The streets of Shoreditch are roamed by tight-chino’d packs of hip London youth, gyring and gimbling in the wabe like those slithy toves in Lewis Caroll’s brilliant work of nonsense, Jabberwocky. Fitting, it will transpire, that cobbly little Rivington Street’s Callooh Callay should be named after the poem. I must confess I remember little of my first visit (an ill-fated absinthe tasting some years ago), and thinking up preconceptions at Callooh Callay is nigh-on impossible.
In the main bar there’s that kind of Victorian chic thing that a lot of cocktail bars go in for, only, not quite. And then you walk through the wardrobe at the far end (I promised myself I wouldn’t use the term “Narnia-esque”), and you’ll find a hidden secondary lounge area, replete with gaudy Vegas-style leafy centrepiece, barbershop sign, and bathroom bedecked with old tape cassettes. And then there’s the Oyster Card-themed menu, which is something else entirely.
Round one: I ordered a 20 Regal; my co-drinker took a Salt n Vinegar Martini. After seemingly no time at all, the waitress returned: my drink served in a cedar wood-smoked Kilner jar (“oh, you can take the lid off – it’s a bit awkward” said she apologetically), and his, with a pair of lime-green olives and a pearly-white cocktail onion perched on a Martini glass.
A sort of Scotch whisky Old-fashioned, the 20 Regal uses a drop of lapsang souchong-infused amaro, with chestnut liqueur and white vermouth. Someone must congratulate the deft hand which worked in just the vaguest whisper of smoke – enough to add complexity without being overpowering. The chestnut liqueur and amaro were added with such subtlety that they appeared only to thicken the whisky (Chivas Regal); and then the vermouth added something herbal, woody… it gave it a bizarre sense of imaginary place.
The Salt n Vinegar Martini (billed as a cross between a Gibson and a Dirty Martini) was similarly restrained. Expecting a lip-puckering, oceanic dosing of salt, the delivery was astoundingly refined and grownup. Dry vermouth (I forget which) met a peculiar sherry vinegar syrup (great idea), and smoked sea salt. Together, the melange of flavours was evocative of Japanese fine dining, but without the fussiness.
Meanwhile, the music, which at first left something to be desired, had turned to Motown classics. Tears of a Clown played as we sat in a mirrored room with a disco ball behind us, ordering a “#Cocktail” and a “Rye Me to the Moon”. At most other Shoreditch watering holes, such a lexicon would be dire and obnoxious, but at Callooh Callay, one rather gets the impression it’s a all a bit tongue-in-cheek – a skilful, British wit mock-saluting the trendiness of the locale. And, in fact, looking around that seemingly infinite mirrored room, everyone looked fairly normal. I could count just one ironic beard, and most of the clothes weren’t even two sizes too small.
Rye Me to the Moon was an intelligent, elegant drink, made with nothing more than Bulleit Rye (far superior to Bulleit Bourbon, IMHO), amontillado sherry, and a dash of bay leaf syrup. It was odd; the effect more single malt Scotch than anything else.
Forced to say the word “hashtag” aloud, the #Cocktail and me got off on the back foot. But then it turned up and was the best drink of the night. Tequila, peppercorn syrup, ginger ale, and hippie-curative Kamm and Sons offered a thoroughly emotive little concoction, with hints of Chinese spices and something gloriously reminiscent of the never-ending mysteries of my grandmother’s herb- and spice-laden pantry.
Out on the other side of the wardrobe, the main bar was bustling, busy, jolly, heaving. A fabulous atmosphere. Upstairs, the thematically transient Jubjub Bar was lined with artwork from nearby gallery Pure Evil, and proved to be something else entirely.
We ordered Padron peppers, pulled pork, Iberico chorizo and soft-shelled crab off of the tapas-meets-Deep-South dining menu. My impressions, jotted on the back of a coaster: Peppers – perfectly salty, brilliantly fiery (varying warmth… like playing Russian Roulette with more bullets). Pulled pork – tad bland… soft-shelled crab – perfect… chorizo – meaty, oily and rich.
The last round came slightly late (which we’d hardly have noticed had the waitress not apologised so politely and offered them on the house). With just a hint less sugar, the final drink (a standard Old-Fashioned) would have been utterly perfect: a generous use of bitters and plenty of zesty orange. Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon was ambrosia.
Callooh Callay, like the Jabberwocky, is a bizarre mishmash of incredible imagination and insanity. No two elements – from the disco ball to the Oyster Card menu – are from the same era, scarcely the same century, and with lesser bartenders it would be an awful place. It is, however, stupendously good, and you should go there immediately.
Who’s it for? I haven’t the faintest idea… Everyone?!
Why go? Inventive yet sophisticated drinks, made well.
My favourite thing: Walking through a wardrobe to a secret lounge, only to find yet a further hidden bar upstairs.
Average drink price: £10.50
65 Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3AY
Tel: 020 7739 4781
Nearest Tube: Old Street
6pm – 12am Sun to Wed
6pm – 1am Thurs, Fri & Sat