Nightjar, London

129 City Road, Shoreditch

Ask any bartenders who are remotely familiar with the London cocktail scene, and they will know about Nightjar. My friends at Le Calbar were the first to tell me about it, and even the guys at Rey de Copas in Buenos Aires had heard of it!

I’ve lived in London for nearly a year and a half, and despite the fact that Nightjar is less than a 10-minute walk from my flat, I’d never been there until yesterday. The reason is simple and also the thing that will prevent me from ever becoming a regular there: you have to have a reservation to get in, and you probably have to make that reservation several days in advance. I have tried multiple times in the past to go, but I have either been turned away at the door (apparently sometimes walk-ins do get in, but I don’t know how) or not been able to get a reservation for when I wanted one. In keeping with the grand tradition of modern craft cocktail bars, Nightjar applies the speakeasy approach, except the password to get in is your reservation name.

All of this frustration aside (after all, in a country where people love to drink, it seems silly and wrong to make it this difficult to go to a bar), Nightjar lives up to the hype. The menu is overwhelming: long and mind-blowingly creative. They have so many drinks that they actually produced a deck of cards with a drink on almost every card (and famous alcohol-related personalities taking up the rest). I arrived about 15 minutes after Ali and Jonathan, and their drinks made me even more intimidated. Ali was literally drinking out of a shell, exactly as I would expect to see Ariel do in a more adult version of “the Little Mermaid”:

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Beyond the Sea

Among the ingredients listed for this drink are “oyster leaf infusion” and “seaweed air”. (Without diminishing the points for creativity, what the hell is seaweed air?!)

Jonathan meanwhile was drinking something served in a teacup that appeared to be the consistency of soup. Between those two, I knew I was going to have trouble with the menu. Ultimately, I adopted a strategy of narrowing things down by using the icon next to each item indicating in what type of container it would be served. (It should be noted that the Beyond the Sea, judging from the menu, should have arrived in a wine glass!) I opted first for something in a coupe glass called an Airmail:

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The Airmail: rum, champagne, lime juice, bee pollen syrup, and sprinklings of Moroccan mint and sugar

Rum and champagne make for an interesting combination. It was a good drink but not one I would order again. I really enjoyed the scent of the Moroccan mint but wish it had had more of a taste, and the sugar coating the outside of the glass was actually kind of annoying because it just collected into a sticky mess on my hands.

My second drink was better. The Little Entente contains vodka, Saint Germain (always a good thing), white beer, lemon, and “Kaffir lime leaves” (I believe it was actually a grilled piece of lime) and comes garnished with a Korean pear, which is a cute miniature version of the standard pears we eat.

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The Little Entente with its cute Korean pear and cool wooden straw

The real star of the evening, though, was Ali’s last drink. She asked for a recommendation for something spicy, and our waiter recommended something that he described as “crazy”. When we asked why, he said, “well – it has worms on the top.”

Needless to say, this had to be seen to be believed. The drink was called the Inca Cocktail and boasted this list of ingredients: Jose Cuervo 1800 Silver, tomatillo, hazelnut oil, lime, chilli wine, epazote (apparently a Mexican tea), Buffalo Worms, fino sherry, and agave. Now, Nightjar’s drinks have such random stuff in them that the menu actually includes a glossary, which is where we looked for an explanation about the Buffalo Worms. They are apparently dried larvae and have a nutty flavor, which we found to be very true. Here’s the drink:

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The Inca Cocktail

The worms were clustered around the tomatillo there on the top. We quite enjoyed the novelty of them, and the drink was great too. It’s a shame that we usually just consume tequila as shots or in margaritas because it can produce some really interesting cocktails.

Nightjar definitely gets top marks for creativity and craftsmanship, but I can’t rank it as among my favorite bars because it’s just too regimented! Between the required reservations and the fact that the menu literally says you cannot take a picture of the bartenders making the drinks (not that you can even get close enough to watch given that there aren’t seats at the bar), it just doesn’t feel like a bar in the traditional sense! I’d be very curious to see if the bartenders are experts who can improve away from the menu, but I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to assess that. In terms of value, Nightjar is probably the most expensive bar I’ve been to in London, but not by much. Given the wide array of beautifully presented drinks available, I’d say it’s fairly priced.

Ultimate verdict: will go back – if I can ever get another reservation…

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Le Syndicat, Paris

51 rue Faubourg Saint-Denis, 75010

As much as I adore Le Calbar, I draw the line at going there two nights in a row, so when I go to Paris for a weekend, I usually need a different place to go one of the nights. This past weekend I opted for a bar in a part of the city that is less familiar to me but definitely a hub for nightlife – the 10th arrondisement.

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Le Syndicat (whose full name according to its Facebook page is Le Syndicat – Organization de Défense des Spiritueux Français) is a bit of a hole-in-the-wall when viewed from the street despite its perfectly normal sized door. The walls surrounding the entrance were papered over, and neither the name of the bar nor its address was visible as a result. We saw only an open doorway manned by a bouncer and a lively looking crowd beyond. As luck would have it, a group of three had just vacated a table, so we quickly took it over and began poring over the menu.

I’m beginning to realize that one of the hallmarks of craft cocktail bars is the relatively indecipherable list of ingredients for each drink. Sometimes I don’t even recognize the base liquor, so it’s even more difficult to imagine what any one drink will taste like. My strategy is to identify one ingredient that I know that I will like and take my chances, hoping that the total package has at least a hint of that taste, and so far this has served me well.

Le Syndicat has one such cocktail list – it’s only two pages, but it leaves plenty to wonder about before the drinks arrive. I first went for La Douce Prune, which contained the following ingredients:

  • Vieille Prune (literally, Old Plum – no idea what this was in terms of a liquor)
  • Vermouth rouge (red Vermouth)
  • Sirop de Cidre aux baies rose (pink berry cider syrup?)
  • Citrons frais pressés (fresh pressed lemons)
  • Blanc d’oeuf (egg white)

I’m generally a fan of drinks involving egg white because it means it will have a foamy layer on top, so I went with it even though I didn’t really know what to expect from the other ingredients individually or collectively. I’m glad I did – the end result was both beautiful and delicious.

My friend Ali ordered one with a much cooler name, Pimp & Mousse (a play on words as it contained grapefruit, which in French is pamplemousse). This had a similarly bizarre list of ingredients, ending with a grapefruit basil mousse that accounted for about half the large wine glass in which it was served.

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La Douce Prune in center and the Pimp & Mousse on the right

Both of these first drinks came from the part of the menu titled “Insane St Denis Style”; for our second round, we opted for some of the “Syndicat Classiques”, which were twists on classic cocktails made with all-French ingredients. This time I ordered one called a Jazzybelle (and honestly I’m not sure which classic cocktail inspired this) containing, most mysteriously, “liqueur de sapin” – pine liqueur. The end result ended up being fruity thanks to some apple syrup, lemon juice, and a berry syrup served separately in a small jar, to be added at my discretion (a fun touch). We were also pleased by the cool apple slice arrangement on top:

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Ali’s next drink was called Modern Thyme and was not so much to my taste, but it still gets points for presentation, as it arrived in a chemical beaker/test tube set into a bucket and with a sprig of thyme tied around the stem:

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Ali’s boyfriend Jonathan got a really interesting drink during this round as well. The Drop the Beet looked like beet juice and tasted like it too, albeit with a bit more sweetness than usual. I would never have thought it contained alcohol, but it had both Calvados (a French apple brandy) and red Vermouth in it, along with some honey ginger syrup.

Value: These drinks were all about 13 euros a piece, which puts Le Syndicat in line with the other famous cocktail bars of Paris. Both of my drinks were excellent and worth the price.

Bartenders: I believe there was standing room only at the bar while we were there; at any rate, I did not have the opportunity to sit and chat with the guys making the drinks. I did get the impression that on a quieter night this would probably be a fun place to be and that you’d be able to do that; the bartender who made our first round of drinks wasn’t at all bothered by my taking pictures of them and gamely jumped in the last one, as you see above. I assume from the creativity of the menu that they’d be able to make even more interesting drinks if you wanted something bespoke, but I’ll have to wait for another trip to see if that’s true.

Atmosphere: There are two main rooms, one smaller one by the door (where the bar is) and one larger one in the back. There is just the right amount of lighting, and we enjoyed the nostalgia brought on by their music selection – rap and R&B hits from the 90’s and early 2000’s. Everyone that I saw and heard appeared to be French, all in their late 20’s and early 30’s and dressed casually. The bar is on a street with other bars as well, so it’s on a bit of a drag, but it’s not a fancy area and retains a neighborhood feel (as is true for most areas in Paris other than Bastille).

Overall verdict: would definitely go back!

Rey de Copas, Buenos Aires

FullSizeRender.jpgThis was my favorite bar in Buenos Aires, and we happened upon it thanks to a recommendation from a bartender at another great place called Olsen (which I heartily recommend if you like martinis and are interested in vodka flights paired with Scandinavian hors d’oeuvres, served in a beautifully lit garden; the martini pictured on the home page is from there). We asked the bartender at Olsen where he would go for a good drink, and Rey de Copas was his first recommendation. He even gave us their business card, which is printed on a playing card!

My friend Mary and I walked into Rey de Copas around 11 p.m. on a weeknight during the lull between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, which turned out to be great because we sat alone at the bar and had four or five bartenders mostly to ourselves (though there were other customers seated elsewhere in the spacious place). We had barely sat down before the bartenders handed us a welcome cocktail served in a champagne flute. (I don’t remember if we ended up being charged for this, but I liked this place so much that I’m going to say we weren’t.) Their cocktail list was shorter (only a page), but they get very high marks for creative ingredients and combinations. I honestly didn’t recognize half the ingredients listed, and this wasn’t a language issue – I just had never heard of most of these things!

I ended up ordering the Kahlo, which involves a combination of tequila and mezcal (I was feeling adventurous…) as the base liquors and then a mixture of Golden Age Maraschino liqueur, amaretto, orange juice, lime juice, cinnamon, and salt. It was delicious and strong as hell. Mary ordered something that I no longer see on the menu, but it involved ginger and was beautifully made.

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Later on, we had my favorite kind of interaction with the bartenders. I told our favorite, a guy whose name we sadly never learned but who we will always remember as the cute Uruguayan guy in the red shirt, that we wanted to give him the honor of exercising his considerable skills to make us bespoke cocktails. We asked specifically for things using local ingredients or representing the best of Argentina. He was very amused and quite willing to oblige us.

I have no idea what either of us ultimately ended up with, but both were great. All I can recall (it is worth noting that we never managed to eat dinner that night, so I felt these drinks more than usual) is that it had a distinct herbal flavor. I think now that it might have contained some fernet, which is Argentina’s national liquor and is not unlike Jagermeister in taste. I’m not at all a fan of Jager, but if my drink did indeed contain fernet, it worked quite well with everything else in it. Here it is:

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Rey de Copas gets top marks for everything. The interior (which sadly I neglected to photograph) is colorful and covered in interesting antiques, so it would be a great place to check out alone because you’d have plenty to look at while waiting for your drink if you couldn’t talk to the person next to you. The drinks were great and reasonably priced. It was mostly locals (we did hear one group of English speakers), and we were so pleased that the bartenders were so willing to talk to us. It was, in short, the Calbar of Buenos Aires – and I can offer no higher praise than that!