Cafe Society: Vodka's Red-letter day

Red, a Russian vodka-bar- cum-diner is encouraging Soho advertising and media types to get in the spirit of things
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Five of us are perched on bar stools trying to look impassive, not because we are the sort of tragic Londoners who live in fear of moving our faces but because we are doing a Very Important Job. We are judging the Smirnoff Mixability National final, and have to choose between nine vodka-based cocktails on grounds of preparation style, presentation, taste, aroma and creativity.

The final is happening in Red, suitable as a venue in that it is a Russian vodka-bar-cum-diner (with competing brands

studiously removed from the shelves), and slightly surreal because, in the normal course of things, it is a popular watering hole for the Soho advertising-

PR-media types; the staff look askance at the alien barpeople who have invaded the premises for the evening.

Red certainly lives up to its name, being decorated in various shades of the stuff and strangely erotic (in a sturdy sort of way)

line drawings, and the staff have been picked as much for their White Russian cheekbones as their way with an optic. Most

of the competitors come from

the Midlands and further north, and are impressed neither by London nor by the casual style

of the south.

They are, however, deeply impressed by the divine Ainsley Harriott, he of the Barbecue Bible, our compere for the evening and a man who could find a double-entendre in a brussels sprout. Ainsley joshes the contestants while they produce concoctions containing banana liqueur, grated chocolate, Kahlua, Malibu, creme de menthe and lots of lemonade. Most of the drinks are of the "I'll have a pint and one of those pink things with the sparklers for the missus" variety.

I can feel a flush creeping up my neck and thank God for inventing antihistamines.

We pick a winner - the Moscow Snow, a combination of vanilla, milk, vodka and a sprig of lavender, the only one whose primary ingredient isn't sugar - and David Blackie of Bishop's House Restaurant, Darlington, lights a stogie and calls his chef. Then we proceed to dinner.

It's a well-known fact that all restaurateurs believe that theirs

is the only establishment that serves good food. The Borscht (very good) receives a unanimous "what's this?", mushroom caviar blinis (okay: nice soured cream, anyway) much prodding. My main course is a sort of pastie full of root vegetables which causes an outburst of "we do something like this, but we don't economise on the ingredients" scorn from landlady to my right. Everybody is busily hating the winner and saying things like "They've got nothing in London that we haven't got in Yorkshire". I polish off my peculiar vodka-based brulee and head for the steppes. As I slide past a table, a voice proclaims

"Well. I could murder a meat

pie and a pint".

Red, 4 Greek Street, London

W1 (0171-287 4448)