September 21 2010
Returning to London a decade ago after two years living in New York, it was evident that the capital’s cocktail bars were mostly second rate. Unless you belonged to a members’ club or went the luxury hotel route, they lacked the élan of their East Coast counterparts and were twice as expensive. Since then I’ve been on the lookout for exceptions to this rule. Last month I chanced upon a real gem in Purl.
Although it’s located in Marylebone, this discreet basement bar is a throwback to Prohibition-era Manhattan in appearance. There’s a speakeasy flavour to the place: low lighting, a maze of stylish rooms, lots of alcoves, exposed brick and leather armchairs (second picture). Set up by the four-man team behind the drinks consultancy Fluid Movement, Purl has an atmosphere that’s smart but relaxed. Central of course is the cocktail list, a mix of 12 old favourites and new inventions priced between £7 and £9.
Several are truly spectacular, such as Mr Hyde’s Fixer Upper (first picture, £9). This mix of rum, cola reduction and orange bitters is topped with apple wood smoke and served in a glass chemistry flask sealed with wax. You break the seal and pour it into a silver goblet. Dazzling and delicious. My personal favourite, the Backwards Bellini (£8), is topped with pomegranate foam.
The first time I went, my friend and I gave the Purl crew two challenges that can stump less experienced barmen. First, I ordered off-list, requesting a simple Tom Collins. Didn’t faze him at all. Then my friend asked him to create a cocktail combining cherries and Jägermeister. Even that potentially disgusting challenge was completed with aplomb.
Booking ahead is advised and almost all seats are at tables. This is a pity because if you are lucky enough to be by the bar, you see the sheer opera of cocktail creation, including the ice. No ordinary ice, this. At Purl, it is hand-cut from one huge, crystal-clear chunk behind the bar. And I’ve not seen that before – even in New York.