Saturday, 30th June 2018 – Balans Seven Dials Café, Aquavit, London
In London on a boiling hot day for a trip to the theatre (of which more elsewhere), we were at a bit of a loss as to where to go between the show ending and our dinner reservation nearby. A stroll north from Saint Martin’s Lane took us towards Seven Dials and as we passed an open window I saw a board on the back wall of the establishment offering a cocktail of the day, a raspberry margarita. This turned out to be Balans Seven Dials Café, and the welcome we got when we walked in and asked whether we could just settle in for a couple of drinks was enough to make us feel right at home. The cocktail list was short but interesting and so we started out trying some of the more adventurous sounding options.
Lynne reckoned that as a redhead she really had to try a Ginger Whacker, which the list said contained Redleg spiced rum, lime, mint, and ginger beer, all things she likes. It was quite sharp and refreshing, with a nice edge of sweetness from the ginger beer, and, if you weren’t careful, a whack of heat from the slice of chilli used as a garnish!
My choice was the Snap Pea Flip made with vodka, sugar snap peas, apple and lemon and I assume (though it wasn’t listed) some egg to get the frothy top to work. It was slightly sweet and had a fruity kick to it; my only complaint was that it was quite small and I could have done with a spoon to extract the froth at the end!
We decided to change course for a second round. Lynne ordered the raspberry margarita, which was enjoyable, although she would have liked there to be some salt as in a traditional margarita.
We got into a discussion about it with the waiter, who was knowledgeable, friendly and interested in our opinions but failed to reach a conclusion. He also talked me into trying the Voodoo de Lis, despite saying he personally found it “peculiar”. I decided I’d risk it and he said if I didn’t like it, he’d replace it with something else.
This was a mix of Southern Comfort Black, Benedictine, and truffle oil, and yes, it does sound peculiar. However, as I was on a promise of a replacement if I really didn’t like it so I really didn’t feel I’d got anything to lose. And I liked it. There was the slightest hint of cough medicine lurking in the background, but it was enjoyable enough that if we’d not had to move on, I’d have had a second one.
However, it was time to move on. We had a table for dinner booked at a nearby restaurant, Aquavit which is apparently an off-shoot of a New York original. However, as we would rapidly discover, its heart is firmly and squarely in Scandinavia. From the minute we walked in this was obvious, in the rather glorious woodwork and the general design of the room, and in the accent of the young woman behind the front desk. It was also front and centre in the rather grand central bar.
A quick study of the menu and we decided that one more cocktail was needed in lieu of an aperitif. Lynne opted for the Scandi mule, a mix of OP Anderson (a Swedish aquavit flavoured with caraway, aniseed and fennel), lemongrass, grapefruit syrup, lime juice, fennel and caraway tincture, and ginger beer, a somewhat exotic mix that really worked. It was an interesting shade of pink, and decorated with a sprig of rosemary. So far, so very Scandi.
My drink was even more so, being a Snowflake Sour, a mix of Tanqueray gin, Pedro Ximenez sherry, saffron syrup, egg white, lemon juice, and cranberry bitters which were used as decoration as well as flavouring. It made for a pretty drink that packed quite a punch.
We were also presented with a basket of very good breads, including some crispbread, some sourdough and some malt bread, which is something I loved when we had it in Finland. This was almost as good and certainly went well with the whipped, salted butter.
The only issue we had with the course of our meal was that our starters turned up before we’d had a chance to finish our cocktails. I would have preferred that they had waited. As it turned out, if we’d asked them not to bring it that fast, then they would have been happy to oblige us. Anyway, my starter was a lovely thing. I ordered the smoked eel, with baby gem lettuce, tomato and lovage. The piece of eel was a beautiful thing, with the most strikingly pronounced pattern on it that I’ve ever seen. It was delicately smoked too, the broth it was swimming in complementing it perfectly, and the little gem picking up the flavours from everything else including some dried tomato and some chorizo-style sausage. I loved it so much I had to ask for a spoon to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind. It also permeated the left over sourdough with a powerful blending of flavours.
Lynne started with an excellent veal tartare, with plenty of dill, cauliflower and Parmesan cheese. I was permitted a forkful and it seemed good to me, the finely grated cheese contrasting nicely with the strength of the dill, and the pronounced cauliflower notes.
We decided we would go back to our normal “sharing” mode for the mains. I started on the best end of lamb, which came with charred cabbage, and smoked anchovy nobis (which seems to be an egg and Dijon mustard-based sauce that can be used in place of aioli). The jus that came with the dish was a stunning thing, glossy and full of flavour, and the lamb was cooked to perfection. Everything went incredibly well together, and the char on the cabbage was just the right side of bitterness.
We’d ordered a side dish of Jansson’s temptation too, though to be honest we probably didn’t need it. It didn’t stop us enjoying it though.
Lynne ordered the duck breast, with beetroot, cherry, and liquorice, worrying slightly that the liquorice might be a step too far. given neither of us like the stuff that much. We really shouldn’t have worried. We were obviously in very capable hands in Aquavit. The flavour was just a note, a hint, rather than hitting you in the taste buds and making you feel as if you want to spit it out. Again, the meat was just as you would hope, pink, tender and tasty. The beetroots were just the right level of sweetness, and the cherry made the ideal contrast to the liquorice. It was fantastically good.
It’s fair to say that none of this comes cheap, and as is so often the case with London restaurants it’s the wine list where they clobber your wallet good and proper. After some casting about, and dismissing the French section of the list as frankly ridiculous in terms of markup I located a nice Austrian Carnuntum Rot from Johannes Trapl.
It’s a very pleasant combination of 60% Zweigelt, 30% Blaufränkisch and 10% of what is apparently a rare and pretty unpredictable grape, Sankt Laurent about which the Wine Cellar Insider has this to say. This particular specimen is grown on the sandy loam of Stixneusiedl, harvested and sorted by hand, and then 80% of the grapes are destemmed while the remainder are tamped with their stems. The mash is then fermented with natural yeasts for 6 to 8 days before being gently pressed and the subsequent maturing tales place in 500 litre wooden barrels, stainless steel tanks and amphorae, the process lasting 6 months. No additives, yeasts, enzymes or fining materials are used and the resulting cuvee is defined by its powerful violet red colour. Apparently “In the nose, it is beguiling with a multi-faceted bouquet of herbs and spices paired with dark cherry and berry flavors. The texture is juicy and elegant. On the finish, it impresses with its minerality and very good length, which makes it ideal with beef, roast duck and other game dishes.” You’ll get no argument from me against that. What you will get is a decided pursing of the lips when I discover that a wine that costs €10.50 direct from the vinter, is sold at £48.00 here. Even allowing for duty, tax and shipping that’s quite a markup. Just as well it was good.
Also on the plus side, on the back of it, we had a long rambling chat with the sommelier, Viktor, from Brazil.
It didn’t take long after finishing the wine to decide that we really couldn’t manage another mouthful. Dessert was out of the question. We paid the bill, which arrived with a handful of home-made salted caramels, and swung out into the night in pursuit of a cab to the station.