Zigzagging their way home from the Athens Bar Show last November, Mr. and Mrs. Bum found themselves with some time to kill in London. With only a few hours to spare, where do Tikiphiles go in a city that is arguably the cocktail capitol of the world? Talk about an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. There are actual Tiki bars like Trailer Happiness, Mahiki, and Kanaloa, all worthy. And there are scads of craft cocktail bars with exotic drinks on their menus.
At the West End restaurant Bam-Bou, a steep wooden staircase winds through four stories of dining rooms. By all means, stop at one of them to sample the tasty pan-Asian dishes. But don’t leave without climbing to the summit. Here on the fifth floor is the Red Bar, an opium dream of Indochina in 1954. Lit by candles, ringed with black lacquered apothecary cabinets overflowing with mysterious Far Eastern herbs and spices, the Red Bar is an ideal place to rub shoulders with ghosts (if incorporeal beings can in fact rub shoulders, or any other part of themselves, which, for their sake, we hope they can). Is that Josef von Sternberg in the corner, sketching sets for Shanghai? Graham Greene, ordering three-snake liqueur from barman Ladislav Piljar? Well, at least Ladislav is no illusion. We’ve written about this Slovakia-born mixologist’s stint at Belfast’s Merchant Hotel Bar, whence he migrated to London’s Hix and the venerable Savoy Hotel, but here amid Bambou’s chinoiserie he seems — temporarily, at least — to have stopped roving. “I am very happy in these surroundings,” he informed us.
He also told us that Red Bar’s original drinks come from any one of a number of Bam-Bou’s staff, who rigorously workshop their recipes. Some of these are as exotic as the decor (the Kobe Mizuwari combines Japanese whiskey with umeshu, lemon, and a gunpowder tea syrup), but the most successful ones we sampled came from Ladislav’s own hand. Best of show were his Bam-Bou Daiquiri (Venezuelan rum, cinnamon liqueur, lime, caster sugar) and an as yet unnamed rum-and-allspice flip he’s still experimenting with (ask him for it; he’ll know the one).
In East London, another Slovakian émigré has gone exotic in a big way. So big that tables at his current place of employ, Nightjar (named after a nocturnal bird), are booked solid months in advance. Much has been made of Marian Beke’s innovative garnish program — which, through a strict daily prep regimen, produces visual masterpieces in record time at minimum cost. Marian’s garnishes have become such a selling point that Nightjar offers a pack of souvenir drink-photo playing cards to customers who want a memento of their prettified potions (pictured at top of post); Marian and his head bartender, Luca Cinalli, are also frequently tapped to give garnish seminars at bar shows throughout Europe.
Given the material used in some of the most elaborate garnishes, Nightjar might more appropriately be named Magpie: raw materials include quail egg shells, dried starfish, cacao nut casings, and Japanese origami. But what’s in the glass is just as novel as what’s on the rim.
Our first drink was the magnificent B.A.Q. Daiquiri (pimento-smoked Jamaican rum, fresh kumquat juice, honey and “barbecue spices”), followed by the Cosmo Roast (turkey fat-washed gin, house cranberry conserve, sage leaves, lime, and absinthe bitters). Although we admired the showmanship behind the Queen Elizabeth (a cocktail aged underwater in a barrel, which rests at the bottom of an aquarium next to a submerged replica of Big Ben), we opted instead for two classic Tiki drinks that had both been given the full Nightjar treatment. Marian’s take on the Beachcomber’s Punch transformed Don The Beachcomber’s simple rum, lime, and apricot brandy concoction into something Don would not have recognized, but would surely have enjoyed: cocoa-buttered Puerto Rican rum, housemade mamajuana cordial, chai tea, mastiha honey, lime, and fresh pineapple juice. Trader Vic’s Tortuga was similarly transformed by substituting housemade cacao-infused Amer Picon for the vermouth called for by Vic.
In fact, we couldn’t find a single drink on the 17 page menu that didn’t contain at least one arcane housemade ingredient. To name a few: monkey nut infusion, cheddar cheese-matured gin, quince liqueur, tobacco liqueur, tonka bean liqueur, Turkish delight syrup, Mexican herb syrup, juiced Korean pear, roasted melon juice, Arabic bitters, fig perfume, Peruvian corn soda, Malbec vine leaf smoke, Greek yoghurt tincture.
The sheer number of bespoke ingredients that go into Nightjar’s drinks (all told, we counted 35) boggles the mind, especially when you consider the elaborate garnishes that adorn those drinks. With all that stuff going in — and on — every glass, and with every seat in the house always occupied, you might expect a long wait for your cocktail. But Marian, Luca, and their confrère Gabriele Manfredi kick out orders at amazing speed, with clockwork precision, economy of movement, and balletic grace. It’s poetry in fast-motion. No wonder Nightjar’s jovial owner Edmund Weil, who has taken great pains to re-create the intimate ambiance of a 1920s live-jazz cabaret, discourages seating at the bar; if he didn’t, no one would be watching the stage.