Follow the bartender

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The Independent Culture
"IT'S BECOME a style thing, but style with no content," said bartender- supreme Dick Bradsell, aphoristically dismissing the proliferation of cocktail bars. He has good reason to talk this way: as I pointed out last week, many bartenders couldn't make a decent cocktail if you held a gun to their heads.

The dimensions of that problem (and the commercial opportunity it represents) led Dick to set up Bar Solutions with Jenifer Griffin-Howells and Jonathan Downey. As well as doing private cocktail parties, Bar Solutions acts as a consultancy, analysing a bar's operations and supplying the systems and training needed to improve it. Jenifer is a front-of-house specialist; Jonathan, Managing Director of the well regarded Match bar, is a lawyer by background; and Dick, of course, is the man with the shaker. They've recently been joined by Jonathan Santer, of Ricci in Liverpool.

The arrangement depends on the size of the cheque; some projects have been just "bits and bobs", but they have been closely involved with three recent launches: Tsunami, Match 2 and Six Degrees.

The people hold the key. In bars, as in restaurants, there just aren't enough good staff to go around. "Too many places are opening up", says Jenifer, "and we're all fighting for the few people who are eager and polished and good." Yet the talent's out there, she says. "There are loads of people with amazing potential who want to learn. But they might work in places like Bella Pasta or TGI Friday" - neither of which provides much scope for serious cocktail-making. Dick adds that some of the best people are working outside London. "I travel all over Britain and see a lot of bartenders working to much higher standards than in London. They want to get a job here, but can't afford accommodation. That's a big problem."

The other big problem is that good people move around. They get bored, or get a better offer, and they're off. Under those circumstances, without a fiercely motivated management, a bar serving delicious drinks today may serve rubbish tomorrow.

So where can you go until the number of real cocktail bartenders increases by 500 per cent? Jenifer and Dick feel fully confident in a dozen or so places in London. But it's not even as easy as going to that Drinker's Dozen. Instead, they say, you have to follow the bartender and not the bar - and I agree. "If I want a good cocktail", says Dick, "I try to find out where Jamie Terrell is working that night." Terrell, a really gifted guy, is - for now, anyway - at the Lab.

If you can't get on the phone, you're likely to find satisfaction at any of the bars mentioned already. And at the original Match. Among other longer-established places, cocktail experts always mention Alphabet, Circus, and Dick's Bar at the Atlantic Bar & Grill.

Or you could try one of the select set of premium-price, premium-quality hotel bars - places like Dukes, the Savoy and the Lanesborough. You want consistency? They've got consistency. Another option, though more limited, is Cafe Pacifico and especially its smaller offshoot, La Perla. La Perla is a Margarita fan's dream, with dozens of tequilas and rigorously trained bartenders who know what to do with them.

As long as there's a prosperous, discerning clientele demanding cocktails, the number of places making them well will go on increasing. In the meantime, it can't be stressed too strongly, follow the bartenders: they're the people who know what you need.

Bar Solutions, 0171 488 3773. London bars worth a try: Tsunami, St Katharine's Way, EC1, 0171 488 4791; Match 2, 37-38 Margaret St, W1, 0171 499 3443; Six Degrees, 56 Frith St, W1, 0171 437 2723; La Perla, 28 Maiden Lane, WC2, 0171 240 7400; The Lab, 12 Old Compton St, W1, 0171 437 7820; Match, 45-47 Clerkenwell Rd, EC1, 0171 250 4002; Alphabet, 61-63 Beak St, W1, 0171 439 2190; Circus, 1 Upper James St, W1, 0171 534 4000; Dick's Bar, Atlantic Bar & Grill, 20 Glasshouse St, W1, 0171 734 4888; Cafe Pacifico, 5 Langley St, WC2, 0171 379 7728

To lay down

Oddbins has single-handedly spearheaded an invasion of new Greek wines, a few so strange they defy description. I love some of them deeply, including: Tsantili Aghiorghitiko 1997, Nemea (pounds 4.99), whose hints of raisins suggest oxidation but which has a likeable freshness in spite of it; and a pair from leading winemaker Evangelos Gerovassiliou: Gerovassiliou White 1998 (pounds 6.49), with fleshy gooseberry-and-melon fruit and huge acidity; and Gerovassiliou Red 1996 (pounds 8.49), with soft tannins and deeply concentrated red-berry fruit. Worth a punt? I think so.