Monday, 16 January 2017

Merchant House of Fleet Street

I'm in the City on a blustery Friday night at the close of what has been, frankly, a rather depressing week globally speaking (yes another one) but the weather doesn't dissuade gaggles of junior city boys wrapped up in their winter uniform of Barbour and Superdry jackets from nursing pints whilst clustered in groups outside the pubs of Fleet Street. Weaving in and out of the various huddles as I make my way through the winding alleys that flank Fleet Street and I'm starting to despair of ever finding my destination. St Bride's Avenue, St Bride's Place; it's a veritable warren. One last turn down the small passage of St Bride's Court and it's there; Merchant House of Fleet Street. Any fears I had harboured that a whisky bar in the heart of the City could only possibly be populated by red faced noisy conversations of golf courses and competitive Speyside versus Islay debates were quickly allayed. Merchant House is a softly lit haven of comfy velvet covered chairs and not a braying idiot in sight. 
For, whilst Samuel Johnson may have said that when a man is tired of London he is tired of life, this girl can tell you she is definitely tired of standing around outside London's bars. What I need in the onset of my elderly dotage is a nice corner table where I can survey the territory and ask kind people to bring me food and drinks. I'd like to think that Dr Johnson would have agreed with that sentiment. 
The bar's website proclaims a list of over 500 whiskies and an entire high-ceilinged wall is dedicated to shelf after shelf of amber nectar. Bottles are sorted by approximate price from left to right and the higher up the shelf you go the higher the price. This saves any embarrassment of realising that you've just ordered a rare whisky the price of a shot of which could be the GDP of a small country. 

The food list is minimal- think cheese platters, smoked salmon, saucisse and the perhaps comparatively more esoteric honey glazed octopus- but provides enough sustenance to get you through another cocktail before leaving in search of more robust belly-filling delights. 

What did come as a surprise was how approachable the bar made whisky; the (all female) staff were eager to talk about what style of whisky you might like and recommend cocktails to fit your taste. Whilst cocktails are imaginative, well made and beautifully presented they aren't cheap at around £12 each. My favourite was a Tartan Pimpernel; a blend of Islay whisky, bee pollen & raspberry wine with a spot of aloe water. A most odd combination of ingredients to have dreamt up but it worked very well. 

The Emigre was also a surprisingly light cocktail (pot still whisky, apple, rhubarb & elderflower). More traditional whisky based classics are also on offer- an old-fashioned was beautifully made. 

Despite the Scottish sounding cocktails, the whiskies on offer go well beyond the shores of the UK and Ireland with a good range of bourbons and Japanese whiskies too. A particular favourite with our group was the 1792 from Bardstown in Kentucky, oozing vanilla and sweetness making a great contrast to the smoky Islay whisky I'd been sipping on earlier. This bourbon comes with pedigree having been awarded an IWSC Gold award in 2013 as well as whole host of other accolades. You can find out more about it here.

The same team have another bar down the road at Merchant House of Bow Lane specialising this time in rum and gin. A visit is on the cards very soon....

Merchant House of Fleet Street
8 Bride Court, London. EC4Y 8DU.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Cake at Café Royal

Having spent a morning pacing Oxford Street on a Saturday (I thought it was a stupid idea too but sometimes needs must) and a sprint down Regent Street dodging tourists and the bubble-blowing man outside Hamleys, I was in dire need of calm, quiet and cake.

Afternoon tea is a wonderful thing considered by many to be so quintessentially British. The problem is that it’s generally a mammoth undertaking when the best establishments keep rolling out the refills and leave me feeling like a beached walrus after agreeing to just one more round of sandwiches and an extra scone. Yes, arguably I should have more self control but when it comes to cake and pretty little sandwiches with the crusts cut off I just don’t, sorry.   

It is therefore a truly wonderful thing to find a place where you can have the experience of afternoon tea without the gargantuan quantities of food. Let’s call it a diet afternoon tea...   Café Royal is that place. Make no mistake, they too offer the full shebang in just gorgeous surroundings in their Oscar Wilde room but for the lighter option, pop into the cafe and try and choose between the prettiest of patisseries,  lined up in glass cabinets with fancy pants piping, smooth-as-a-glacier-lake ganache and tiny weeny chocolates on the top. 

Although the more casual option, the cafe is still beautiful inside with wall to wall warm veined marble. Wall to wall is actually something of an understatement as it is frankly everywhere from floor to wall to tabletop. 
Picture borrowed from the Cafe Royal website as mine didn't really capture all the marble.....
The cake billed on the menu as a “jaffa cake” was, of course, no McVities biscuit/cake. This confection was a delicate layering of the lightest genoise sponge with a rich, dark ganache, an orange jelly and more layers of chocolatiness before a drenching in mirror finish ganache and gold decoration. My favourite of the afternoon (but this is coming from someone who can wolf an entire box of jaffa cakes without a second thought so I'm not perhaps not an unbiased sampler). 

The raspberry, lychee and rose eclair was also not an eclair in the traditional sense. Rather than be piped full of cream this was delicately swirled on the top. Pretty but a little bit cheating in my opinion. The choux was nice and crisp though and the raspberry and rose flavours popped; more lychee though please! It was the boy's favourite one, however, and he is a cakeaholic so it must have been good. 

I dare you, try having just one cake per person when you go. I swear blind that it’s impossible despite my good intentions! Two each is just plain greedy though so we settled on one extra one to share.

The “Ferrero Rocher” macaron was slightly odd to behold, a massive rocky macaron sprayed gold with added gold leaf floaty bits, perhaps not the prettiest thing on the menu but I totally get the homage to the Ambassador's favourite treat that they were going for. 

It didn’t have the usual internal feel of a macaron as the rich ganache filling was weighing down the normally light almond sponge shell.  Somewhat average visuals aside and whilst flying in the face of tradition, this “macaron” was delicious but left no space for any more. Cake craving successfully sated. 

Jasmine tea was served in a beautiful teapot with all the accoutrements of strainers and pretty little silver dishes to sit the strainer in  although possibly superfluous as it turned out the tea was in a bag.... 

If its a celebration then I would definitely advocate going for the full tea served elsewhere in the hotel but for a mid afternoon treat or a shopping pitstop for a bit of peace and quiet in beautiful surroundings, I can think of nowhere finer. 

Cafe Royal
68 Regent St, Soho, London W1B 4DY
020 7406 3333

Friday, 19 August 2016

Wine of the Week: Blanquette de Limoux

My wine of the week this week was discovered during the recent Tesco Finest Pop Up wine bar in Soho.  It was a fabulous marketing idea and I wish it could have been there for longer than a fortnight but, as I’m sure the staff would attest to, I gave the wine list a good going over whilst it was there.  Who can complain at a sleek bar with bouncers ensuring it doesn’t get too busy and wines on show at between £3-7 a glass? Especially when I tell you that the £7 one was vintage champagne....

I worked out that I tried 15 of the wines on offer and whilst there were a couple of less than great ones (the enigma of a low cost but excellent Chateauneuf-du-Pape remains elusive) I was bowled over by several of them. I have got into the rather short-sighted habit of thinking that it’s not worth drinking anything under £10 a bottle. We’ve all heard the tales about the value of actual wine in the bottle once you’ve accounted for tax, duty, import costs etc. Well, I was wrong. Yes, I will repeat that as it’s a rare day when I admit to it but – I. Was. Wrong.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Wine of the Week: Bobos Finca Casa La Borracha 2013 #WineWednesday

I am of the opinion that Bobal is a seriously underrated grape as are the resulting wines. Google it and you're hard pushed to find more than a handful of examples for sale in the UK despite its reasonable price point and approachable character. Anyway, more on the grape Bobal more generally in an upcoming Wine Grape Challenge post, for today I'm focused on one very particular Bobal that has made it to the top of the pile to be my wine of the week.

Bobos is made by Finca Casa La Borracha, a boutique winery run by three friends of mixed Spanish and Swiss nationality and located in the Utiel Requena area of the Valencia Region on the eastern coast of Spain. La Borracha make a series of wines from their 61 hectares of land all within 500 metres of the winery itself. 

All grapes are handpicked and fermented in 400 litre temperature controlled barrels. This is a high tech bodega with a focus on the highest quality- something that has not traditionally been the norm in the region. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Chateau de Beaucastel - The Estate

If you had the choice of visiting any of the iconic Southern Rhone vineyards, Beaucastel would surely be close to- if not at the top of- your list. It certainly was mine and if I didn't feel lucky enough already waking to a bright and sunny morning in May then hearing that they only accept a few private visitors each year only served to emphasis my bonhomie. As we bumped down the lengthy drive past field after field of perfectly regimented vines (2m by 2m apart in case you are interested), our path was temporarily blocked by what looked like a tractor on steroids- wheels high above the ground. 

Thursday, 9 June 2016

L'Isle Sur La Sorgue Sunday Market

The French are not yet en accord with the British habit of shops opening on a Sunday. Unless you live in a large town with the occasional open shop, the best you are going to do is an early morning croissant from the boulangerie. Need a litre of milk? Non, nous sommes fermé!

The small town of L'Isle sur La Sorgue some 25 km from Avignon is therefore something of a natural mecca for tourists on Sundays. Compared to its sleepy neighbours, the small town provides an assault on all the senses. Bustling traders call out their wares. Granted this is not somewhere that you are likely to do your weekly shop- prices are a little on the steep side- but the provenance of the food is unparalleled all hailing from and marked proudly with the names of neighbouring villages. Strawberries from Carpentras, chunky white asparagus from Mazan; both under 20km away. 

It would be a travesty to come here with a cold as your sense of smell is very much in for a treat. I am convinced you could be led around blindfolded and know exactly what was being sold. Wheel after wheel of cheeses  with a tendency towards goat are laid out on multiple stalls.

Friday, 20 May 2016

#WineGrapeChallenge 4: Hondarabbi Xuri

For those of the procreating variety half term dawns again and Facebook begins to be filled with humblebragging status updates about the queues at Gatwick or "treating myself to a glass of rose by the pool #blessed". For those of us not off sunning ourselves in foreign climes, knocking back cheap local plonk and thinking it’s the bee’s knees, spring can drag in the city.  Seemingly interminable rain showers make us wonder if summer might never arrive, or worse still has been and gone. Thankfully there has been the odd evening in the last couple of weeks like tonight when we can spend long evenings sat outside bars and restaurants behaving like we’re in the middle of San Sebastian rather than somewhere off Carnaby Street in the middle of Soho with a faint whiff of drains in the air. No matter- a hubbub of chatter and a plentiful supply of tapas can lead me to only one grape this week – Hondarrabi Zuri!
© Sybaricious. All rights reserved.