Tried & Tested

Bar check: Old Tom and English

3 Dec 2014 by Jenny Southan

BACKGROUND

This new bar opened on Soho’s Wardour Street in November, in what was previously the Coal Vaults. Owned by brother and sister team Costas and Maria Constantinou, no expense has been spared on the interiors of this subterranean drinking den.

Acclaimed British interior designer Lee Broom was hired to transform the space, which has numerous rooms and alcoves, turning it into a cosy hideaway that feels like a cross between a Scandinavian ski lodge – with flickering flames, pale oak panelling and smooth, carved wood furniture – and someone’s apartment from a scene in Mad Men (1960s era).

The floors are carpeted in thick crimson, there are vintage books and curios, crystal glasses and decanters, black and white geometric prints, rounded sofas and a lavish use of pale grey Carrara marble, from the lampshades to the fireplace, the bar to the table tops.

Unlike most hip openings in London, you don’t have to queue to get a table – in fact reservations are encouraged, not banned – and there are no filament lightbulbs or exposed pipework that seems to fulfill the never-ending need for “industrial chic”.

The name refers to an 18th-century recipe for “Old Tom” gin, and the English food it serves. There is also a wink to Soho’s less than salubrious past as a Red Light district, in that Tom is police slang for prostitute, apparently.

THE BAR

It’s easy to walk past the nondescript door leading to this bar, so keep your eyes peeled for the right number. Once inside, you simply follow the stars down to where you will emerge into a warm, other-worldly realm with glowing marble, flickering flames, elegant furnishings and inviting nooks for private gatherings.

Old Tom’s feels chic, homely and expensive but not flashy. It has atmosphere and character. I was immediately won over – especially when I was given a spot near the fire. The staff, who tended tables, were enthusiastic and attentive. My only complaint was the washrooms were so dark I could hardly see.

THE DRINKS

OT&E specialises in gin-based vintage cocktails crafted with in-house cordials, infusions and bitters. The menu isn’t overly long, sticking to one page listing six “aperitifs” and another highlighting nine “libations”. They are creative without being gimmicky, which I liked. The house gin is Sacred, from London’s Highgate. Another thumbs up.

I went for the Wardour, which was made with Brockmans gin, freshly squeezed lime juice, hand-made sugar syrup, fresh basil and black pepper. It was zesty, fresh, sweet and moreish with a lovely herby overtone making it go down very easily. The Barrel Aged Gin Old Fashioned sweetened with honey also sounded good.

Bollinger and Pol Roger champagne is available, as is English sparkling wine Nyetimber (£42 a bottle). Beer drinkers with find one lager (London Fields), a Five Points pale ale and a Five Points Railway Porter.

THE FOOD

The food prepared here is a cut or two above most bars, bordering in terms of quality and inventiveness on what you might expect from a trendy pop-up restaurant.

Described as small plates and averaging about £7 each, the best approach is to come not for a full dinner (you need quite a few to feel full) but rather nibbles with your drinks or a light supper. Most require a knife and fork but some can be consumed nonchalantly with your fingers as bar snacks.  

Choose from deep-fried popcorn cockles, crispy fish skin, triple-cooked chips and potted wild rabbit, or savour a portion of salmon tartar, pan-fried king, lamb sweetbread salad, or scallops with courgette, black pudding and lime. There’s also an obligatory on-trend kale salad, for your iron.

I particularly enjoyed the crispy, deep-fried veggie kedgeree balls with curried hollandaise; a small piece of battered seabass with peas, watercress and spiced remoulade; and the selection of Neal’s Yard cheeses.

The soft-boiled egg and mushrooms with Melba toast with Jerusalem artichoke and Marmite butter was a rich and satisfying. However, I didn’t think the braised gem lettuce worked (or offered value for money at £5 for a few soggy leaves).

For dessert, there are bite-size morsels of banana bread with whisky cream (yum), lemon and thyme baby doughnuts, flourless salted chocolate cake, and custard tart. Again, dishes are small so you won’t have to feel too guilty about indulging in a sugar fix.

VERDICT

This is a superb bar to come for an after-work pre-prandial or late-night supper in a sophisticated setting. It feels glamorous, but has the homely feel of a private members club. While walk-ins are possible, it is best to make a reservation.

If you want a little privacy, request one of the alcoves that can seat small groups – there are even two rooms out the back that would work for informal meetings. Otherwise, sit at the bar on a Scandi stool or recline by the open fire, and forget your worries. The interior design is exceptional.

FACT FILE

  • OPENING HOURS Mon-Thurs 5.30pm-11.30pm, Fri-Sat until 12am. Closed Sundays.
  • PRICES Cocktails about £9.50, bottles of wine from £18, beer £4.90. Small plates £4-£11.
  • CONTACT Old Tom and English, 187b Wardour Street, London; tel +44 (0)20 7287 7347; oldtomandenglish.com

Jenny Southan

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