11 January 2011

n.d.p. in london: 69 colebrooke row, angel

Having at some point decided my recent wine explorations in London would amount to almost nothing, just a lot of screw-capped new-world Chenin, I was proportionately more eager to visit the city's various cocktail destinations.

Possibly I was just more eager to drink. It doesn't matter.

I met my Parisian New Zealander friends P and Z at the unassuming molecular mixology bar 69 Colebrooke Row, near Angel, where the first and only disappointment of the evening was hearing from the genial leggy server that the bar's general manager, a sharp woman called Cara I'd once gotten drunk with in Paris, was away from London for the holidays. Oh well. Even without the personal touch, 69 Colbrooke Row makes a profound impression - chiefly because its whole underdone ethos is a successful (I hope?) refutation of the dead-obvious lux approach I found so dull at ECC Chinatown.

69 Colbrooke Row is downright pokey. Borderline hokey, in certain aspects (piano, Christmas tree). There's no getting around it. From the Martini-sponsored awning to the cramped tables, murky light, and ugly candle holders, the bar wears its shabbiness like an inherited fur coat. I appreciate this; it's a kind of geeky standoffishness that implies owner Tony Conigliaro is confident enough in the appeal of his drinks and his bar's reputation to forgo the usual cocktail glamor overtures. What's left is great service, and an admirably unfussy list of strange reinvented drinks.

Conigliaro keeps a lab above the bar where he presumably potters around at length doing weird things to unlikely ingredients. The house "dry martini" is famously tinted with a "dry essence" made from grape-seeds (how this essence differs from, say, grappa is a question I forgot to ask) whereas another signature drink, the "Lipstick Rose" arrives stamped with a lippy smudge of some other essence that actually flavors the cocktail as one drinks it. I was curious about this, but Z had just finished one when I arrived and she warned me off it as being too sweet. I wound up with a "Licorice Whiskey Sour," probably not measurably less sweet, in fact, but with a pleasing unctuous balance from the homemade licorice syrup.*

If these drinks, at least the first two I mentioned, sound a bit overreaching and contortionist, well, they are. On a certain level they are little parlor tricks, stories to tell at parties, miniature theme park rides. 69 Colebrooke Row avoids preciousness only by dint of the overarching dryness (now I mean humor, not a sensation) of its presentation. There is no verbiage on the cocktail list, and if you didn't ask what was special about the ingredients in any given concoction, you might not be told.

A final word about molecular mixology, and why I find it acceptable, where I find most other violently nontraditional procedures - including most molecular gastronomy - kind of vulgar: cocktails are not cooking. Nor are they winemaking. Gastronomy and viticulture are both preindustrial disciplines, whereas the cocktail came of age in the industrial era. It is a fundamentally American endeavor, and, like America, it has little access or recourse to tradition beyond immediate history. The concept of tradition - practices born slowly, of simple necessity undistorted by contemporary market pressure - holds no water in the cocktail world. So I say go for it, turn booze into mist or slime or a mold, pour it in a glass or chip it out of dry ice, bottoms up. It's not like it would otherwise possess a great deal of nutritional value.

* One of the 69 Colebrooke Row list's most peculiar, and misleading, features it its humble tendency to class what are almost definitely more involved substances as mere "syrups." My impression is that many of these ingredients are syrups in the same way that certain wine geeks refer to classed-growth Bordeaux as "juice."

69 Colebrooke Row
London N1 8AA
United Kingdom
Tube: Angel
Tel: +44 871 075 5892
Related Links:

A pretty ditzy review of 69 Colebrooke Row @ LondonForInsiders
A gutsier more amusing blog review of 69 Colebrooke Row @ NewLondonCocktailReview
Another informative review of 69 Colebrooke Row @ TheLondonInsider (no relation to above ditz blog, I don't think)
A small blurb on the precious-looking bar bites at 69 Colebrooke Row @ TheFoodDiaries
Someone really not liking the Licorice Whiskey Sour @ TheLondonCocktailGuide

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