Category Archives: Bar review

Bar Review: Pisco Bar, Kuala Lumpur

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If the decor at Pisco Bar is anything to go by, Melbourne’s love for industrial chic has officially infected KL. Here, they’ve got the required quirky lightfittings by the bucketload, and those brick walls are so distressed you almost feel like handing them a tissue. There’s even what looks like a packing pallet on the ceiling – in Melbourne, we use them as tables and bench-style seating. Good to see KL turning that trend, quite literally, on its head.

In real-estate terms, proper industrial spaces are often zoned for mixed use, and with its odd mix of carefully crafted cocktails (for the ‘let’s have a drink’ set) and drinks giveaways (for the ‘let’s get loaded’ set) it feels like Pisco Bar is, too. If you don’t like raucous cheering with your cocktail (which happens whenever anyone wins a free drink), either go elsewhere, or join in.

Anyway. Speaking of well-crafted cocktails, the bartenders looked pleasantly surprised when we eschewed the drinks specials (which you must order if you want to try to win a free drink) and went straight to the pisco section of the cocktail menu instead. Having only ever used pisco in pisco sours, I was curious to see how else it could be used and ordered accordingly.

The ‘Spice’ cocktail (MYR34, pictured above left) contained, well, pisco, obviously, along with pandan syrup, lemon juice and just enough flavour from some kaffir lime leaves to give it a zesty note without smelling or tasting of dishwashing liquid (no, I have never actually drunk dishwashing liquid, but that’s what too much kaffir lime in a drink or dish reminds me of). Slightly sweet, slightly tart and with a great head of foam courtesy of dry-shaken egg whites, it was as delicate and well-balanced as the dried rosebud and fresh kaffir lime leaf that were placed atop the drink as an artful garnish. The ‘Cuzco’ (MYR34, pictured above right) was perhaps not as sophisticated, but still tasty. White wine and elderflower syrup added sweetness but also diluted the flavour of the pisco; this would be a great cocktail to give people who claim they don’t like pisco. And so, eyes open to the possibilities of pisco, we headed to the next bar – stay tuned for a review.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bar review: Library, Singapore

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Viewed through 3D glasses, the colourful creatures in this artwork suddenly reveal their black-and-white counterparts that are hidden away on a secret layer beneath. And in a way, that sums up Library, a speakeasy in Singapore that’s been called everything from ‘Singapore’s worst kept secret’ (by Traveller.com.au) to ‘the kind of bar I could happily live in’ (by, er, me). The bar is on trendy Keong Saik Rd, opposite Potato Head Folk , and it’s hidden behind a foyer right next to a restaurant called The Study. The foyer’s decor changes every so often; when I visited, it was an art gallery featuring the above work, but by the time you read this it could be a pop-up shoe shop or a tailor. (When the bar first opened, the foyer looked like a library, which is how the then-unnamed bar got its moniker.) Spend as much time in the foyer as you like, but you’ll need a password to go through to the bar. (If you’re lucky, as I was, the staff will give you a clue; otherwise it’s sometimes secreted away on The Study’s Facebook page.) And then you’re on your own, surrounded by mirrored walls in a space about the size of a phone booth (if you’re too young to know what that is, kindly picture a changing room in a department store). One of the walls is actually the door. Still with me? Good. Because if you’ve made it this far, you deserve a drink.

There’s a kind of Alice in Wonderland feeling as you finally set foot in the bar, a dimly lit space that’s all hushed tones and reverence on the night we visit, though I’m told it gets raucous on weekends. Decor-wise, the word ‘Prohibition’ springs to mind, though I doubt whether any Prohibition-era bar would be this classy – or feature a full-length bar made entirely of riveted copper that looks like a cross between a patched-up aeroplane wing and a Marc Newson couch.

Over the next two nights (yes, Library is so good we visit twice) we try a range of carefully made cocktails from the quirky menu, which is arranged into categories named after celebrities; try a fruity, sexy number from the Marilyn Monroe page, or skip straight to the Andy Warhol section if you’re after something more experimental. Just how experimental does it get? Alcohol-wise, there’s lots of house-made infusions featuring unusual ingredients such as brown butter or cough lollies. Local herbs such as curry leaves appear as garnishes. And one of our drinks is served in a miniature bathtub, complete with a tiny rubber chicken (‘We’ve run out of ducks,’ says the bartender with a smile). But if you’re after a classic, you can get those, too; indeed, one of our fellow guests, a bartender from a different bar who ‘always comes here on a night off’ simply orders a string of well-executed Old Fashioneds because he considers them the test of a good bar. And they must be good because he gets through several as we test various excellent drinks served in test tubes, topped with wooden pipes filled with ceremoniously lit cinnamon sticks, and set upon cubes of dry ice for that ’90s-club-in-a-glass vibe. There’s even an ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ moment when I glimpse another customer’s vivid green, brulee-topped concoction and simply have to have one myself. It turns out to be a Coco Bongo, aka heaven in a glass. Pandan (Asia’s answer to vanilla) gives the drink its colour, and the sweet brulee is made with gula melaka (sugar from a coconut tree), so I’m counting it as a great way to try the local cuisine. Everything we try is worth the pricetag (Singapore is not known for its cheap drinks, and prices hover around the $23 Singapore dollar mark), the bartenders are super friendly and even write out a list of bars to check out in Kuala Lumpur, one of our next destinations, and we leave  – reluctantly – only because we’ve got a flight to catch. Author Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, ‘I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.’ Turns out he was right.

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Bar Review: The Woods of Windsor

THE WOODS OF WINDSOR

108 Chapel St, Windsor, Melbourne

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Melbourne has loads of great bars, and – contrary to popular belief – not all of them are hidden down back alleys. Some even have signage (cue shocked gasps) and are on main roads. I know, I know – in a city that prides itself on hiding its best features, this is almost unthinkable. Still, Chapel Street has always been kinda brash, the sort of place that figures if you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it, so it’s not that odd to find a good handful of bars doing just that up the Windsor end of the famed shopping strip.

The Woods of Windsor sits unobtrusively among a selection of trendy eateries and boho-chic shops, looking for all the world like it’s been there forever despite having been open for less than a decade. It doesn’t look like the kind of place that features avant-garde mixology, and yet that is exactly what it does. Surprise! Is it the moody dark wood panelling and taxidermied jackalopes dotted about the place that give it that feeling, or the relaxed banter of the well-informed bar staff, who seem unworried by an empty bar at 5pm on a Saturday, secure in the knowledge that the place will be heaving by 6pm? Perhaps it’s both; perhaps it doesn’t matter; perhaps I should simply say that I love this bar for all of these reasons, but also, perhaps a bit predictably, I love it for running a bloody good happy hour (most cocktails are AUD$14 until 6.30pm; a dozen oysters are AUD$20. Damn right I’m going back tomorrow).

And so, on to the drinks. We went for a White Negroni (pictured above left) and a Sloe Gin Negroni (pictured above right) to start the night, and despite my avowed hatred of negronis, I actually liked them both.

According to the menu (which, our moustachio’d bartender informed us, is due to change very soon), the White Negroni uses Suze instead of Campari and Lillet Blanc instead of vermouth, so, given my dislike of the bitterness of Campari, I figured I’d like it. And I did, but it was still quite bitter and I started to wonder if they’d snuck some colourless Campari in somehow. No, the bartender informed me, that was the Suze – a gentian-based liquor – that I could taste. Ah, gentian. I remember you from my days when I took digestive bitters for fun (TV wasn’t invented then) and I nearly vomited from how disgusting you tasted. Isn’t it lucky I have grown up (but clearly not a lot) since then. Anyway, the White Negroni won me over with its smooth lemon-y flavour, while the Sloe Gin Negroni really highlighted the ruby colour and sweetness of the sloe – yum.

Second round. By now the bartender had completely won our trust (it helps that, unbidden, he delivered a teeny bottle of Laphroaig so we could add drops of whisky to the oysters) and so, despite being determined to work our way through all the happy hour items on the menu, we went with his off-menu recommendations instead: a rum-based Scarborough and a mezcal martini. He’d invented the Scarborough and it had placed highly in a competition, he said, but we both preferred the mezcal martini, an unbelievably good blend of house-made pineapple shrub, mezcal and some kind of magic that allowed all the minerality of the mezcal and the sweet/sharp earthiness of the pineapple to really stand out on the palate. Brilliant.

Third round: we weren’t out of the Woods yet. Which was, of course, a very good thing. But hey, just so this review doesn’t go on forever, let’s just say that if you go down to the Woods today, you’re in for a big surprise – and it’s sure to be a good one.

 

 

 

Queen Elizabeth

 

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It takes just two words to make the 52 Cocktails crew very, very happy but, surprisingly, those two words are not ‘free cocktails’. No, the magic words are ‘The Everleigh’. The Everleigh is our bar of choice in Melbourne, but we won’t bore you with the ever-growing list of reasons why. Just go there, and revel in the old-world-yet-unpretentious atmosphere, the table service that makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the room, the glorious displays of vintage cocktail shakers and vintage cocktail books (drool) and, of course, the ridiculously good, meticulously well-made cocktails. Basically, it’s heaven. (And if we ever hear the words ‘free cocktails’ and ‘The Everleigh’ in the one sentence, we’ll know we’ve died and gone to heaven!)
On a recent visit we tried a Queen Elizabeth cocktail and it was so delicious and sophisticated that we decided to try to recreate it at home. Two recipes with the same name appear in The Savoy Cocktail Book (just one of the many on display at The Everleigh, and the subject of a recent meeting of the bar’s Vintage Cocktail Book Club. Yes. This bar is so cool it has a book club dedicated to vintage cocktail books. If you have even a passing interest in books, cocktails or drinking and a fun night out, I highly recommend you attend a meeting.) One Queen Elizabeth recipe calls for curacao, vermouth and brandy; we made the other version, as follows.  It’s light and refreshing yet complex and herbaceous – more so when it’s made by a bartender at The Everleigh.

QUEEN ELIZABETH

As with most of the recipes in the fabulous Savoy Cocktail Book, this one is light on instructions, so we’ve taken the liberty of adding our own (in parentheses).

INGREDIENTS

1 dash absinthe (we used this to rinse the glass, though the original instructions indicate you just add it to the shaker along with everything else)

1/4 lemon juice (we used 15ml)

1/4 Cointreau (we used 15ml)

1/2 dry gin (we used 30ml Bombay Sapphire)

GLASS

Chilled cocktail glass

METHOD

Shake all ingredients with ice (unless you’ve already used the absinthe to rinse the glass) and strain into glass.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Easy – but even easier, and most definitely more refined and delicious, if you simply order one at the Everleigh.

RECIPE BY

This version appears in The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock (first published 1930 by Constable & Co; this edition published 1987 by Spring Books), with additional instructions by the 52 Cocktails crew.

PS No, this article was NOT sponsored by The Everleigh. Though if they feel like it they are welcome to…

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Review: Deus ex Machina, Canggu, Bali

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DIRTY DEUS

Adding hot sauce to beer sounds kinda disgusting. It sounds like something a frat boy would do on a dare. And maybe that’s how the Dirty Deus, served at the hyper cool Deus ex Machina in Canggu, Bali, was invented. Deus is a temple to custom-made motorbikes and surfboards, which are displayed – along with more affordable items such as clothing and surfwear – in a traditional-style building overlooking a rice paddy. A breezy restaurant is attached to the showroom, but if you’re just there for the food and drink the staff won’t make you exit through the gift shop – it’s not that kind of place. It’s laid back but really with it and together; it’s mega cool without looking like it’s trying to be. It’s the kind of place where surfers could happily suck back half the drinks menu in an afternoon and not care that they’ve missed all the waves. It’s our kind of place, and the Dirty Deus – spicy, refreshing and very, very moreish – is our kind of drink. Admittedly we don’t know the story behind it but that’s because we were too relaxed to bother asking. But we do know it’s damn good – and really easy to make. Add a glug of housemade sambal (hot sauce) to a salt-rimmed glass that’s full of ice. Pour some Bintang beer over the top and serve, with the remaining beer alongside so the lucky drinker can top up their drink as required. It’s hot and cool at the same time – just like Deus ex Machina itself.

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Bar review: Potato Head, Bali

52 Cocktails is on holiday! Naturally, it’s a working holiday – we’re flat out sampling cocktails in Bali so you’ll know which ones are the best. Yeah, we’re nice like that.

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We tried these beautifully presented concoctions at Potato Head, one of the most architecturally stunning bars on the island. Words won’t do it justice, so take a look at the pics on their website (or better still, go visit.) This place pretty much defines cool, with nattily attired staff, well-written menus, funky furniture that’s been carefully chosen to look like it doesn’t quite match, plenty of space to lounge by (or in) the pool and a brilliant view of the sunset over the sea. We’ve visited many times over the years and it’s as popular as ever, though it must be said the drinks are (sadly) not always as good as we remember them.

A new menu was presented to us this year and, although it contained some old favourites that we were longing to get stuck into, there was no way we were going to pass up the chance to try something new – namely, the Volkano Agung, described as being ‘served in a bubbling volcano bowl’. Yep, a bubbling volcano bowl. Who could resist!? That’s it on the right (kindly forgive us for not capturing the moment actual bubbles were coming out of the central funnel-y bit into the bowl. You’ll just have to believe us when we say it looked really, really ace). And the taste? It was a strong mix of rum and pineapple, heavy on the rum and not as well-balanced or interesting as previous drinks have been here. But hell, it looked good.
In keeping with the Tiki theme, we also tried the Bobobobo (presented in a bamboo cannister – that’s it on the left), a much more interesting mix of rum, pineapple, peach and honey (among other ingredients, such as arak, the local rice liquor) blended with ice to create a thick, chunky, slushie-style drink. It was refreshing and lively, but also frustrating to drink – turns out sucking up ice through a thin straw actually is hard work. No wonder 7-11 provide larger straws with their Slurpees – one of those suckers would have been perfect.

In short, the presentation was excellent, but a lack of attention to detail was the downfall of these drinks. We’d like to say it’s not enough for Potato Head to look cool, and that the drinks need to taste as amazing as the venue looks if they want to keep their customers happy, but judging by the constant stream of bright young things piling in at all hours of the day, perhaps it doesn’t matter. When a place is as buzzing as this one, you’re prepared to forgive their transgressions – which roughly translates to, despite not loving our drinks we decided to order another round.

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This time we tried two more newbies, the Timun Tonic (left) and the Kopi Colada. The Colada was a blend of coffee bean-infused arak, chocolate spread and peanut milk that tasted rather like a chocolate milkshake. Meh. But the Timun Tonic – wow. This long, refreshing mix of lemongrass-infused gin, cucumber syrup and tonic water (with a dash of absinthe and celery bitters for good measure) was a fantastic reminder of why we love drinking at Potato Head: the drinks are (usually) innovative and delicious and worth returning for. Which we did, the next day. The place is like a magnet and we were drawn back for another Timun Tonic – because when you’re onto a good thing, stick to it, right?

Well. From defining cool to defining inconsistency, Potato Head could pretty much start publishing their own dictionary, with the Timun Tonic illustrating the latter. What happened overnight to this amazing drink? How did it go from rave-worthy, crave-worthy, I’ll-take-the-memory-of-this-drink-to-my-grave-worthy to being a fairly flavourless g and t with a bit of cucumber shoved in for garnish? Were the bartenders distracted by their amazing surroundings? Did we simply visit on a bad day? We don’t know, but we do know we’ll probably be back to try just one more drink – maybe an old favourite like the delectable Indus Nesos (a dreamy blend of vanilla vodka, apricot brandy and coconut cream). After all, you can’t quality-control a bar with only two visits…

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