is either a bit rough or they need to get blue lighting in the bathrooms. Whichever, I could have snuck in whatever contraband I wanted in my pockets so it was all a bit pointless. Though at least this guy was relatively friendly – on a previous occasion I walked away the bouncer was so rude.
Inside, the decor has changed little in a decade. With a poor layout on the ground floor and a strangely utilitarian downstairs, it is well overdue a refit. However, the drinks have always been the real reason to come here and I was excited to see an almost totally new menu.
The menu was abreast of current London fashions with ingredients such as pimento dram, herbs and unusual syrups but it also followed the less fortuitous fashion of being too long. Absurdly and ridiculously too long. It would have taken half an hour to read through it so as a neat solution, I just skipped all the bits obscured by bad layout. Not the best strategy I realised on the bus home, as I perused the more exciting options we had missed on a stolen menu.
First up, ironically, was a Last Word (gin, Green Chartreuse, lime and Maraschino) and a Satan’s Whisker’s (gin, sweet and dry vermouth, orange juice, Grand Marnier, orange bitters). The Green Chartreuse in the Last Word lent oomph to a pretty traditional drink and tasted as you’d expect; citrusly potent with an aromatic if crude overlay of herbs. On the other hand, the sadly un-demonic Satan’s Whisker was just too darn watery and surprisingly flavourless.
Next up was a Double Barrel (Demerara sugar, pimento dram, rhubarb bitters, Havana club, Lagavulin and ginger beer) and a Blanc Martini (vodka, coconut cream and creme de cacao). The Double Barrel was a lovely, Old Fashioned-inspired drink, though I couldn’t detect any of the creosote flavour of the advertised Lagavulin. Actually creosote isn’t a flavour I much relish in cocktails so that was probably a good thing. What I could taste was the care that had gone into making it and was happy to have waited slightly longer for this round. My friend’s Alexander-esque Blanc Martini pleased her sweet tooth and although I’m not fond of coconut or cream in drinks, I thought it did make for a lighter drink than the traditional Alexander of cream, brandy, creme de cacao.
One major improvement for the bar was in service, being decidedly quicker with our Scottish barman offering a friendly welcome and seeming to really care if we enjoyed our drinks or not. He even broke off mid-conversation with some pretty young ladies when he saw we had finished our first round which was good service, if not that gallant.
I’ve been a bit harsh with Lab as it’s now into its second decade of operating. To last that long in this part of town shows they’re clearly getting something right, but it also means they’ve had plenty of time to smooth out their rough edges. When I think of greater bars that have fallen by the wayside (23 Romilly Street RIP) I can only shake my head. Still, Lab can, and sometimes does, make great drinks at a reasonable price and what it lacks in class it makes up for in energy. But if you’re over 40 and wearing a suit I suggest going somewhere else.