From Still to Bar: Whisky tasting at Shotgun BBQ with the WSET

Sometimes a little self-deception is a harmless thing. After a few mediocre old fashioneds at some cocktail places around London, I thought, “How hard can it be?”. I know a thing or two about whisky, bourbon is a small jump from there, and as far as cocktails go, old fashioneds shouldn’t be too taxing. So after a couple of rather enjoyable weeks, I settled on a recipe I liked and was rather pleased with my efforts in churning out this beverage.

As I said, self-deception isn’t really a problem….until you realise it. Sadly, my personal epiphany came on Monday night at 26 Kingly street, Soho as part of the From Still to Bar series run by the WSET, where I was served an old fashioned that made me realise that my attempts amounted to little more than stirring orange juice into whisky and pouring it into a nice glass.

The blow, although severe, was thankfully lessened by the fact that the drink in question, and the Sazerac that followed were quite excellent.

The evening was put together by the wine and spirit education trust as the final chapter of a three-part series that has run this year, in which a spirit has been put under the spotlight in an attempt to share some knowledge with a wider audience.

Tastefully done, the event consists of the sampling of three very different whiskies. After trying them, and listening to a short speech via an iPod from Will Lowe of the Cambridge Distillery, the bar staff – who deserve a good deal of credit for the quality of the evening’s drinks – will then make each customer a cocktail using whichever of the whiskies they prefer.

What’s on offer feels quite unique, as to taste a spirit in its pure form, identify its characteristics, then to see how they can be modified, adapted or highlighted into a cocktail really makes you think about your choice of spirit in cocktail making, in a way the consumer is perhaps not usually challenged to do.

The tasting is available any time the restaurant is open, but a word of advice would be to head there early and sample what’s on offer in place of pre-dinner drinks whilst sat at the bar, so you can watch the bar staff making your cocktail and pester them as to exactly what they’re doing – they seemed only too happy to oblige.

Lobos in Soho

What is the most misunderstood animal? If nature programmes are anything to go by, I am reliably informed that it is the wolf. Victimised and scandalised, it turned up late on the day jobs were handed out and got “moon howler/sheep harasser”, narrowly missing out on “man’s best friend” to a rag tag bunch of drooling dogs.

Like its namesake, Lobos Soho has the potential to be overlooked. Arriving at Frith Street it is a slightly worrisome sign that the queue I have to push through to get inside is actually for Hoppers, which is next door. Neither is it immediately clear that whilst this is a tapas bar, the restaurant’s primary focus is on its meat. But don’t be fooled. The thing worth talking about here is undoubtedly the meat.

I tend to stay away from a lot of pork on menus in London unless it’s been slow cooked. Even from the highest quality animals, it is a desperately unforgiving meat that goes from raw and chewy to dry and stringy in the blink of an eye.

The Iberico is a whole other story. Like listening to Born to Run on Vinyl, putting on a tailor made suit or watching Avatar in HD, Iberico is the upgrade you wondered how you’d ever done without. So if you are not averse to the possibilities of pork that has been little more than lightly seared and seasoned, then read on.

The Iberico Pork Selection arrives piled with Loin, Presa and Secreto, each with their own unique texture and flavour. Almost entirely raw, the loin’s appearance is so striking that it has you wondering if you’ve accidentally been brought the tuna carpaccio. I glance at my companion and tell him I’m not sure we’ll get through the whole plate. One bite in we realise it’s a non-issue. It is all exemplary.

This is not to say that there aren’t other high points along the way. A Grilled Octopus Leg is gelatinous and rich, falling just the right side of fishy, with mouthfuls alternating between hits of squid and crab, the whole thing lifted by small pieces of fried chorizo. And Croqueta with sweet red pepper are a great balance between fatty and meaty. 

If there is a criticism of Lobos it would have to be the various potato elements dotted about the dishes. The fried ones are nearly all overly greasy and the potato puree that comes with Mushrooms and Fried Quails Egg is somewhat gluey and under seasoned. Mostly they’re simply superfluous. This is tapas: if you want a potato dish you’ll order one, no need for the token gesture of putting one on my meat platter. Just serve the lip-puckeringly flavoursome and piquant garlic salsa verde-style sauce that accompanies the plates instead, as a foil to cut through all the pork’s quite marvellous natural fattiness.

These are just about the only negatives, though. You could eat here well without drinks for £30 a head; but for only a little more, try the wonderful Manzanilla sherry to start with some thinly sliced Iberico ham and salted almonds.

The Savannah launches at the Wesley Hotel in Bloomsbury

Hearing that the new Savannah restaurant at the Wesley Hotel aims to be eco-friendly and socially conscious, one could be forgiven for thinking that this would roughly translate to a vegan restaurant serving raw fruit and vegetable smoothies where diners sit on upturned crates and spiralise courgettes. Pleasingly however, this is not the case, and the Savannah takes a more rounded approach to the moral commitment – with the exception of the courgette spaghetti, which appears to be inescapable at the moment and does find its way onto the menu. Food is carefully and ethically sourced from sustainable suppliers and artisans who care about their carbon footprint, furniture is built from recycled materials and the company promises to divert some of the restaurant’s profits to social causes in the local area.

The bar downstairs is spacious and welcoming, complemented by a striking wall covered in dozens on clocks, all stopped on different times, intended to represent the fact that the hotel wants people to come here, relax and just let time stop. As well as a wide range of spirits, the bar will aim to carry a changing selection of eco-friendly and bio-dynamic wines.

Upstairs, the 50-cover restaurant space continues the same design theme. Looking through the menu, which the head chef informs us is just in its final stages of tinkering, the culinary style reads as classics with a twist. Risky, given some things are classics for a reason, but with Asian, African and European influences, there is certainly enough choice on offer that anyone will be able to find something that appeals.

Whilst vegetarian options such as Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli with Truffle Cheese Sauce are scattered throughout the menu, there is plenty of meat on offer too. Steak tartare is a classic dish to see on London hotel menus, but here it is paired with pickled ginger, watermelon, wasabi, soy sauce and coriander. Similarly, pork belly and scallop are given a new lease of life with African spices and a carrot and miso puree.

So whether you want to sip one of their bio-dynamic wines with a few small plates, or head upstairs to the restaurant and indulge in a full three course meal, the Savannah is one to check out.

Big Fernand in Fitzrovia

Big Fernand in Fitzrovia

Nowadays any review of a burger place becomes an exercise in comparison, but as the burger bubble refuses to burst, given the fierceness of the competition in the sector, perhaps this isn’t surprising. With their focus on unique toppings such as fresh herbs, and careful attention to cheese choices sure to please any turophile, Big Fernand do their best to present a unique offering, but the result isn’t necessarily enough to edge out its competitors.

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