- Food & Drink
There are two words that, when combined together, slap a smile on my face that cannot be scrubbed off, not even with Vanish. These words are “free” and “booze”.
Just before Easter they both appeared – in a more sophisticated guise – in an email from the PR representing ZTH, the plush new cocktail lounge that’s decorating the ground floor of the Zetter Townhouse hotel in Clerkenwell.
The bar is run by Tony Conigliario of 69 Colebroke Row fame and he has furnished it with 13 cocktails that the PR coyly suggested might be my sort of thing. She’d read me like a large print book. I accepted her invitation and took Leonard along with me as my human notebook.
We arrived at 7.30pm on a Tuesday and perched at the worst table in the entire room – a small side table just big enough for drinks and cutlery, jammed in the corner behind a large brown sofa. If you ever want to feel unimportant, sit behind a sofa.
Happily, the early evening drinkers were finishing their apéritifs and our waitress was soon able to move us across the room to a more expansive spot with a chicly shabby sofa to lounge on.
From our new vantage point we could watch the barmen, nattily attired in tweedish outfits, mix drinks while the waiting staff nipped around the heavily ornamented room and a six foot tall man in a bright pink bowtie tucked himself around our discarded two-top. Happiness is a better table from which you can watch someone else suffer.
Feeling fancy, we ordered Rhubarb Kir Royales. A mix of Perrier-Jouët and home-made rhubarb cordial, it’s sweet and summery at first sip. But I discovered the rhubarb really blooms if you knock the Kir back in great mouthfuls, like dehydrated French Foreign Legionnaire. A Champagne cocktail that’s at its best when glugged; potentially dangerous.
There are individual meals on offer at ZTH, like beef daube on mashed potatoes, but Leonard and I were feeling companionable so we ordered a few bites from the charcuterie and pickles section to share.
The selection board of Serrano ham, salchichon payes, pâté de campagne and duck and pork rillettes was a rugged extravagance of pig. It came with two masculine chunks of bread, striped with carbon and perfect for piling the pâté on.
Leonard is a fiend for piccalilli and the dinky Kilner jar of turmericed vegetables met with her approval. Toothsome and slapped with curry, it was good enough to eat on its own.
Another hit was the roasted head of garlic: 2 garlic bulbs, roasted and halved so we could tease out the sweet cloves with the prongs of our forks. We popped them out and swallowed them like savoury candy.
The last part of our cocktail bar picnic was the strikingly phallic thin baguette and butter that stood proud in a mini silver bucket. Leonard described it as a cross between a doughnut and French stick, a fair summary.
We’d switched from cocktails to glasses of Bergerac Rouge to match the Mediterranean peasant mood of the meal. Leonard stuck with the red, while I went back to the cocktails and tried a Nettle Gimlet. Beefeater gin and home-made nettle cordial, it’s disastrously easy to drink. The lemony warmth of the nettle rounds off the edges of the gin beautifully.
Next (and finally) was the Flintlock, a combination of Beefeater 24, gunpowder tea tincture, sugar, dandelion and burdock bitters and Fernet Branca that made Leonard wrinkle her nose and declare it to have “something of the negroni about it”. Which it does.
It’s a bit more challenging than the other cocktails we tried, layers of bitter and sweet that catch your attention. Interesting and thoughtful, it’s also an actual good way of disposing of Fernet Branca. Amazing.
Desserts struck the only slightly duff note. The creamy orange and cardamom rice pudding was slicked with a tart pomegranate syrup that tasted fabulous, but the rice was chewy. If ever there’s a time for rice to be soft and yielding, it’s in a rice pudding.
The pear and almond tart was vast. I’d made my way through half of it before I struck a seam of pear and without the fruit to offset it, the almond filling was bland and stodgy. Either they need a smaller tin or finer slices. The crème fraîche that came with it was magnificent.
Our meal was comped, but I asked for the bill so I could see what our 31/2 hours idling and eating in Clerkenwell would’ve cost. Including a 12.5% service charge, the bill came to £73.41, which seemed extraordinarily reasonable for the level and quantity of cocktails and food we’d enjoyed.
Looking at the bill again when I got home I realised they’d missed off a glass of Bergerac and the Nettle Gimlet. It should’ve been around £88, including service. I still think that’s good value for 5 expertly made cocktails, 3 generous glasses of wine and some of the best charcuterie to beautify a wooden board in London.