Words: Rajan Virdee
Just when you were starting to tire of London’s overdone ‘subterranean speakeasy’ thing, Knowhere Special comes along to reinvigorate your love of boozing below street level.
Nestled inconspicuously amongst the growing bustle of Kentish Town’s high street, you’d be forgiven for not even realising this place existed.
Searching for Knowhere Special is like locating a faraway star by gazing slightly to the side of where it’s supposed to be. If you’re unversed in the tricks of the star-gazing trade, then look for the office-esque door in-between the Assembly House pub and the new and nice-enough Saint Espresso coffee shop. You’ll slip into an unassuming – if slightly unnerving – graffiti’d hallway and down some rickety old stairs, before emerging into a louche and rakish cocktail den, twinkling with the lights of candles nestled amongst shelves cluttered with vintage cocktail paraphernalia.
Interestingly, the venue is set amongst the cells of an old victorian jailhouse, which means it’s probably haunted by some hard-drinking hardnuts too. Nowadays it resembles the cosy and effortlessly cool living room you imagined those edgy kids at university shared. Hell, they’re probably working behind the bar right now.
Knowhere Special is all about eccentric and eclectic house-creations, imaginatively paired with small plates. You know, just in case you forgot to eat on your way out of the house. The bar itself is flanked by extra large mason jars filled with weird and wonderful things macerating in tasty boozy-looking liquids; nothing you get here is set to be run-of-the-mill. The menu comes from the creative minds of owners Ash and Helen, and their in-house Jack Russell, Otto, who effortlessly hosts your evening like one of those edgy kids with the cool living room.
Keen to delve deep into Knowhere’s imaginative menus, we settle in for dealer’s choice and let the manager Michael call the shots. First up is the Now You Sashimi, Now You Don’t, made – by way of some ingenious and implausible alchemy – with toasted sesame infused rice wine, scotch, dry vermouth, shiso syrup, brown rice vinegar and sesame seed oil. The drink is served, fittingly, in a black ceramic bowl set upon a square plate.
It’s a delicate blend of Japanese flavours (like all the good parts of that high-end sushi restaurant you can never quite afford to eat at) stirred down into the silky simplicity of a gin martini. The brown rice vinegar and sesame seed oil float as drops on the surface of the drink, expressing themselves separately in individual sips. The accompanying sushi features sweet morsels of coconut rice and soft, sultry blocks of sweet-chilli and lychee jelly astride a scattering of crystals made from dehydrated seaweed, sea salt and sesame seeds. All at once not too sweet and not too savoury; a fitting aside to an enchanting drink.
Next up is the Hay Jimador, What’s Cooking? featuring hay-infused tequila, spiced gin, dry vermouth, cider vinegar and house-made spiced red pepper juice. The bright pink drink has a misleadingly bold spicy pepper aroma; with the first sip you anticipate a sharp and lingering heat, which actually makes a surprising full about-turn when the refreshing and zesty red pepper juice and the bright and floral hay-infused tequila take over. It is served with traditional tortilla chips and a punchy sweetcorn salsa, tempered by toasted ricotta cheese and a sprinkling of fresh coriander. It’s like having a late-night swift half and a roadside snack in some tiny Mexican town. Precisely the sort of spirited situation you could carry on with all night long.
We hunker down for one last waltz, and are guided towards the When Life Gives You Bananas, which lives up to it’s namesake with a potent blend of banana-infused rum, Campari, macadamia syrup, banana liqueur, sweet vermouth and a hint of vanilla-infused absinthe. You’d think that with all that banana and syrup swirling around in your frosted glass, that this would be the sort of punchy sweet drink that you’d hopefully grown out of shortly after happy hour ended on your 22nd birthday, but the floral and fruity front-end flavours have a remarkably short half-life, giving way to a balanced and punctual bitter edge that leaves you slightly confused as to how the hell the bartender managed to wrangle that sugar into such sweet submission.
It’s served alongside a satisfying slugs of scarmoza cheese, that have been wrapped in prosciutto and lightly fried to produce a crisp and salty outer shell. The scarmoza is bold, dense and doesn’t melt under the heat, providing a satisfying bite when your teeth break through the proscuitto. Think of a soft and gooey halloumi, only with a hell of a lot more flavour. It’s the sort of dish you’d gladly order as a standalone starter or snack, which we did, and were oh-so-unwillingly forced to drink the accompanying cocktail all over again.
The back bar also features a range of vintage spirits and liqueurs from nineteen-sixty-however-long-ago. While we were tempted by these time-machine tipples, we took to sipping on some Nils Oscar India Pale Ales from frosted tankards instead, slightly surprised we still had the capacity to keep going. While the food pairings are a great way of elaborating on the cocktail-drinking experience, they are also an ingenious method of setting the pace for an evening of imbibing, allowing you to drink and graze leisurely for hours on end and still be able to walk up the stairs to find your Uber at the end of the night. Truth be told, we ended up cancelling our dinner plans; the scarmoza bites, sushi and nachos had us suitably satisfied. We imagine we aren’t the first who thought they’d just simply grab a drink or two before dinner.
With so many cocktail bars working so hard to be defined by how ‘different’ they are through their design and menus, it’s a shame that many of them invariably end up the same: overpriced or under-delivered. Central to Knowhere Special’s appeal is the high-functioning humility of the whole operation. They don’t even have to try to to be different; this is who they are and this is why their experimental approach to drinks and dishes doesn’t disappoint. Their theatre is not in the fancy flaring, Japanese hard-shaking or smoke-and-mirrors garnishes, but in the effortlessness of their hospitality and confidence in their ability to bring you a boozy experience that you won’t find elsewhere. So come here. If you can find it.
Knowhere Special is open Tues-Thurs, 5-11pm | Fri-Sat, 5-12am | Sun, 5-10.30pm.
296 Kentish Town Rd