20 September 2012

Down and Out in Shoreditch and Spitalfields

Sometimes--most of the time, in fact--it just isn't convenient to head down to the Lower East Side, Williamsburg or the Meatpacking District for a perfectly cocktail in a secret speakeasy or for a juicy, tender fillet steak. Luckily for us Londoners, though, this can be achieved without hopping on a plane--if you know where to go, of course.

We achieved the former the other night at Nightjar, a prohibition-style cocktail bar that describes itself as "a hidden slice of old-school glamour," belying its location behind a nondescript door just steps from the Old Street roundabout. As it only opens at 6 pm, I was worried that it might be empty but there were a few people there when we arrived and had we showed up much later, we might not have got a table--do book ahead, especially if you're in a group. The bar, which is in the basement, is all dark wood tables, lacquered black ceiling panels and sleek mirrors. The drinks menu, its cover gilt-embellished and its first few pages revealing the instructions for decoding the rest of the contents, which are organised into pre-prohibition, prohibition, post-war and Nightjar signature drinks. Blokes who hate fruity, pink, girly cocktails are well served by the first two sections; most of the ones I liked were in the postwar section.

L: El Matador (L) and Kama Aina (R). R: Nightjar's gorgeous menu.

In the end I settled on the Kama Aina, with fancy gin, elderberry infusion, triple sec, Mastiha honey, lime and sparkling coconut water, which came with a mini coconut shell and some cinnamon sticks floating on top. The El Matador arrived similarly adorned with a gold-painted bauble and what looked like a bay leaf balanced precariously on the glass. The drinks were excellent, with an interesting combination of flavours, and they were certainly plenty strong enough for a Tuesday night. Nightjar often has live music and they also do tapas and nibbles, although we had other plans...

En route: aerial tube trains. "Lets [sic] adore and endure each other."

Which brings me to Hawksmoor, which has been in my London Moleskine's to-try list for a long time, thanks to their reputation for serving what may be the best steak in London. I just wasn't in Spitalfields very often and it never seemed convenient, but even though there is now a Covent Garden, I still never quite managed to fit in a visit. A brisk stroll along Great Eastern Street to Commercial Street helped us to build up an appetite for what we knew would be a filling meal. Avoiding bread and starters and, in my case, the excellent cocktail menu, we got straight to the point.

Hawksmoor offers their favourite cuts, including porterhouse and chateaubriand, by the 100g, but by the time we arrived only obscenely big cuts were left: 900g or bigger, which was far too big for two of us. Instead, we sampled a fillet and a sirloin, which did weigh 900g in total, but that includes the latter's bone. My fillet steak was really good. The meat was flavoursome and juicy and perfectly medium rare. Sides and even sauces are extra--we shared some triple-cooked chips (some of which were too crispy even for me) and a baked sweet potato, which was delicious. Unfortunately, I caught a glimpse of the words "peanut butter" and "caramel" on the pudding menu, but fortunately, I was so stuffed even the prospect of peanut butter shortbread with salted caramel ice cream couldn't tempt me to eat another bite.

Fillet steak at Hawksmoor Spitalfields

The restaurant was bustling and despite being pretty close to Shoreditch High Street, most of the customers seemed to be City Boys rather than hipsters, who were probably at Flat Iron. There was a nice buzz, though, and with Hawsmoor's exposed brick walls and sleek leather benches, you can almost pretend you are in Manhattan. Almost. In any case, Hawksmoor is jumping to the top of my "best steaks in London" list.

Nightjar. 129 City Road, London, EC1V 1JB (Tube: Old Street). Website. Twitter.
Hawksmoor Spitalfields. 157 Commercial Street, London, E1 6BJ (Tube: Liverpool Street). Website. Twitter.

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