Porterhouse new

Traditional drinks in modern surroundings or innovative cocktails in old-fashioned comfort? Richard Johnson samples the delights of two very contrasting bars. First up: Irish beer without the blarney
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

The war isn't between the blacks and the whites, the liberals and the conservatives, or the Federation and the Romulans. It's between the clueful and the clueless. Or - as I choose to put it - the beer drinkers and the lager drinkers. Lager is increasingly bland. Bass is even talking about a "sub zero" lager. It's kept at -2°C, blasted with ultrasonic sound waves, and then served up like a Slush Puppy to "discerning" drinkers. But not at the Porterhouse. Thank God. This new Irish bar offers honest-to-goodness beer, served without a straw, and porter is its speciality.

The war isn't between the blacks and the whites, the liberals and the conservatives, or the Federation and the Romulans. It's between the clueful and the clueless. Or - as I choose to put it - the beer drinkers and the lager drinkers. Lager is increasingly bland. Bass is even talking about a "sub zero" lager. It's kept at -2°C, blasted with ultrasonic sound waves, and then served up like a Slush Puppy to "discerning" drinkers. But not at the Porterhouse. Thank God. This new Irish bar offers honest-to-goodness beer, served without a straw, and porter is its speciality.

Porter - a dark sweet ale - was originally a translucent mixture of brown beers - one stale, one mild. In the 1700s, stale beer was twice as expensive as mild beer, and some unscrupulous brewers took to using cheaper alternatives. One brewer even decided to use a poisonous berry that had been known to stun fish in India. It tasted similar, but left drinkers partly paralysed - and with one hell of a hangover. Unfortunately, because of today's fancy-pantsy health and hygiene regulations, your modern porter is completely free of fish-stunning poisons. If you drink it properly, though, it can still make your face go numb.

And if it's numbness you're after, you could do worse than the Porterhouse sample tray. It features the bar's range of nine unpasteurised ales, stouts and porters. Retire within the labyrinth of snugs and cosies - spread over 11 levels - and then drink with intent. Beer has nine flavour notes. It's actually more complicated than wine. So savour the taste experience. Although it is worth remembering that - should you feel like showing off while describing the top notes of the entire tray - women can taste more than men.

The Oyster Stout, brewed with fresh oysters, is not suitable for vegetarians. As the notes say: "This is a smooth drinking stout with a discernible, but unidentifiable, aromatic aspect." That'll be the oysters.

The Germanic Temple Brau is so robust it almost picks a fight. But then, in Germany, Catholics used to give up food at Lent and God allowed them to drink beer to keep up their calorie intake, which is why their beers are traditionally like a meal in themselves. "A steak and egg in every pint," my friend Max said. I told him to complain. Until I realised what he meant.

The Porterhouse is a triumph. It's only "Irish" because the beer is Irish - not because there are bicycles nailed to the ceiling, or shillelaghs hung on the wall (although the fiddle music had to be coming from somewhere). Irishness has never been more saleable. Even China recently opened its first Irish bar. Young men all round the world will always like a bit of craic. If it comes without the tiresome, "Ah go on, you will" of the bar staff, so much the better. The Porterhouse wears its Irishness with a quiet pride.

Porterhouse Stout and Oyster Bar, 21-22 Maiden Lane, London WC2 (020-7836 9931)

Knight's of old

For a place that emanates old-world charm, the Knight's Bar serves up some surprisingly experimental drinks

Max is the most clubbable of gentlemen. When he picks his stocks for the year - over a beef dinner at Simpson's - he tips the waiter to get a better cut from the carvery. It's a tradition that dates back to rationing during the Second World War. And when my dear friend Max, something in the City, comes to this glorious, wood-panelled quintessence of nostalgia - where father introduces son - he is deliberately fat. He would never eat in the first-floor restaurant at Simpson's - it's where they serve grilled fish. So he had never been upstairs to see the Knight's Bar.

It's easy to miss - signage in places such as Simpson's is considered a vulgarity. Overlooking The Strand, the Knight's Bar has been refurbished to its former Art-Deco loveliness. The central feature is the bar's antique gold and silver chessboard design. Simpson's was the home of chess. It first opened as a chess club. The beef came 20 years later. The chess died away, and so did the people who ate the beef. But the reputation for top class beef lingers on - as does its reputation for appealing to middle-aged men. Which is a shame.

Head barman at the Knight's Bar John Darling once graced London's trendy K Bar. And it shows in his radical approach to infusions. His decanters have an air of the apothecary about them. There's the brandy infusing with fresh ginger root and vanilla pod, the gin infusing with pink grapefruit, and the rum infusing with rhubarb and cinnamon. The idea came to him on "holiday" in Miami, when - and this is typical of a citizen of the Cocktail Nation - he ended up working in a bar. "I came across the flavoured vodkas, and thought, 'Why only vodka?'"

The Knight's Bar is ideal for a pre-dinner drink. Or a pre-theatre drink - and the pre-theatre menu of warm chorizo sausage should easily see you through to the interval. But Max and I were there for a pre-drink drink. And they serve 16 versions of the classic Martini. Darling's signature cocktail is the Simpson's Martini. "I don't just want to make money [which, undoubtedly he would, at £13 a time]. I want to sell you an experience." Which he does. He even uses an atomiser to spray vermouth into the glass.

Darling won't serve his punters maraschino cherries. Instead, he purchases fresh cherries in season, infuses them in Canadian Club, and then uses them to decorate a Manhattan or a whisky sour.

Sadly, resident pianist Paul Moran wasn't in. I was looking forward to his interpretation of straight-ahead bop standards. But Mr Crisp was. Famous for the most extravagant sideburns this side of St Paul's, Mr Crisp is always in - he's worked in Simpson's for 32 years. And his polite service was a delight. In Knight's, the old world and the new world are colliding rather happily.

Knight's Bar, Simpson's-in-the-Strand, 100 The Strand, London WC2 (020-7836 9112)

drinkwithrichardjohnson@hotmail.com

Comments