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10 crazy London cocktails that you need to try

10 crazy London cocktails that you need to try

It takes a lot to satisfy the jaded palates of London. We’ve seen it all in this fair city. From restaurants that sell only crisps to boozy ball pits for adults; when it comes to “different” the bar just keeps getting raised higher and higher. So it’s no great surprise that many of London’s drinking dens offer more than just a pint of beer and a packet of pork scratchings. I’ve crawled my way around the capital’s bars to seek out the weirdest, the strangest, the craziest cocktails that this town has to offer.

The cactus one – Artesian Bar
Artesian is renowned for its cocktails and rightly deserves its place on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. Located in the 5 star Langham Hotel, this bar is pure class – and the price of the drinks reflects this. It’s not a cheap place to drink but it’s well worth visiting for a treat. There are many spectacular cocktails on their menu but “La Penca De La Vida” is a real gem. It’s a celebration of the agave plant and is made with tequila, a Raicilla blend, mezcal, cactus and aloe vera. Raicilla is another agave spirit but, until recently, it was unsanctioned by the Mexican government. Artesian is one of the first bars to start using it. The cocktail is presented in a flowerpot, complete with real dirt and a real cactus! It tasted surprisingly fresh, with a slightly smoky aftertaste from the mezcal, and was dangerously drinkable. If you’re not a fan of tequila then this drink is sure to change your mind.
Artesian Bar, The Langham, 1C Portland Place, W1B 1JA
La Penca De La Vida – £18

The dirty one – Untitled Bar
Untitled Bar is the latest offering from renowned mixologist Tony Coniglario and it’s pure hipster (just in case you couldn’t tell from the name…). The interior design is as minimalist and inscrutable as the list of cocktails. The abstractedly titled “Snow” is made with chalk, white clay, enoki mushroom and vodka. I really had no idea what to expect but the presentation of the drink was spartan as everything else – a small eggcup glass (a nod to those negronis at Bar Termini there) filled with a clear liquid. On closer inspection, the drink had an iridescent sheen which was really rather delightful. However, it tasted pretty much exactly as you would expect – like earth mixed with vodka. Perhaps the greatest surprise was that it wasn’t as unpleasant as it sounded on paper, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.
Untitled Bar, 538 Kingsland Road, E8 4AH
Snow – £7.50

The immersive one – Lounge Bohemia
Lounge Bohemia don’t actually tell you what spirits they use in their cocktails; you choose your poison based on flavour. Each drink is a carefully crafted piece of theatre so, no matter what you end up with, your eyes are guaranteed to light up with delight. I chose “Into The Woods” which was advertised as “cedar, birch, oak, spruce” like a really abstract version of those poncey menus you see in certain London restaurants. It arrived bubbling away in a little woody nest, smoke wafting everywhere as if it had been whipped up by a mad scientist, with a twig by way of garnish. Before I could even take a sip, the waitress recited a spiel along the lines of something you’d find on a mindfulness tape, about how I should imagine I’m wandering through a forest. I was invited to sniff the twig and then inhale the smoke – which went down the wrong way and caused my life to flash before my eyes for a moment. And maybe I did briefly cross over because the drink tasted heavenly. It was essentially a pine flavoured negroni and that’s no bad thing in my book.
Lounge Bohemia, 1e Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3EJ
Into The Woods – £14

The breakfast one – London Cocktail Club
The bacon and egg martini by London Cocktail Club has been knocking around for a few years now but, despite a few young pretenders, it remains one of this city’s more unusual cocktails. And everyone knows that pretty much anything can be improved with the addition of bacon. This madcap martini is made with Jack Daniels that’s infused with smoked bacon and mixed with maple syrup, orange bitters, lemon juice and egg white. Last, but not least, it’s garnished with a slice of streaky bacon and a Haribo fried egg. The egg white gives it a lovely creamy mouthfeel rounded off with a rich kick of booze from the Jack Daniels. The slight hint of lemon keeps everything from getting too heavy. It would be very easy to chug down a load of these but at least you get some bacon to line your stomach.
London Cocktail Club – various locations (I went to the Covent Garden branch)
Bacon & egg martini – £9.50

The tree bark one – The Gibson
I think this one wins my fictional award for the most bat-shit crazy cocktail in town, although I suspect pretty much everything on The Gibson’s menu would vie for that trophy. This vintage-style bar divides up its theatrical cocktails according to months of the year. My cocktail – the wonderfully titled “Scandal in Bohemia” – wasn’t actually made from tree bark. That was just part of the garnish – which also included a chocolate playing card, a licorice pipe and a cherry. Apparently they were all meant to represent different flavours found in the drink, which was made with sweet grass steeped Woodford Rye, absinthe, hemp cannabis, poppy “opium” oil, preserved oriental lemon brine, French confetti candy syrup, forbidden jelly ice and smoking wood mushroom. Phew! It was served in a goblet that was dusted with red sandalwood and rimmed with truffle-infused white chocolate. Oh and it came with a side of Parmesan cheese. Despite the plethora of ingredients, I was only getting the truffle that was around the edge of the glass. So perhaps it was just as well that I had the art installation style garnish letting me know what I should have been able to taste.
The Gibson, 44 Old Street, EC1V 9AQ
Scandal in Bohemia – £12

The insect one – Nightjar
Believe it or not, this was not the first insect cocktail I have tried. However, while the my first foray into insect imbibing was a bit of a let down, the Inca Cocktail from Nightjar was insect-tastic. Made with tequila, hazelnut oil, fresh tomatillo, tonka puree, fino sherry, Guajillo muscat, lime, Mexican oregano, epazote and buffalo worms, this Mexican melange is powerful stuff. As you would expect from a cocktail that’s bold enough to incorporate bugs, this drink packs a real punch – and not just when it comes to the booze. It’s seriously spicy, with a peppery hit that borders on acrid yet manages to be totally delicious at the same time. The worms arrive by way of a garnish, in a little paper cone, but they also make an appearance in the cocktail mixture. They’re crispy and don’t really taste of anything much; maybe slightly popcorn-esque, However, their soggy presence at the bottom of the drink is quite disconcerting!
Nightjar, 129 City Road, EC1V 1JB
Inca Cocktail – £12

The custard one – Swift
I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a flagrant love affair with custard. I have been known to eat a whole tin of the stuff just on its own. But custard in a cocktail? Not too sure about that. I had visions of gloopy custard suffocating the life out of everything else in the drink. However, the Rhubarb and Custard Milk Punch from Swift demolished all my expectations by appearing as a translucent pale pink drink in a martini glass. No custard to be seen anywhere. This cocktail is made with calvados, rhubarb, custard and lemon, and the rhubarb and custard bit is actually clarified in-house resulting in the clear pink drink that was served to me. Although apparently the colour depends on the colour of the rhubarb – it might be pink one week and yellow the next. Even the flavour surprised me; it was really refreshing, with a hint of creaminess on the back of the palate from the custard.
Swift, 12 Old Compton Street, W1D 4TQ
Rhubarb and custard milk punch – £10

The balloon one – Purl London
Purl is yet another speakeasy bar. However, it differentiates itself with its fantastical cocktail menu. Its signature drink – the Mr Hyde – is the one that graces most of its promotional photos; smoke billowing out from a cauldron like a witches brew. However, my magpie-like attention was caught by another drink altogether – the Cerez Joker. I watched the bar staff churn out drink after drink with a balloon tied to them, and I knew that I had to try one. This cocktail is made with vodka, Cherry Marnier, Krupnik, honey, lemon and egg white and is served in a jar with a balloon tied to its handle. The balloon is then sprayed with orange blossom, the string that ties it to the glass is set on fire and the balloon eventually pops, detonating its orange mist everywhere. As if all that wasn’t enough, the cocktail itself tastes absolutely gorgeous.
Purl London, 50-54 Blandford Street, W1U 7HX
Cerez Joker – £13

The carrot one – The Walrus Room
The Walrus Room is a brilliant addition to Clapham Junction. Yes, it’s another one of those speakeasy sorts but it’s so gorgeous that you can’t begrudge the fact that it’s one of a zillion speakeasy bars in London. It’s inspired by Lewis Carroll and it certainly feels like you’ve wandered into a Victorian drawing room. Their cocktail list also follows the Lewis Carroll theme, such as the Rabbit Hole which is made with purple carrot Bols Genever and purple carrot cordial.  It’s served with an oyster on the side and is designed to be sipped after you’ve slurped down the oyster. The saltiness of the oyster perfectly compliments the vinegar sourness of the drink. In fact, I was surprised that the cocktail wasn’t sweeter considering it’s made pretty much entirely from carrot. If you want to get drunk AND get one of your five a day then this is the drink for you.
The Walrus Room, 40 Battersea Rise, SW11 1EE
The Rabbit Hole – £10

The foie gras one – Peg + Patriot
The cocktail menu at the Peg and Patriot won the most creative menu in this year’s Time Out Bar Awards and it’s easy to see why. The cocktails are inspired by well-known chefs or cooking techniques. You won’t find anything like a Long Island Iced Tea or Sex on the Beach on this menu. Instead you get “Foraged Berries”, “Buckwheat” or “Peanut”. I tried the one called “Foie Gras”, made with a foie gras and dark chocolate distillate, rum, sugar, dry raspberry, hazelnut dry port, Peychaud bitters and saline. I didn’t pick up any of the foie gras whatsoever, but it did taste very strongly of raspberries with a hint of chocolate. This is a drink designed for sipping; there’s a thumping great boozy kick to it. It wasn’t unpleasant but I wonder if they’re trying to be a bit too clever?
Peg + Patriot, Town Hall Hotel, Patriot Square, E2 9NF
Foie Gras – £10

Have you tried any of these cocktails or have you got any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments!

TwoRuba: A hotel bar with flair

TwoRuba: A hotel bar with flair

The TwoRuba cooler cocktail from TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London

TWORUBA IS…SEASONAL STYLE AND SEASONAL COCKTAILS

When you think of a chain hotel bar you’d be forgiven for imagining something bland. A space that manages to be polished in a way that’s devoid of all character. You might expect to find a businessman propping up the bar or families lazily sprawled in armchairs, waiting to head out for the day. What you don’t expect to find is a big sofa made out of grass. Or brightly striped deckchairs next to huge floral displays. TwoRuba, located in the Tower Bridge Hilton, differentiates itself from the norm with its bold seasonal installations and matching cocktails. As the seasons change, so does TwoRuba’s decor and so does its cocktail menu.

The spring display at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

TwoRuba’s everyday cocktail menu is also a bit more imaginative than what you might usually find in a standard chain hotel.  They mix flavours like chilli, strawberry, mint and gin in their Dare Devil or cherry infused whisky and cinnamon sugar for Smoking in 1816. They’re currently offering four, limited edition, spring cocktails: Elderflower Breeze, Raspberry and Thyme Smash, TwoRuba Cooler and a Spring Spritz. Like those on the standard menu, these cocktails are made with a combination of compelling ingredients and a dash of creativity. They not only taste delicious; they’re presented beautifully. My top pick is the Elderflower Breeze, which is perfect for a hot summer day. It’s made with gin, elderflower cordial, lemon, cucumber and basil – the elderflower gives it a slight sweetness but the fresh flavour of the cucumber is what really comes through. It’s refreshing and extremely drinkable. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went back for another one a few days later!

The Elderflower Breeze cocktail at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

Now, I’m a big fan of incorporating savoury herbs with sweet flavours, so I always love seeing them pop up in desserts or cocktails. A quick search on Google told me that the combination of raspberry and thyme is actually not that unusual when it comes to cocktails – although I had never come across it until I tried the Raspberry and Thyme Smash at TwoRuba. This long drink is served with a bit of theatre; the cocktail is contained in a bird-shaped vessel and then poured over a glass of crushed ice. The base of the drink is dark rum and it contains lime and cranberry, as well as the raspberry and thyme.

The Raspberry and Thyme Smash cocktail at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

The TwoRuba Cooler was another mash-up of sweet and savoury flavours. The combination of gin, Cointreau, apple, lemon, rose syrup and rosemary could have been a bit over-sweet, but the herbaceousness of the gin and the rosemary took the edge off. Lastly, the Spring Spritz was basically the love child of a mojito and a margarita. Created with tequila, St Germain, lemon vanilla and mint, it felt like I was getting two cocktails for the price of one.

The Spring Spritz cocktail at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

Of course, it might be a good idea to order a few nibbles to soak up some of the booze and TwoRuba have got you covered. We enjoyed a selection of snacks, such as vegetable tempura, chorizo in a sinfully sticky marinade and some of the best chips I’ve eaten in a long time. However, a quick glance at the TwoRuba website seems to suggest that “regular” visitors, i.e. those not attending an event, can order food from the Jamie’s Italian next door. I’m not an advocate of chain restaurants, but if you want something to graze on while you enjoy a cocktail or three then you could do a lot worse.

I was really impressed with the quality of the service at TwoRuba; the team made us feel right at home. When I returned as a “regular” visitor a few days later, there was just one girl behind the bar who seemed a little over-stretched. I had to wait a while to be served only to be told that she didn’t know how to make the cocktail I had ordered. However, one of the mixologists was just about to start his shift, so I took a seat and eventually my drink arrived. The young lady who served me was incredibly sweet and dealt with my order as best she could. I’m sure that if you visit in the evening when there are probably more staff on duty – and not in the afternoon like me – then the service will be great.

The spring display at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

As TwoRuba’s style changes with the seasons, this spring fling will be over shortly. But there’s no need to weep into your martini because they will be replacing it was a full-on beach! TwoRuba is raising the bar (pun intended) for chain hotels everywhere.

TwoRuba, Hilton Tower Bridge, 5 Tooley Street, SE1 2BY

Many thanks to Lioneye Media for inviting me to an event showcasing TwoRuba’s spring cocktails. All views, as ever, are my own.

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5 top places to drink a Negroni in London

5 top places to drink a Negroni in London

I discovered the pleasures of a well-mixed Negroni a couple of years ago and have been addicted to them ever since. A Negroni is a cocktail made with one part gin, Campari and vermouth, served over ice, usually with a slice of orange. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Dry and packing a pretty punch, with no mixer this is all thriller, no filler. The last few years have seen Negronis become increasingly fashionable, and you’ll likely find one on most cocktail menus throughout town. Here are 5 of my top picks:

Bar Termini
Bar Termini is THE place to go for a Negroni.  It’s the where I popped my Negroni cherry and it’s where I return to time and time again. I’ve written more extensively about Bar Termini elsewhere but, suffice to say, it’s a sexy little Italian number that serves coffee by day and cocktails by night. The drinks in this tiny little enclave of Continental Europe are strong, served by slick white-jacketed waiters. Work your way through their sublime range of pre-mixed Negronis and pretend that you’re living la dolce vita in Italy.
7 Old Compton Street, W1D 5JE

The Little Bar
I was so excited when this place opened in my ‘hood of Tooting. Like Bar Termini, it takes its inspiration from the bars of the Continent as well as being a little on the small side. You can find a staggering 8 versions of the Negroni on their menu and I strongly recommend holing up here and working your way through them all. The staff are lovely, the vibe is relaxed and the pound shops of Tooting could not feel further away (actually they probably could).
145 Mitcham Road, SW17 9PE

Franks Cafe
Franks is one massive hipster cliche. Yes, it’s in Peckham. Yes, it’s on the roof of a multi-story carpark. Yes, it’s Instagram heaven (especially the pink stairwells). But it really is a cracking spot to drink a Negroni. These guys know their shit when it comes to “grown up cocktails” (as I like to call them). You know, the cocktails that actually taste alcoholic and don’t come decorated with a paper parasol. Expect to find Campari, Aperol, vermouth and port on the menu here. It’s only open during the summer and you can’t book, so get there early to grab one of the tables or just prop up one of the shelves around the perimeter and take in the amazing view.
Peckham Multi-story Car Park, 95a Rye Lane, SE15 4ST

The Portobello Star
I rarely venture “out west” but the Portobello Star is worth the Tube trek. As it’s home to Portobello Road Gin, you would expect them to be able to mix a mean Negroni. And they do. Perfectly dry and refreshing, their Negronis are smooth sippin’. Escape the tourist-thronged mayhem of Portobello Road and dive into this discrete and dimly lit drinking den for ace cocktails or one of the best G&Ts in town.
171 Portobello Road, W11 2DY

68 and Boston
The bar with the split personality. On the ground floor you’ll find a wine bar; upstairs is a cocktail lounge. Unsurprisingly, it’s the cocktails that draw me in. A warren of luxuriously furnished rooms awaits you, as does a stellar cocktail menu. Their Negroni is one of the best in town by far. You’d be forgiven for thinking that making a drink using only three ingredients is a doddle; however, I’ve had my fair share of nasty Negronis. There are no extra flourishes involved, no mixers to mask the taste. 68 and Boston get it bang on.
5 Greek Street, W1D 4DD

But you should also visit….
Campania
Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet of Curiosities
Little Bird 

Where’s your favourite spot for a Negroni? Let me know in the comments!

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

The best Valentine’s Day I ever had didn’t involve hearts, flowers and chocolates.  It didn’t even include a card.  The best Valentine’s Day I ever had was spent with one of my closest friends, getting drunk in a rooftop bar in Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and is located in the south-east corner of the island.  While Havana is swiftly becoming sanitised, Santiago has all the faded elegance of the capital but feels grittier, grubbier, seedier.  It’s sweaty and tropical, closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than it is to Havana – both in terms of geography and atmosphere. Reggae mixes with salsa, the heat makes everything feel languid, yet the spirit of the revolución remains close to the surface.  It was the home of Frank País, a revolutionary who campaigned for the overthrow of Batista and who collaborated with Fidel Castro.  It was where Castro’s rebellion began, and where he eventually proclaimed victory in 1959.  It’s also where I found myself one Valentine’s Day…

Turns out that Valentine’s Day is a massive deal in Santiago.  It felt like the whole population was out in town that evening, dressed in their finest, parading arm in arm.  Heart shaped balloons were everywhere – outside restaurants, being carried by grinning girls, even in the form of giant balloon arches in the plazas.  “Careless Whisper” belted out of a huge sound system while couples enjoyed dinner out.  So popular is Valentine’s Day that it was completely impossible to get into any restaurant in town.  Everywhere was booked out.  After drifting aimlessly around town, we eventually wandered into the Hotel Libertad in the hope of at least grabbing a seat and a drink while we came up with a plan.  Little did we know that we wouldn’t be leaving until we stumbled out in the early hours of the morning.

The Hotel Libertad looked like most of the other old colonial hotels you find around Cuba.  A sky blue exterior gave way to an elegant interior, lots of marble, wrought iron etc.  Not a bad spot to kill some time.  However, my eagle-eyed friend spotted a sign saying “rooftop bar”. Several flights of narrow stairs later and we were in another sort of hotel altogether.  A makeshift sound system had been set up, pumping music videos onto a projector screen.  A simple bar contained one, slightly stressed, barman, a fridge full of beer and Coke, and lots of rum.  And best of all, we had a spectacular night time view over the sticky, pulsing city.  We were the only foreigners in the place, which did feel a little intimidating at first.  But we quickly realised that no-one cared who we were.  We were there for a good time and that was all that mattered.

As pretty much everyone knows, when you’re in Cuba, you drink rum.  It kind of goes without saying.  And Santiago de Cuba is actually where the Barcardi brand originated.  You won’t find Barcadi in Cuba though; the Castro government confiscated all of the company’s assets in 1960 and they moved overseas.  In its place is Santiago de Cuba rum, which is produced and bottled in the oldest distillery in Cuba.  I’m no rum conoisseur – unless I’m drinking the really good, really aged stuff it all just tastes like fire to me.  That’s why I prefer to drink it in cocktails.  My trip to Cuba so far had involved liberal consumption of Cuba Libres – rum, Coke and lime.  The lime didn’t always make an appearance and the rum usually filled up half a highball glass.  If you could see through the Coke, you knew it was going to be a good drink!  Valentine’s Day was no exception.  The barman spoke no English and the music was loud, but at least my basic Spanish included “two more Cuba Libres please”.  I always make a point of learning the important phrases…  The cocktails were strong and cheap.  Two turned into four, four into eight…well you get the picture.  Afterwards, we gatecrashed a party back at our own hotel, having mistaken it for a disco.  We still laugh about that night to this day.

I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day but I had felt a little sad earlier, having seen photos of my ex on Facebook celebrating with his new girlfriend.  But rum, music, dancing and laughing under the warm night sky of a Caribbean town?  Who needs romance when you have these things instead?

Boulogne Bar

Boulogne Bar

A few months ago I wrote about the “London bubble“.  How it’s easy to get complacent, shuttling along from home to work to home, rarely visiting new areas.  Or maybe that’s just me?  Anyway, as per previous post, I have lived in London for a long time but there are still parts of town that I have never been to.  One of these is Kentish Town.  Which is a bit embarrassing actually, as it’s not like it’s on the furthest fringes of the city, like Edgware, or in a public transport vacuum like most of south-east London.  Although, in my defence, I’ve never really had any reason to go there.  But then I was invited to a cocktail masterclass at Boulogne Bar.  Where I would make martinis.  And drink mulled vodka.  Three perfectly good reasons to head north of the wall.

At first glance, the Boulogne Bar is cunningly disguised as a pub.  It’s tucked away upstairs at The Bull & Gate on Kentish Town Road.  The Bull & Gate is a rather lovely Youngs pub, which has a modern gastro feel to it but still retains a suitably “pubby” atmosphere.  As I visited the week before Christmas, it was wonderfully festive, complete with huge Christmas tree, open fires and loads of people clearly enjoying the fact that there were only a few days of work left.  While The Bull & Gate is a great place to settle in for a few hours, preferably with a good bottle of wine and a roast dinner, my appointment was with their sexy little sister upstairs.

According to their website, Boulogne Bar is inspired by the gentlemen’s clubs of a bygone era, and the contrast to the buzzy pub downstairs could not be more dramatic.  Dimly lit, with jewel coloured sofas, chandeliers and bookcases, it feels like all sorts of mischief could go on here.  As the bar was closed for the cocktail masterclass, the space felt even more intimate.  The evening was hosted by Kentish Town local, William Borrell; owner of well known ex-public toilet bar, Ladies and Gentlemen, and – as I have just found out – brother of the lead singer from Razorlight.  He has also set up Vestal Vodka and our little soiree at Bar Boulogne was also our introduction to his product.

We were welcomed with a “hot voddy”, which was kind of a mulled vodka made with warm apple juice and spices.  Perfect for a freezing December night.  We all then cosied up on the sofas while William gave us a brief intro to vodka – where I learned that most vodka is actually made from grain, not potatoes.  Vestal is, in fact, made from potatoes and its USP is that it’s a genuinely premium product, getting a score of 5+ from Diffords. In true Slavic style, we poured out shots of neat vodka but then used them to create something known as a nikolaschka.  This involved coating lemon wedges in sugar, perching them on top of the shot glasses and adding a few drops of bitters.  We then knocked back the vodka and sucked the lemon, in a more palatable version of a tequila slammer.

William then showed us how to make the perfect vodka martini, as well as imparting some nuggets of wisdom along the way.  For example, I had not realised that a dry martini is one with very little vermouth and that a dirty martini includes olives.  All I knew was that a martini generally tastes like firewater.  Of course, my friend and I didn’t do much to change that by adding far too much vodka to our martini – ooops!  Fortunately, William came to our rescue and we ended up with a lovely – albeit slightly strong – vodka martini each.

By this point we were pretty well sozzled and the rest of the group seemed to be heading in the same direction.  So of course, we thought it would be a great idea to do another nikolaschka before stumbling over the road to Ladies and Gentlemen.  But that is a story for another time…

It’s safe to say that we had an absolute blast at Boulogne Bar.  Their cocktail class was so much fun and, what’s more, everyone was really friendly.  I’m definitely heading back to see what the bar’s like during normal service, especially as their cocktail menu looks fantastic (Cherry Amaretto Sour? Yes please).  And, over the course of one night, I discovered three great venues.  I started off with three transient reasons to visit Kentish Town, but now I have three very firm reasons to go back.

The Bull and Gate/Boulogne Bar, 389 Kentish Town Road, NW5 2TJ

Many thanks to the team at Boulogne Bar for inviting me along to their cocktail masterclass.  All views are, as ever, my own.

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

Fried chicken waffle by Waffle On at Maltby Street Market

Yes, everyone keeps saying that 2016 has been the worst year ever.  But when it comes to food and drink, this year has been a cracker.  With more new restaurants and more foodie entrepreneurs than ever, there is no excuse to eat badly.  Here are the best things that I snaffled into my greedy face this year:

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen
I wanted to eat everything on Arabica Bar & Kitchen’s menu.  I’ve eaten a lot of samey mezze over the years, but these guys really know how to sex it up.  It’s easy to be bamboozled by choice; however, you should definitely include the chicken and pistachio shish in your order.  Forget all about those dry old shish kebabs you may have had the misfortune to eat in the past.  These little skewers are succulent, dripping with meat juices and are infused with the flavours of the Middle East.

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen

Kürtöskalács in Budapest
Yeah I have no idea how to pronounce it either.  But that won’t be a hinderance to you when you visit Budapest because you can find it everywhere.  It’s a chimney cake made from a doughnut style dough and rolled in sugar.  It’s served hot with various toppings, like nuts or desiccated coconut, but I chose good old fashioned cinnamon.  It was huge but worth every stomach-straining bite.

Fried chicken waffle from Waffle On
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to eating at Maltby Street market.  However, I can definitely recommend the fried chicken waffle with maple syrup butter from Waffle On.  Street food is generally naughty but this is really decadent.  The chicken is fried to perfection, and the combination of sweet and savoury flavours here is sheer bliss.

Rabbit risotto from Cafe Murano
Rabbit’s another one that is so often dry and dull.  And a perfect risotto sometimes feels like the holy grail. Not so when these things are in the hands of the chefs at Cafe Murano.  The risotto was creamy, topped off with chunks of juicy rabbit meat and a drizzle of stock.  It’s a wonderfully, sinfully rich dish that stood out on a menu that was full of wonderful dishes.

The Meihua Shan at Oriole
Many bars claim to be “speakeasies” but Oriole probably comes closest to the real deal.  For a start, it’s genuinely hard to find.  I walked past it a couple of times in increasing confusion.  But once you’re in, you’re truly through the looking glass.  Their incredible cocktail list – inspired by the golden age of exploration – helps to transport you to another era and another world.  Again, you can be bamboozled by choice (and some unusual ingredients), but the Meihua Shan is worth splashing the cash on.  Made with Hendricks gin, plum rosolio, juniper chou syrup, egg white and lemon, it manages to be both refreshing and creamy.  And, as with all the cocktails from the team behind Nightjar, it looked like a work of art.

Meihua Shan cocktail from Oriole

All of the cheese from La Latteria
La Latteria specialise in mozzarella, stracciatella and ricotta.  And they do this exceptionally well.  Scoffing down a plate of their ricotta felt incredibly naughty – it was that creamy.  Then I did the same with their stracciatella.  Seemingly simple produce that, when done well, tastes exquisite.  Find them at newbie food destination, Mercato Metropolitano.

Pork confit bao from BAO
Yes, this has become a bit of “a classic” but justifiably so.  Judging by Instagram, I think everyone in London has now eaten this but, if you haven’t, then brave the queue at the door of BAO.  This little squidgy mouthful is worth it.  As is the rest of the menu.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat
Goat is a much under-rated meat but, when it’s handled well, it’s delicious.  Gourmet Goat know exactly what they are doing and their goat kofte salad is delightful.  The meat is tender and flavoursome, and the salad is one of the tastiest I have eaten.  It was packed with beetroot, chickpeas, goat kurd and came with a punchy chilli “pistou” – and I gobbled the whole thing up in a matter of minutes.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat

Everything I ate at Rotorino
Admittedly, I’d had a few shandies before my friend and I decided to grab a bite here.  But everything I ate here was delicious.  So much so, that it managed to make an impression through the fog of gin that surrounded me – and one that has lasted.  My starter of marinated mackerel with pinenuts, almonds and breadcrumbs was fresh and zingy.  The roast chicken on toast (yes, toast!) that followed was one of the tastiest roast chooks I have eaten (although annoyingly a little under-cooked in places).  The buttermilk pannacotta with rhubarb for dessert was perfectly executed.  Can’t wait to go back.

Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses from Meza
It’s taken me 7 years to get around to going to Meza in my ‘hood of Tooting.  I now can’t believe that I have gone without their chicken livers for so long.  Melt-in-the-mouth with a sticky, sweet, tangy dressing and a great smack of Middle Eastern spices.  I think I might have to nip up the road and get some now….!

“Strawberries and Cream” from Fifteen 
This wasn’t a dish of strawberries and cream.  It was actually a cocktail, made for this year’s London Cocktail Week.  The list of ingredients was as long as my arm but the end result was simple and elegant.  It really did taste of strawberries and cream, reminiscent of those old fashioned boiled sweets.  And of course it looked as pretty as a picture.

Strawberries and Cream cocktail from Jamie Oliver's Fifteen

Slow cooked beef cheek pie from The Holly Bush
My second choice dish from the menu at The Holly Bush in Hampstead actually turned out to be the right decision after all.  This “proper” pie was fully encased in buttery shortcrust pastry and stuffed full of the most tender chunks of beef cheek I have ever eaten.  It came with a rich, dark gravy and every mouthful was a pleasure.  Comfort food at its best.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye
This dish.  My God.  Ricotta, sage, pumpkin all forming a perfect storm of flavour.  It was so delicious and so comforting to eat.  The cheese was rich and gooey, counterbalanced by the sweetness of the roast pumpkin.  Exactly the sort of thing you want to eat on a dark, chilly winter’s night on the Sussex marshes.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye

Disappointment of the year: Hatchetts
Hatchetts, a new arrival in 2016, had a limited, unimaginative menu that was very over priced for what they offered.  Weirdly, they had a “Christmas dinner” on their standard lunch menu when I visited.  I ordered it because the other three main courses available appealed to me far less than this one did (which is saying something).  It was average.  So was their chocolate fondant dessert.  The plates were stone cold and the restaurant was empty.  When you charge premium prices then you should deliver a premium experience.  This was just lazy and complacent.

I ate a lot over the course of 2016, but I barely scratched the surface of all the amazing restaurants and bars that are only in London  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions but I think, for 2017, I’m going to have just one: eat more.

If you have any recommendations for me then drop me a line.  I’d love to hear them.  Happy New Year!

London Cocktail Week 2016

London Cocktail Week 2016

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My poor liver.  It’s taken a bit of a battering lately.  All in the name of research, you understand…. Recently one of my favourite events took place – London Cocktail Week.  Now, usually I try and pace myself, spread my “investigations” throughout the week, break it up a bit.  But this year?  No.  This year I decided to cram it all into the final weekend.  So it was less “London Cocktail Week”, more “London Cocktail Weekend”.  Never before have I planned a drinking sesh with such military precision, and never before have I necked drinks with such speed when it’s not closing time.  However, I lived to tell the tale so here are my highlights from London Cocktail Week:

Strawberries & Cream – Fifteen
The recipe list for this cocktail read like a random collection of ingredients – including gin, tarragon and cider vermouth – so I was intrigued to see if the end result really would taste like strawberries and cream.  And do you know what?  It actually did.  In fact, it reminded me of one of those boiled sweets that used to be around when I was a kid.  It tasted deceptively simple for what was clearly a very complex drink.  What’s more, it was one of the prettiest cocktails I have ever seen. Pure elegance.

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Rhubarb Margarita – The Drunken Monkey
The barman managed to totally confuse me by offering three different flavours; not helped by the fact that he was a bit of a mumbler.  It really doesn’t take much, especially when I’m already a few cocktails down… Fortunately I guessed correctly and ended up with the drink I’d had my eye on: the rhubarb margarita.  All bars should offer this version of a margarita.  The tartness of rhubarb just works amazingly with tequila and triple sec.  This British twist on a Mexican classic was simply great.

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Hebrides & Ivory – Milroys
I often shop in Milroys – a gorgeous old whisky shop in Soho – but I’ve never stayed for a drink.  To be honest, their LCW cocktail wasn’t up there with my favourites, although I’m not a fan of whisky cocktails to start with.  What I loved here was the atmosphere.  The amber glow of whisky fills the creaky old shop and it’s probably one of the cosiest places to while away these chilly autumn evenings.  What’s more, the staff are knowledgeable, friendly and funny. While I wasn’t keen on their cocktail of Kilchoman Machair Bay Scotch whisky, Couer de Genepi, St Germain and grapefruit bitters, I’ll definitely be back for their single malts.

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Langers in Manhattan – 46 & Mercy
These guys “won” the dubious honour of creating my favourite cocktail of LCW 2015, so I was intrigued by what they would pull out of the bag this year.  Langers in Manhattan did not disappoint (my Cork friends may well have a little titter here).  Made with only three ingredients – Jameson Caskmates Irish whisky, Cocchi di Torino vermouth and homemade chilli liqueur – this drink was incredibly interesting.  It was sweetness, sharpness and heat all in one glass, with a rich caramel taste before the bite of the chilli kicked in.  I probably couldn’t drink too many and my lips did start to feel like they were melting but, once again, these guys have delivered a stunner.

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Blossom Martini – The Harcourt
Once upon a time I worked for an awful property company on Seymour Place.  I would regularly meet friends of mine for after-work drinks in The Harcourt Arms, which was an unassuming “Swedish pub” around the corner from my office.  It has had a bit of a makeover, dropped the “Arms” and is now an upmarket Scandinavian restaurant.  Their LCW offering was one of the new “Sip and Snack” deals introduced this year: for a bit of extra cash you get a cocktail with a paired snack.  The Blossom Martini was made with homemade lemongrass infused Absolut Elyx vodka, fresh lemon, ginger and pink peppercorn syrup, rose liqueur and cherry bitters, and was served with gravadlax on rye bread.  The cocktail itself was surprisingly sweet and refreshing, and it was clear that a lot of love and effort had gone into it.  I was also particularly impressed with their rye bread, which can often taste like a bit of cardboard.  Here, it was sweet, malty and soft.  If this is indicative of the quality of their food, then I’d love to go back for dinner.

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Leonard Woolf – The Bloomsbury Club
My reaction upon taking a sip of this cocktail was “ooooooooh that is SO good!”.  Both the cocktail and bar were exactly what I needed on a wet, cold London afternoon.  The bar itself is a charming little bolthole in the depths of the Bloomsbury Hotel.  It’s like stepping back in time, to a more charming era, with the exquisite service to match. The cocktail was another simple one: Maker’s Mark bourbon, Monin ginger syrup and orange bitters.  It was comforting and rich – and would no doubt make a great variation on a hot toddy.  This is the first whisky cocktail I have ever liked, which is really saying something.

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The Monkey Club – Graphic
Graphic is one of my all-time favourite bars, and was one of the few places where the cocktail-making process was explained.  Their take on a Clover Club included Monkey 47 gin and Cocchi di Torino vermouth.  It was fruity, sweet, bursting with berries and tasted a bit like an alcoholic smoothie.  It was so easy to drink that I was able to finish it off in record time, due to the fact that I was actually sitting at someone else’s table. Kudos to the security staff who helped me find a spare seat.

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As usual, it was great to see such innovation and creativity on display – plus LCW is a fantastic excuse to try out new bars and visit some old favourites.  London really does have some of the best bars in the world.  There were so many amazing cocktails but my absolute top choice this year was the Strawberries & Cream by Fifteen.  It was so clever and was clearly created by someone who really understands flavour.  Not only did it taste delicious, it looked a treat too.

I’d like to say that I’m now going to detox for a bit but I think we all know that’s a lie….

The Best Food and Drink of 2015

The Best Food and Drink of 2015

Yep, it’s the end of another year so time for yet another list.  Here is my round up of the best things went into my mouth over the course of 2015:

Chicken Berry Biryani from Dishoom
I visited the Kings Cross branch of Dishoom all the way back in January but I still keep raving about their biryani.  Tender meat, fluffy rice, a good amount of spice….it ticks all the biryani boxes but has the added bonus of cranberries.  Plus the restaurant itself just looks so, so sexy.

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Spaghetti with Cuttlefish and Ink Sauce from Osteria Alba Nova
Good food can be hard to find in tourist-ridden Venice, but venture away from the main hubs and you will be rewarded.  Cuttlefish cooked in ink is a local delicacy and the small, family-run restaurant of Osteria Alba Nova in Santa Croce turns out a cracking version of this.  Ink dishes can be on the heavy side but this pasta dish was as light and tasty as can be.

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Confit Duck Burger from The Frenchie
Confit duck in a burger?  It sounds like it shouldn’t work but, boy, does it ever…!  Juicy duck meat topped with crispy skin, truffled mustard, onion relish and your choice of cheese is about as naughty as you can get.  Everyone raves about the goats cheese version but my personal favourite is the smoked cheddar.  Find them at various markets around town.

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Apple Cake and Quince Vodka from Marchewka z Groskiem
There were just so many delicious things to eat and drink in Krakow and my waistline paid the price.  However, the apple cake at Marchewka z Groskiem in Kazimierz was worth the extra few pounds.  It was moist and buttery with enough apple to cut through the richness.  I washed it down with a quince vodka, another local speciality.

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Lamb Pie, Mash and Kale from 10 Greek Street
Sometimes I just want good, old fashioned British food and this pie dish from 10 Greek Street really hit the spot.  The pie was more like a pasty, instead of the usual pastry-topped casserole dish and was full to bursting with rich lamb stew.  Comfort food done properly.

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The Original Heartbreaker from Tongue ‘n’ Cheeks
I have eaten many, many burgers this year but the Original Heartbreaker is by far and away the best of the best.  The meat is smokey, rare and rich, and it’s topped with chimichurri, sour cream, cheddar and watercress.  Hunt one down at KERB – you won’t regret it.

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The Blessed Thistle from 46 & Mercy
There were tons of amazing cocktails on offer during London Cocktail Week but my top choice was the Blessed Thistle.  It is made with vodka, sherry vinegar, vermouth washed with pork fat, and thyme – a combination of ingredients that may raise an eyebrow.  However, not only do they work amazingly well together, the use of pork fat gives a delicate smoky flavour to the drink.

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Jerk Chicken from Mama’s Jerk
I well and truly stuffed my face at the various Street Feast locations this year, but the jerk chicken wings from Mama’s Jerk at Dalston Yard take the top spot.  It may not have been the sexiest looking dish ever, but simple is definitely best.  They were sticky, juicy, smoky, sweet with just enough heat behind them.  I looked like a total mess after eating them but it was worth it.

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Mutton Tikka from Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort
As one dish among over one hundred other amazing dishes at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah buffet in Oman, this mutton tikka faced stiff competition.  However, it stood out thanks to the tender meat and robust spicing. I even broke my buffet rule of going back for second helpings; it was that good.

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Sakura from Shochu Lounge
This is another fantastic drink that was available during London Cocktail Week.  Made with Nikka whisky, Cocchi Barolo Chinato vermouth, sakura tincture and plum soda, it was surprisingly sweet but tempered by the smokiness of the whisky.  A drink that I still think about to this day.

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I’m really excited about all of the potential culinary experiences that 2016 has to offer.  Does anyone have any recommendations?  If so, drop me a line; I’d be happy to hear them.

Happy New Year y’all.

Bar Termini

Bar Termini

A glass of Negroni at Bar Termini

Regular followers will know how much I love Soho.  I frequently lament the aggressive pace of change and new development in the area.  However, no matter how much I adore it’s grimy underbelly, I did not want to get up close and personal with the damp pavement of Brewer Street…..  I’m putting the blame squarely at the doorstep of Bar Termini and their fabulous Negronis.

I discovered Bar Termini a few months ago and have been a regular visitor ever since.  I love its chic, retro vibe – all staff in white coats, shiny coffee machine, and marble surfaces.  I love its teeny tiny, time capsule, Continental feel.  Perched at the bar, cocktail in hand, it almost feels like I’m in a Fellini film.  Most of all I love their sexy sexy drinks.  Bar Termini is perhaps best know for their Negronis.  A Negroni is a cocktail made from one part gin, one part vermouth rosso and one part Campari.  It is, without doubt, a drink for grown ups.  I first tried one earlier this year – at Bar Termini – and am now a bit of a Negroni addict.

Bar Termini is the brainchild of Marco Arrigo, the Head of Quality for Illy coffee, and renowned mixologist Tony Conigliaro.  So you can expect top notch drinks before you even step through the door.  The menu offers a choice of three Negronis – Classico, Rosato and Superiore.  The Classico is, of course, the classic Negroni recipe but cooked for a little longer to give a smoother finish.  The Rosato is made with a rose petal infusion, which gives a hint of sweetness.  The Superiore includes pink peppercorns, cooked through a sous vide to release the bitterness.  All are served in dainty little glasses, in true aperitivo style.  There is more to Bar Termini than just their Negronis however.  They also offer some seriously bad ass cocktails.  My personal favourite is the Marsala Martini, made with marsala dolce, vermouth, gin and almond bitters.

I take everyone I know to Bar Termini, so when my mum recently visited she was no exception.  She had never tried a Negroni before so, as she is a lover of gin, I was pretty confident that this was something she needed to know about.  The fact that she had to shortly catch her train back to Wales was by the by. As I recently read elsewhere, the bar is about coming for one before moving on.  Yeah….not in my world.  Mum loved the drinks, so several Negronis plus a Marsala Martini later and suddenly we were cutting it very fine for that train.  A mad dash across town ensued, as we wove on unsteady feet through the soggy streets of Soho.  And then, as I was doing that whole London thing of stepping off the pavement to overtake slow moving tourists, my foot slipped off the kerb and bam!  I fell flat on my face, toddler style, complete with bruised knees and scraped palms.  So much for that whole La Dolce Vita thing.  Anita Ekberg I most definitely am not.  Fortunately the embarrassment factor, made even more acute by the fact that my mum was there to pick me up off the floor, was diminished thanks to all the gin in my system.

So Bar Termini, your killer cocktails were quite literally my downfall, but that’s not going to stop me coming back for more.  I do have a Negroni addiction to feed after all.

Oh and mum missed her train.

Then sent me this….

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Bar Termini, 7 Old Compton Street, W1D 5JE

Bar Termini Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

London Cocktail Week 2015 – My Highlights

London Cocktail Week 2015 – My Highlights

Mini clothes pegs.  Dainty egg-cup style glasses.  Drinks made with condiments, pork fat and even ants.  Yes ladies and gentlemen…London Cocktail Week is here.

There are so many things that I loved about London Cocktail Week.  The sheer number of bars taking part, not including the pop ups at Poland Street and Spitalfields, making me feel like the proverbial kid in candy store.  The opportunity to try something that I may not usually order.  How amazingly friendly everyone has been.  But most of all, I really loved how enthusiastic the bar staff have been.  Each person who served me clearly took so much pride in their bar and the effort that had gone into their LCW cocktail.  Here are my personal highlights from the week:

The Lucky Elder Martini – The Lucky Pig
Bombay Sapphire gin, St Germain elderflower liqueur, apple juice, lime juice and egg white went into this refreshing little number from one of my favourite bars – although  I think the egg white might have been forgotten…  I almost felt quite wholesome drinking this seemingly innocent cocktail.  My head was telling me a different story the next day, however.

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Sakura – Shochu Lounge
This didn’t taste at all like I imagined although, with ingredients like sakura tincture, I’m not sure what I was expecting to be honest.  Sakura is Japanese cherry blossom and is therefore an appropriate ingredient for a cocktail at this Asian-inspired bar beneath ROKA restaurant, mixed with Nikka whisky, vermouth and plum soda.  Surprisingly sweet, but not overly so, with a hint of smokiness from the whisky.

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Muggles Mark – Reverend JW Simpson
What a pleasant surprise to learn that the team at the Reverend had not one, but two signature cocktails on the menu for LCW.  Their recommendation was the Muggles Mark – Maker’s Mark, Liqueur 43, lemon, egg white and homemade spiced pumpkin juice served up in a mini tankard.  Only politeness prevented me from using my finger to scoop out what remained of the appropriately autumnal flavoured froth from inside my glass.

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The Pemberton – The Sun Tavern
Named after John Pemberton, the man who invented Coca Cola (you learn something new everyday!), this was made with Glendalough Double Barrel Irish whisky, lime juice, a coke and ginger reduction, and spiced chocolate bitters.  I was expecting a long drink tasting of coke but instead was presented with a little glass containing a creamy mixture with a hint of lime in the background.  Another one that was dangerously drinkable.

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Blessed Thistle – 46 & Mercy
I read the description of this and thought “What the actual fuck??”  Any drink made up of vodka, sherry vinegar, and vermouth washed with pork fat and thyme is going to be a gamble and I had visions of being presented with something that had translucent circles of fat floating around in it, a bit like my nan’s gravy.  Fortunately, no actual fat goes into the drink; it is filtered through a muslin cloth so only the smoky taste remains and it tasted fantastic!

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Latilla de los Muertos – Discount Suit Company
Firstly – I bloody love this place.  A proper little speakeasy around the corner from Petticoat Lane Market with barely any room to swing a cat.  Secondly – their LCW cocktail rocked.  Made with Ocho Blanco tequila, Briottet manzana verde liqueur, lemon juice, honey syrup, egg white, chocolate bitters, and Tabasco, this was another one that could have been “piss in a glass” (a phrase I have stolen from my friend who used it to describe one particular cocktail not featured here).  It was sweet, sharp and aromatic all at once, with the warmth of honey and a strange but not-unpleasant tingling sensation in my mouth.

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I would have loved to have had the time, money, and liver capacity to try each and every cocktail on offer this past week.  I barely scratched the surface and already feel completely broken.  My top pick of the week, however, is the Blessed Thistle from 46 & Mercy.  It takes some skill to make vinegar, pork fat, and thyme work in a cocktail, and to then create a drink that dings each and every one of your tastebuds is something to be applauded.  I’m looking forward to visiting again and trying some more of their selection.  But first, I need to detox for at least a month!