Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Distillery - including the Ginstitute, Resting Room and GinTonica

You may remember the Distillery from its previous incarnation in somewhat smaller quarters further down Portobello Road. Thanks to London's  recent 'ginaissance' (and the passion of the Portobello Road Gin crew) demand has seriously outstripped supply. Now, founder Ged Feltham has answered many a gin-lover's prayer and created what can only be described as a four-floor gin paradise on the corner of Portobello Road and Talbot Road. 

The basement houses the main still itself, upgraded from the original 30 litre capacity to a reassuring 400 litres (which will mean that production of Portobello Road Gin can again be done completely on site) and the Ginstitute. I didn't get to do this on my visit, but am definitely planning to - so watch this space, details to follow!

The ground floor is home to the Resting Room, a laid-back cocktail bar serving hand-blended and barrel-aged spirits - the latter served directly from huge barrels suspended above the bar. There is also a small but perfectly formed food menu; I dabbled, but it deserves my full attention at a later date.

On the first floor is the tapas restaurant, GinTonica, serving Basque tapas and G&Ts in the 'copa de balon' glasses that any self-respecting gin aficionado uses now (*cough, buys new gin glasses immediately*).  This shape, with the large 'balloon' bowl and stem, not only focuses the aroma of the botanicals as you drink to give you a better flavour experience, but also slows the melting of the ice, so keeping your drink colder for longer AND less diluted. Winner. 

The top floor boasts a private meeting/dining room (pictured) and boutique lodgings: three double rooms with huge windows overlooking one of the world's most iconic streets, a fully-stocked minibar with freshly-made cocktails (gin, obvs) and a selection of vinyls from nearby Rough Trade West. The only way these rooms could be any cooler is if they were sitting smack on top of a gin salon and a restaurant. Oh, wait . . .

I approached my lunch booking in GinTonica with high hopes, given that it offers a combination of two of my favourite things in the world: gin and tapas. I have indulged in both frequently, internationally and (on occasion) excessively, just never - until now - concurrently.  I've always gone for ice-cold fino sherry, a dry Spanish white or rosé, or una caña with my tapas but hey, I'm always open to suggestions.

The first plate to arrive was the Pan Catalan. This is one of those joyous dishes that is simple, quick and - even when using top-quality ingredients, which you absolutely must - cheap to make, but is utterly delicious. Easily pleased, me, but then this was a good one.

The Pollo a la Parilla was a juicy grilled chicken breast, sliced and served with a roast chicken croquette and a very tasty, chunky romesco sauce. Another big tapas win in my book is the option of croquetas, usually a reliable benchmark for the rest of the meal.

Tragically they were out of the Croquetas con Queso (it was their soft launch, so I can't moan) but the chicken croquette was very promising: light, crispy coating, melting interior, good flavour. To me, these are the comfort food champs of tapas (the equivalent of Chinese bao or dumplings) and the experience was exactly right. Perhaps a jamon version in your next menu please chef?

To go with, we did glance through the drinks menu but decided to let our friendly barman advise us. We started with a couple of simple classic G&Ts - a Portobello Road Gin 17, the house blend, served with Fever Tree tonic water, juniper berries and a twist of pink grapefruit, and a Botanist, with Fever Tree elderflower tonic, juniper berries, apple and mint.

These are 50ml serves (doubles, basically) and arrive beautifully presented in the aforementioned copa de balon glasses. They were also outstandingly good. There's a whole menu of these? Book me a room.

The next tranche of tapas included another fave of mine, boquerones. Anyone who hates anchovies because they had them on a pizza once - please believe me when I say that these white anchovies (marinated in olive oil, garlic and parsley) are light, mild, flavourful and worlds away from their punchy, salt-preserved cousins. (Not that I don't always have a tin of the macho ones in my kitchen cupboard, as they are singularly brilliant at bringing out flavour in a whole range of dishes, but I digress.) Perhaps there could have been a tad less oil, but that was more a not-dropping-it-down-my-top issue than a problem with the flavour.

The patatas bravas with chilli sauce and aioli was pretty much what you would want and was a good companion dish to the orzo risotto with smoked Spanish cheese and truffle oil. This dish prompted a foodie debate at the table: is there such a thing as an orzo risotto? I don't want to go all #paellagate on this - particularly as I am known for endlessly tweaking recipes to see what happens, cooking is a living language - but my Pavlovian response kicks in and I expect a particular texture that you can only get with rice. Anyway, I digress again. Either way, this was good; creamy, incredibly rich, looser in texture than a rice-based risotto and definitely best paired with a contrasting dish like the bravas.

Time for another round of gins. This time we went for a Gin Mare with 1724 tonic, black pepper, basil and a slice of fresh mango, and a Portobello Road Gin 171 Director's Cut Number Two served with Fever Tree, smoked cardamom pods and blue cornflower. The first two were a really hard act to follow and these were also good, although very different - leading me to think more about the whole process of balancing botanicals and the variations that are possible.

No time for dessert - we had a table booked downstairs in the Resting Room to see what they had to offer.  I was very tempted to try a spirit from one of the barrels above the bar, partly because they are so cool and partly because the spirit is ageing as it is stored - meaning that it will taste very slightly different on my next visit. The drinks menu is wonderfully authoritative, explaining each spirit in terms of nose, taste and finish as well as recommending a way of trying it.

We stuck with the gin theme, though. I went for a classic martini, which was as lip-puckeringly dry as it gets and presented with skilled and elegant simplicity. How beautiful is this? (That's another set of glasses I need to buy now. If only there were an antiques market nearby. Oh, wait . . . )

Still full from our tapas, we just dipped into the small plates menu and ordered the scallops with chestnut puree, apple julienne and watercress and a side of truffle fries with parmesan and garlic. The apple was a good contrast to the soft silkiness of the scallops; the fries had a great flavour but lacked any crunch, which was a minor disappointment. Not enough to stop us finishing them, though.

So, that was my visit to the Distillery. I am intrigued by the Institute now, so have put that on my to-do list for this year, and will try the larger sharing plates from the Resting Room's Josper oven while I'm at it.

Yours, with two floors down and two to go,

London Girl About Town xx

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