Bar Review: The Elephant’s Head, Camden

The Elephant’s Head – Victorian Camden

The Elephant’s Head pub is bang in the middle of  Camden Town, a simulacrum of whatever it used to be or thought it was. This one-time home of John Lennon, Charles Dickens and Sir Ambrose Fleming, saw a heroin-chic renascence in the early naughties. The skinny-limbed antics of Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty preceded Noel Fielding and Russell Brand entertaining audiences by competing to have the silliest hair. Today, Camden’s biggest export is Dappy from N-Dubz.

Others disagree, of course. Alex Proud at The Telegraph is a fan: “Camden was cool in 1994 (and even 1984) and it’s still cool in 2014. It has, dare I say it, sustainable coolness. True, at no point in time will be it be as achingly “now” as a speakeasy in a repurposed public loo in Camberwell selling dirty cocktails in jam jars, but that’s the point”.

For me, Camden falls over itself screaming how alternative it is while trying as hard as possible not to care, as carefully as possible. Camden is a hangout for biker gangs without motorbikes, the worst cocaine in Europe, and enjoys a working-class brashness despite one bedroom flats renting at £3,000 a month.

I’m ranting, because I really wanted to like The Elephant’s Head pub. It’s a scruffy, characterful pub full of scruffy characters, the kind that makes the past-time of London boozing a uniquely British pleasure. I love dark Victorian London Pubs; I like to imagine Jack the Ripper sitting at the bar, nursing a pint of mild, fiddling with a Soduku. The Elephant’s Head dates to 1832, being once part of the famous Camden Town Brewery, producers of ‘Elephant Ale’ in the 1800’s. Feeling like Julian Barrat in Nathan Barley, I sought refuge in something genuine – something with more purpose and age than me – away from the surrounding nonsense. The classic checkered floor, dark wooden bar and low ceilings filled me with hope.

The pub was teaming with leather clad punters, holding what I assumed was a piercing convention. The standard issue Full English and a pint of bitter both did the job and weren’t unreasonably priced, given the fiscal hell-hole that is Zone 1. Unfortunately, members of The Elephant’s Head staff were the sourest, patronising and most abrasive as I’ve come across.

The Elephant’s Head Pub
Review Summary

Atmosphere 6  Cost 6  Quality 5  Service 2

Elephants Head Camden Pub Review
Camden Street Artist (Of Sorts)

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Head Pub Camden

Bar Review: Pollen Street Social, Mayfair

Pollen Street Social – A Real Buzz

Pollen Street Social is probably best known for its ‘Quail Brunch’, described in 2014 as ‘London’s Best Dish’, by Time Out magazine, although I was there for bourgeois booze only. I’ve admired Jason Atherton for a long time. Not only does he have sixteen restaurants worldwide, but he comes across as a thoroughly decent bloke.

Pollen Street Social describes itself as a: “Michelin-starred modern urban meeting point. A place to eat, drink and socialise, both for special occasions, and for informal everyday affairs.” To be fair that is exactly what it is, and jolly good it is too. The bar is long and narrow. Everything is spotless. The dark wooden shelves are back lit, and impressively filled. Drinkers have their backs to restaurant tables where diners spill over without partition.

Pollen Street Social provided what I call ‘a memorable moment’, a food and drink schema that’s etched in my mind. This one I filed away in my brain’s hard drive as ‘favourite cocktail ever’. Only an evil genius would have the audacity and creativity to combine: Riesling, Pisco, rhubarb vinegar, olive oil and egg white. The resilient frothy head confidently held the droplets of oil creating a uniquely beautiful texture. The sweet Riesling and sour Pisco were best buddies, with the rhubarb vinegar adding beads of magic. This drink was so special it would have been a crime only to order one.

I can’t decide whether or not I find truffles vile or delicious. AA Gill was spot on advising they: “teeter on the edge of being disgusting, but are actually fabulous”. I’m uncertain if it was bravery or campness that provoked a gamble on a truffle infused champagne number. This glass of bubbles was beauty and the beast in liquid form. For me the incredible pungent earthy aromas were overwhelming. This was a feminine option, for only the hardest drinkers.

In between shovelling endless salty vegetable crisps, I managed to request a Manhattan. It was promptly made to my specification (Rye+Sweet Vermouth). I can’t describe it any better than Esquire magazine: “It [was] bold and fortifying, yet as relaxing as a deep massage.” Not that I ever seriously considered them, but the Pollen Street Social Virgin Cocktails, where almost as interesting.

I would have liked to chew the fat with the charming staff all afternoon, but by this point my wallet was empty. Pollen Street Social was expensive, but an understated smart Mayfair space I’d recommend to anyone. Anyone who get’s paid too much.

Pollen Street Social
Review Summary

Atmosphere 9  Cost 4  Quality 10  Service 10

Pollen Street Social Review
The best drink since I can remember

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Bar Review: The Hawksmoor Seven Dials, Covent Garden

The Hawksmoor Seven Dials – Meating Of Minds

I was drawn to The Hawksmoor after Giles Coren advised it served: “the best steak you will find anywhere”. The Hawksmoor Group has seven locations (six in London, one in Manchester) but the Seven Dials branch proudly ranked highest on TripAdvisor (124 out of 17,095), so I followed the herd in more ways than one. The Hawksmoor Seven Dials in Covent Garden is named after a seven street junction, each with respective sundials. Despite every road leading to it, The Hawksmoor Seven Dials is deceptively camouflaged – the unassuming entrance only added to the intrigue.

It wasn’t my drinking debut at The Hawksmoor Seven Dials, having wisely trusted Giles’s steak advice (he wasn’t wrong). On this occasion, I only had eyes for the bar. Leafing through the menu reading ‘Absinthe Pina Colada’ and ‘Full Fat Old Fashioned’ in the same breath, I fell hopelessly in love.

Hawksmoor Seven Dials legend Nicole kookily orchestrated the proceedings, being knowledgeable, gracious and welcoming in equal measure. She advised the Full Fat Old Fashioned was a “game changer” – naturally I couldn’t refuse. This serious libation was patiently prepared, so I planned on giving it the respect it deserved. It was too good: rather than sipping and savouring, I greedily guzzled it down like a scene from Ice Cold In Alex.

The Hawksmoor Seven Dials’ best selling drink is Shakey Pete’s Ginger Brew, achieving cult status; served in pleasingly over-sized tankards, I lived out my pirate fantasies without a court summons. This fabulous concoction was the best ginger beer in town: ice cold, extravagantly frothy and mightily refreshing.

The Hawksmoor Seven Dials bar was handsomely stocked with quality bottles – many unfamiliar – of all shapes and sizes. I spotted Lagavulin, which I thought was my favourite whisky. I was poured Caol Ila and wryly told: “if you don’t prefer it – it’s free”. Predictably, my eyes were opened, and I happily paid. As the staff knew my favourite drink before I did, I was eager to learn what floated their boat. The Hawksmoor Seven Dials staff were partial to gentlemanly drops of Mezcal, something I’m relatively unfamiliar with. Two shots later I saw the appeal: beautifully smokey, slightly sweet but still put hairs on my chest.

A Sazerac – the dark prince of the cocktail world – was promptly made to order, with Nicole nodding in silent approval.  David Wondrich described it best:

“A proper drink at the right time—one mixed with care and skill and served in a true spirit of hospitality—is better than any other made thing at giving us the illusion, at least, that we’re getting what we want from life. A cat can gaze upon a king, as the proverb goes, and after a Dry Martini or a Sazerac Cocktail or two, we’re all cats.”

A zippy Margarita was soon whipped together, further jazzed up by the addition of fresh ginger. All this lead me to the conclusion that The Hawksmoor Seven Dials is my favourite bar. Bravo!

The Hawksmoor Seven Dials
Review Summary

Atmosphere 10  Cost 5  Quality 10  Service 10

Hawksmoor Seven Dials Review
Something different…
Hawksmoor Seven Dials Review
Shakey Pete Ginger Beer & Caol Ila
Hawksmoor Seven Dials Review
Ginger Margarita & Sazerac
Hawksmoor Seven Dials Review
A martini (of sorts)

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Seven Dials