I still think Casita is the best cocktail bar in London, although the more I try others near it the more I’m so confused about how it stays that way. It has exceptionally good drinks, great bartenders who are equally happy chatting with you or leaving you to it, an atmosphere that’s fun without being Funky! or Quirky! – just relaxed and friendly – and it’s somehow all this despite being plop in the middle of London’s Hipster Wankertown ie Shoreditch.
In Shoreditch is where the worst people in London cluster, that most hated of any city’s demographic groups: rich hipster kids. (City boys and other braying finance types are also hateful but at least they don’t pretend to be interesting, and generally stick to overpriced champagne bars and steakhouses.) Unfortunately, rich hipster kids are really into cocktails these days, so a lot of skilled cocktail makers have moved in to hoover up the hard-inherited money of Beardy Skinnyjeans and Headband Circleskirt. It’s been good for drink quality, but sadly the atmosphere in most Shoreditch bars remains broadly annoying-to-punchable.
This year Ewan made a New Year’s resolution I’m very happy to be helping with, which is to drink in new-to-us cocktail bars. It’s not a numbered goal (52 new cocktail bars in 2014!) or going down a list (drink at Difford’s top 20 London bars!), just a vague (ie can’t-missable) aim to try out cocktail bars in London we haven’t been to before.
On Tuesday we made a booking at Nightjar, a speakeasy style bar in Shoreditch that is quite well regarded by reviewers and even among the World’s Best Bars. I had heard of it through a former boss, who is much trendier than I am (she writes for le cool london) and Difford’s guide, which Ewan attends to closely.
We had an hour to kill before it opened at 6pm, so we met at Casita (open 5pm) for a pre-cocktail cocktail. (Guys have I mentioned I really love this bar?)
On Tuesday it was, as usual, great. The bartender chatted about a leaving do he was going to later while mixing me a Southside, judging: “That’s the best Southside I’ve made in…mm, two and a half weeks.” It’s gin, lime and mint, like a mojito (an exceptional cocktail that has been tragically brought low in the past three years by the attentions of enthusiastic but undiscerning drinkers; if they ever catch onto my other favourite, the White Lady, I’m going to have to burn down the entirety of EC1) but with gin instead of rum, and served short. It was sublime: clear, clean and fresh without taking the top of your mouth off, none of the flavours overpowering any of the others, even the gin tasted perfectly like gin without being too gin-y.
Ewan’s (right) was something with ginger, orange and Four Roses bourbon I didn’t catch the name of. [ETA: King of Roses, as created and clarified by owner/bartender Will Foster.] It tasted like Christmas in Atlanta. (“Christmas in Atlanta!”: the title of the eventual made-for-TV film about the polar vortex.)
After that excellent start we walked ten minutes to Nightjar, behind a barely-marked door (speakeasy! trendy!), where our names were checked against a list and we were ushered downstairs. I really liked the decor:
(Sorry for only phone photos, I cleverly brought my proper camera with me only to discover I had left the memory card at home in the disk reader and the battery in the charger. SMRT)
The cocktail list was about twenty pages long, and I spent several minutes just trying to figure out what the hell most of the ingredients were. After ten minutes I ordered an “Adam and Eve”, which is listed as containing:
- Knob Creek bourbon (good)
- Cordyceps infusion (what the fuck is this)
- Galliano L’Autentico (is it though)
- Nightjar ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (see cordyceps)
- Diamante citron (diamante?!)
- Mercier Champagne (I like champagne.)
So they brought my drink and it tasted, as I really should have known to expect, like a confused muddle of fruit-ish and odd damp mould flavour, which also happened to be fizzy. It did have a cute little cooked apple stuck with chocolate frosting to the bottom of the glass:
Both the apple and the chocolate tasted Fine. (Although I wasn’t sure what the sugar dusting was there for. Was I supposed to lick the stem? I did not. Instead the sugar just kept falling all over the front of my dress whenever I took a sip.)
Since we were two cocktails each into the evening, we ordered a meat and cheese plate. It was fine. It was also £22. For this:
The goat’s cheese (middle) was really quite good, as was the blue cheese (right).
The bread was also nice, although the olive oil on top of the basalmic vinegar was impenetrably thick and I didn’t manage to get a single drop of vinegar on the bread no matter how vigorously I thrust it into the bowl.
It took me a while to finish my drink and in the end I had to kind of close my nose and neck it. It wasn’t like gag-bad, it was just a really puzzling mishmash of flavours and notes. I thought Ewan had left his half-full, until I realised that was just the foamy egg white topping, which was still filling up most of the glass after he’d finished off the proper booze. I tried a sip of it when he was in the loo; there were some kind of scraggly plant shavings on top that tasted like ginger with all the nice parts blanched out. I am told the real drink was Fine.
Nightjar does have a good reputation and I don’t doubt they would be great at mixing eg an Old Fashioned or a Sidecar if I were to demand one, but I kind of feel like the drinks you call your “signature drinks” should not be so oddly conceived as both of ours were. I will say this, you can’t fault them for serving sizes. (Please note this photo was taken before I tasted it, or had looked up what cordyceps was.)
It is the same problem I have with Shoreditch generally, which is a bunch of people with nice things (money, free time, quality booze) but really bad ideas about what to do with it. Like, it is all right to just make good drinks! You do not have to infuse your own blahblah of everything, and there is no trophy for Most Original Cocktail That Doesn’t Taste Very Nice! I am very much in favour of bartenders and bars experimenting and developing new drinks and drink styles – as happened spontaneously the last time I was at Casita, and which eg Hawksmoor has been very successful at – but the point is the drinks have to be good, not just different.
Also, it turns out ‘diamante citron’ is just an etrog and cordyceps is a kind of parasitic fungus.
Hey, here’s something I never thought I would have to clarify:
FUNGUS DOES NOT GO IN COCKTAILS.
jesus christ, Shoreditch