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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!

7 of the prettiest cafes in London

7 of the prettiest cafes in London

London's prettiest cafes : A rose latte from the Palm Vaults, Hackney, London

LONDON’S CAFES ARE….PRETTY FANTASTIC

London’s cafes have got so much more going on than the stereotypical greasy spoon (although I do love a good old fashioned caff fry-up). And there’s NO excuse to head for a Starbucks or Cafe Nero. Although the march of the bland chain cafes relentlessly continues its grubby, tax-dodging way across town, there are a vast number of gorgeous and inherently Instagrammable independent cafes waiting for your business. Here are my pick of the prettiest:

Palm Vaults, Hackney
It’s an obvious choice, but it’s obvious for a good reason. IT’S BLOODY LUSH! Palm Vaults has already graced the Instagram accounts of a thousand Londoners, with its exposed brickwork, its baby pink and pale green colour palette and its overflowing hanging baskets. It has a cool Miami Beach vibe. Even the food and drink gets in on the act with vivid beetroot or lavender lattes, smoothies and an array of colourful cakes. It’s a teeny little place so make sure you book a table or get there early. People were queuing out of the door by the time I left.
411 Mare Street, London, E8 1HY

London's prettiest cafes : The Palm Vaults, Hackney, London

The Ship of Adventures, Dalston
If it sounds like the title of a children’s book then it’s because this cafe is run by the Hackney Pirates; a charity that helps young people develop their reading skills.  It’s a gorgeously cosy little place; higgeldy-piggeldy with bookshelves and assorted nautical accessories – including a boat hanging from the ceiling! Stop off for a coffee and one of their sourdough sandwiches or browse the shelves for kids books, greetings cards and gifts. They also have an events space for hire. Get a warm fuzzy feeling from helping a very worthwhile cause, as well as from the caffeine.
128 Kingsland High Street, London, E8 2NS

London's prettiest cafes : The Ship of Adventures, Dalston, London

Monocle Cafe, Marylebone
The Monocle brand has diversified even further; from a magazine to a radio station and, now, a cafe. Based on elegant Chiltern Street, it hits all the current trends. Avocado? Check. Japanese food? Check. Scandinavian pastries? Check. It’s an achingly cool, weird hipster mash-up but I love the little “living room” at the back of the cafe. This cosy nook has squishy sofas, bookshelves, a transistor radio and even a TV in the corner. It looks like a set piece from the V&A – modernism crossed with IKEA. Get there early, lounge on a sofa with a cardamom bun and a copy of Monocle mag, and soak up all of the stylish vibes.
18 Chiltern Street, London, W1U 7QA

London's prettiest cafes : Monocle Cafe, Marylebone, London

Katsute 100, Islington
Katsute 100 is a gorgeous Japanese tea house located in the equally adorable Camden Passage. I actually stumbled upon this little gem while looking for another cafe, and couldn’t resist the lure of its zen-like interior. You can find a vast range of Japanese teas, including some unusual options like pickled cherry blossom or black bean. Expect beautiful ceramics, dainty cakes and a badass selection of Japanese whiskies. Like Monocle, Katsute also has a stylish little space at the back of the cafe where you can relax over a pot of green tea and escape the madness of the outside world.
Passage Apartments, 100 Islington High Street, London, N1 8EG

London's prettiest cafes : Katsute 100, Islington, London

Wringer + Mangle, London Fields
Wringer + Mangle is so east London. I walked past it several times when I first visited, as it’s housed in a singularly unappealing former office block. Step inside, however, and you get industrial chic crossed with a rainforest. This cafe/bar/restaurant is a lovely, light-filled spot where you can linger over a large glass of wine or grab a healthy breakfast. They also do an incredibly reasonably priced bottomless brunch and their Collins-heavy cocktail menu is ideal for warm summer nights. I’m looking forward to returning for more lazy drinks and their delicious-looking evening menu.
13-18 Sidworth Street, London, E8 3SD

London's prettiest cafes : Wringer + Mangle, London Fields, London

Fuckoffee, Bermondsey
Ok, so it may it may seem surprising that a place with a name like Fuckoffee is in my list of “pretty” places but stay with me here. This cafe – one of three by the Jonestown group –  isn’t a classic beauty but I love its chaotic, vibrant, graffiti-covered, neon-signed interior. I also love their DGAF attitude. Fuckoffee has already been at the centre of controversy thanks to its name (which they dealt with by a strategically placed asterisk) and some of their “near to the knuckle” signs. But, judging by the queues out of the door, it’s clearly true that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
163-167 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3UW

London's prettiest cafes : F*ckoffee, Bermondsey, London

Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, Shoreditch
This is a strange, strange place but one that’s worth checking out at least once. Unless you hate cats, in which case you need to give it a wide berth. I was slightly disappointed when I first arrived, as my table was in the poky and dated upstairs room. It looked like one of those old fashioned small town caffs – but with cats. Downstairs, however, is a different story. Dimly lit and spangled with fairy lights, this room is decked out like a kitty cat forest playground. Tree trunks twist up from the floor and across the ceiling, the walls are ivy-clad and cute kitties lounge lazily or chase after toys. Book in advance for cream tea, high tea or just a cup of tea with a difference.
152-154 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 6DG

London's prettiest cafes : Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium, Shoreditch, London

What are your favourite London cafes? Let me know in the comments.

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Coach and Horses: Where everybody knows your name

Coach and Horses: Where everybody knows your name

Pizza with Portobello mushrooms, spinach, pine nuts and truffle oil at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

“La la la….where everybody knows your name”. The theme song for Cheers set out the show’s premise of that friendly local boozer where you’re surrounded by friends. But of course that isn’t the real world, is it? Maybe in a small village where there’s only one place to go drinking and you have no choice but to get to know the bar staff, but in London?? That most unfriendly of places?? You’re kidding. So when I visited the Coach and Horses in Clapham for the second time, handed my card over the bar to start a tab and the barmaid couldn’t spot my name, it was a pleasant surprise to hear her colleague say “It’s Pinkstone, she’s been here before”. It was rather lovely to be able to have a laugh with the staff over the fact that I was ordering an espresso martini at lunchtime. And not much compares to being asked to help pick out a kitten for one of the barmaids (except perhaps getting a kitten yourself).

I read an article the other week that said London has lost 25% of its pubs since 2001. That probably comes as no great surprise to anyone who lives here; the twin evils of rent increases and property development make pubs a risky business to be involved in. But people still love a good pub, right?  I certainly do and, what’s more, I love what pubs are doing to get to grips with the change in the weather. From getting in guest chefs to hosting tasting sessions or cocktail classes, the modern London pub will usually keep you on your toes. Soggy beer mats, sticky carpets and pork scratchings are a thing of the past. So, as well as a warm and friendly welcome at the Coach and Horses, you can also expect to find the following excellent reasons to visit: pizza, cocktails, doughnuts.

Pizza with 'nduja, cherry tomatoes and rocket at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

If, for some strange reason, you don’t actually like pizza then make sure you eat before visiting the Coach and Horses because that’s pretty much all you’ll find on the menu. However, these aren’t just your bog standard pizzas. Sure, you can find a margherita and a pepperoni, but there’s also a beautifully piquant n’duja pizza with sticky, jam-like smashed cherry tomatoes and roasted fennel. A “breakfast” pizza of crispy bacon, free range baked eggs and spinach also came with a great big fiery kick in the palate, thanks to the sprinkling of dried chilli across the eggs.   I would have liked the eggs to have been a little softer; the idea of a runny yolk oozing into the bacon and cheese really appeals to me. However, I get that eggs on pizza are in the same realm as pineapple and anchovies, so it’s probably best to play it slightly safe. Either way, this unusual take on pizza was delicious and should be on breakfast menus everywhere.

Pizza with bacon, egg, spinach and chilli at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

As if a bacon and egg pizza isn’t unusual enough, the Coach and Horses also do a “white based” pizza. This forgoes the traditional tomato base in favour of one made with ricotta, cream, nutmeg and black pepper. It comes topped with roasted Portobello mushrooms, spinach, pine nuts, thyme and truffle oil. Decadence thy name is pizza! The funky aroma of truffle combined with garlic immediately set us drooling. I really expected this to be overly rich but the creamy base had been applied with a light touch, so the whole thing was dangerously easy to eat. In fact, the beauty of all these pizzas – in my eyes – is that the dough base is incredibly thin, so you can scoff down an entire pizza without stopping to take a breath. Or perhaps that’s just me… And if you’re gluten intolerant then you don’t have to miss out! The Coach and Horses also do gluten-free pizzas.

The dessert menu only has one item on it, but that’s ok because it involves Nutella. Doughnuts covered in melted Nutella to be exact. Word of warning: these doughnuts are HUGE. And you get three of them! So unless you’re absolutely starving, you might want to share a portion. We tried and failed to even make a dent in them when attempting to get through a plate each. But all was not lost however, because the Coach and Horses will box up your leftover doughnuts and/or pizza for you to take home and have for breakfast the next day. Or, again, perhaps that’s just me… Second word of warning: it may sound weird but it really is best to ask for cutlery. Unless you enjoy covering yourself in Nutella in public.

Nutella doughnuts at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

Drinks-wise, the aforementioned espresso martini is a good bet, as is the raspberry margarita. The cocktail menu is a work in progress, but the Coach and Horses also do a decent selection of wines. Lovers of craft beer will be in hoppy heaven as they can choose from a wide range of  small London-based breweries on tap, as well as bottles and cans from the likes of Beavertown, La Chouffe and Piston Head.

I’d really like to believe that there’s life in the London pub scene yet. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I do think that they are still in demand – and not just as “luxury apartments”. There’s not much wrong with the world when you’ve got a slice of pizza in one hand, a beer in the other and a friendly face behind the bar. The Coach and Horses is a real little belter of a pub. Long may it last.

The Coach & Horses, 173-175 Clapham Park Road, SW4 7EX.

Many thanks to the team at the Coach and Horses for inviting me to have pizza and cocktails with them. All views are, as ever, my own.

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!

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!

Pascual Toso: Tasting Argentinian Wine

Pascual Toso: Tasting Argentinian Wine

A selection of bottles of Pascual Toso wine

I don’t write about wine very often.  I think this is probably for two reasons.  Firstly, despite attending many wine tastings, I still don’t know that much about wine.  This is probably because of the second reason: I always end up drinking too much wine and forgetting everything.  However, it’s safe to say that I am very enthusiastic about drinking wine, so hopefully that makes up for my lack of expertise.  Recently, I made a big dent in a selection of wines by the Argentinan winery Pascual Toso.  This was a really fun experience, not only because I got to hang out with loads of lovely bloggers, but also because we got to learn all about the wine directly from the winemaker himself, Felipe Stahlschmidt.

Pascual Toso, the eponymous founder of the winery, was actually Italian, not Argentinian.  Back at the end of the 19th century, he left his home in Piedmont and travelled to Argentina.  Having been involved in his family’s winery in Piedmont, he recognised that there was potential for winemaking in his new home.  He established his first winery in 1890 and the rest, as they say, is history.  You know that a wine is going to be good when it’s got over 100 years of expertise behind it.

A glass of red wine

Anyway, onto the wine itself.  Argentina is known for its big, bold reds and Pascual Toso was no exception. We kicked off with that classic Argentinian wine – Malbec.  The Pascual Toso Estate 2014 Malbec – their “entry level” variety – was everything you would expect.  It was peppery and spicy, with hints of berries which took the edge off the oak.  It tasted lighter on the palate than a lot of other Malbecs that I have tried – which is probably a dangerous thing!  I took a bottle of this home with me and discovered that it goes fantastically well with camembert!  The next wine was also from the Estate collection but this time it was a Cabernet Sauvignon, also from 2014.  This is another favourite of mine and it did not disappoint.  Classic Cab Sav flavours of berries and vanilla made it very easy to drink.

As per all wine tastings, we worked our way steadily towards the really good stuff.  A Malbec from the Selected Vines collection was richer and fuller bodied than the first one we had tried.  It had that “ooomph” that I have come to associate with Malbec, and I could easily imagine enjoying a couple of glasses with a great piece of steak.  The Selected Vines collection is so called because Pascual Toso only use grapes from specially selected vineyards, and it certainly tasted like it was a bit more special.  Things were kept interesting with the inclusion of a spicy Syrah, before we moved on to the cream of the crop: The Magdalena Toso.  The Magdalena Toso is the ultra-premium blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvigon, and was created as a tribute to Pascual Toso’s mother.  This really was a treat.  Why choose between a Malbec and a Cab Sav when you can get the best of both worlds?  The combination of the two grapes created a real depth of flavour, that was also soft on the palate.

A winemaker holding a bottle of Pascual Toso wine

The great thing about all of these wines is that none of them – with the exception of the Magdalena Toso – are particularly expensive.  They start at £10 which is a steal for wine this drinkable.  And, of course, I did end up drinking too much of it.  But why change the habit of a lifetime, eh?

Pascual Toso wine can be found at Soho Wines, Whalley Wine Shop and The Vintner.  If you want to treat yourself to the Magdalena Toso then you can buy it from Addison Wines Online
Many thanks to The Forge for inviting me along to the wine tasting.  All views are, as ever, my own.

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.

harcourt

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….

Tequila, mezcal and all things agave

Tequila, mezcal and all things agave

Hands up if you have ever had a “bad experience” with tequila.  Ok, hands up if you think tequila tastes pretty nasty.  Just so you know – my hand was up both times.  I may like alcohol to bite back, but tequila has never floated my boat.  To me, it’s just firewater with about as much subtlety as a house brick.  Now, hands up if you have heard of mezcal.  Until recently, this drink wasn’t even on my radar, let alone my palate.  So when I had the opportunity to go to a festival celebrating all things agave, I jumped at it.  I would get to do some mezcal tasting and maybe even learn to love tequila.

Tequilafest was organised to educate us non-Mexicans about tequila and mezcal.  For most people in the UK, tequila is something that you slam down when you’re already pretty drunk.  Or perhaps when you need a helping hand to get pretty drunk.  Or for a drunken bet.  Whatever your motivation, chances are you’re not drinking it because you want to savour its flavour.  So the team behind Tequilafest want to help us understand that, actually, there’s more to tequila than just cheapo shots. For a start, it has appellation of origin status.  This means that its production is tightly controlled, so you can forget about those plans to set up a boutique tequila distillery in your shed.  Furthermore, there are three different classes of tequila: blanco (unaged), reposado (rested, i.e. aged for between two-twelve months) and anejo (vintage, i.e. aged for at least twelve months ).  I’ve only ever tried the blanco variety and, in fact, wasn’t even aware that there were other grades.  This was going to be a steep, and possibly very wobbly, learning curve.

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Mezcal may also be made from agave, like tequila, but we now start to enter the realm of all things artisanal.  For one thing, it was historically made in the poorer Mexican states where people were just distilling it for their own use.  So whereas tequila is traditionally more popular and is now mass produced, mezcal is much more niche.  It also tastes different – and I was actually pleasantly surprised.  It has a smokey flavour reminiscent of some whiskies.  This is because it is heated over a wood fire during the distillation process.  The process of making mezcal is steeped in tradition, with no two versions being the same.

Tequilafest was a celebration of all things Mexican, not just alcohol.  It coincided with the weekend after Mexican Independence Day and was aimed at demonstrating that there’s more to Mexico than pinatas, sombreros and tequila slammers.  The organisers want us to understand the culture of Mexico – the music, the history, the produce.  And I get that.  Having visited Mexico several years ago, one of my happiest memories is of sitting outside a restaurant in the main square of Merida, sipping on a turbo-strength margarita, listening to a mariachi band play while the locals danced.  It was one of those sublime moments that I wheel out whenever anyone goes on about how dangerous Mexico is and how you should never step foot outside your Cancun resort.

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Upon entering Tequilafest, we were given a wristband with ten tokens.  These were for the ten shots of tequila or mezcal that were included with the price of entry.  I’ll just repeat that.  TEN shots.  Fortunately, there was plenty of stodgy Mexican street food available to soak up the alcohol and prevent me from blowing a hole in my stomach lining.  Here is a quick summary of what I learned:

  1. There is nothing good about unaged tequila.
  2. If I’m going to make a sober decision to drink tequila then I’m going straight for the anejo.  It still burns a fiery trail straight through your digestive system, but it at least tastes slightly more palatable.
  3. There is such a thing as chili liqueur and it is amazing.  Check out Ancho Reyes.
  4. Mezcal is extremely interesting and I would definitely drink it again.  I’m a fan of whisky so I appreciated the wide flavour range and the craft behind it.

I think I got through, maybe, six or seven tokens before I had to admit defeat.  One esophagus-searing encounter after another just got a bit too much, so I  called time before I had another “bad experience”.  I may not have learned to love tequila but I do have a new respect for it.

Thanks to the team behind Tequilafest for giving me the opportunity to attend.  All opinions are, as ever, my own.

Mercato Metropolitano

Mercato Metropolitano

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Every now and then, a magical night happens in London.  They are little gems, strung together like a Swarovski bracelet, that remind you why you love living in a big, chaotic city.  I recently experienced one of those nights at, believe it or not, a disused factory down the road from Elephant and Castle station.  Sounds a bit odd?  Well, this old factory has been transformed into the most wonderful food market called Mercato Metropolitano.  If Italian food is your thing, then this is the place to be.  And if Italian food just makes you yawn and shrug your shoulders, then this is definitely the place to be, because your mind will be changed.

Mercato Metropolitano originated in Milan, which pretty much says it all.  You know the quality of food is going to be outstanding before you take your first bite.  Luckily for us, Mercato Metropolitano has now opened its first UK site, in an empty paper factory between Elephant and Castle and Borough.  It’s a mixture of lots of lovely things.  Firstly, there is a supermarket, but please don’t make the mistake of imagining something along the lines of Tesco.  This is the supermarket of dreams, rustic and beautifully lit, with every kind of Italian ingredient you could think of.  Fresh fruit and vegetables piled high, shelf upon shelf of wine, more varieties of meat and cheese than I could count.  It’s a little slice of heaven for any foodie.

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Beyond the supermarket, there is a sprawling street food market.  You can easily lose a few hours meandering around the various stalls, which are scattered throughout several rooms as well as spilling over into an outside area.  There are stalls catering to every taste, but my personal highlights were:

La Latteria
These guys make the creamiest, dreamiest cheese you could ever hope to put in your mouth.  Specialising in soft cheeses, like mozzarella and ricotta, La Latteria have their dairy in central London so they can ensure the freshest possible product.  You can order snacks like bruschetta or the intriguing rollatina (a thin sheet of mozzarella rolled into a wheel with things like bresaola or tomato).  Or just dive straight into a plateful of fresh stracciatella and let your cares melt away, along with your waistline.

Fresco
Pizza-lovers rejoice!  “The best pizza maker in Naples” is at Mercato Metropolitano.  The man behind Fresco, Alfredo Forgione, was made a Knight of the Republic by former President of Italy Giorgio Naploitano.  So you know you’re getting the really good stuff here.  We ordered the pasqualina which came with mozzarella, Italian sausage and friarelli – a green vegetable similar to broccoli.  The pizza is made fresh and served piping hot, with lots of oozy cheese.  I’d never had friarelli before but was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked as a pizza topping.  Plus it meant I could count pizza one of my five a day…

Badiani
Yet another world-class artisan producer…  You’re spoiling us Mercato Metropolitano!  Badiani won the top prize at this year’s London Gelato Festival and is frequently described as the best gelateria in their home town of Florence.  Their Buontalenti gelato (named after the 16th century Florentine architect) tastes ridiculously good for something that sounds so simple.  Made only from cream, milk, sugar and eggs, it was created for a competition to commemorate Buontalenti.  Of course, Badiani won the competition (yes, another one) and the rest is history.  The Buontalenti is the obvious choice to fill your cone, but their other flavours like pistachio and black sesame are worth checking out.

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I could wax lyrical all day about all the great things to try at Mercato Metropolitano (the sour beer, the fried gnocchi, the enoteca…), but really you just need to visit and go on a culinary adventure of your own.  There’s more to discover than just food.  The market is currently host to Backyard Cinema and will also feature concerts and exhibitions.  You might think that London doesn’t need another food market and, with Borough Market just up the road, Mercato Metropolitano does have some stiff competition.  However, not only does it offer a different variation on the theme, you can also find some really, really interesting produce.

As for me and my magical night?  Eating a huge tub of gelato beneath fairy lights and a fat golden moon, surrounded by friends and live music, is a pretty decent way to spend the evening.  It felt like one final fling with summer, complete with fizz, fireworks and fond memories.

Mercato Metropolitano is at 42 Newington Causeway, SE1 6DR (www.mercatometropolitano.co.uk)
Thank you to the team at The Tom Sawyer Effect, as well as the market vendors, for giving me the opportunity to write this post.  All views are, as ever, my own.