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Fu Manchu, the murderous master criminal from Sax Rohmer’s series of novels; that moustachioed, malevolent genius that traversed the globe causing trouble. Hot on his heels was the colonial police commissioner, the jingoistic Denis Nayland Smith and his faithful companion Dr. Petrie.
Yes, that Fu Manchu!
I don’t mean to condescend; of course you know what I’m talking about. All those indicators of the rich literary inspiration behind Clapham’s newest cocktail bar/dim sum parlour/nightclub are clearly written right there in the menu, setting the scene and establishing a narrative for all the weird and wonderful drinks and decor.
Wait, what do you mean they aren’t?
Oh yes, it looks like you’re right.
What the hell is going on, then?
I find myself at the press launch of Fu Manchu, nestled in the railway arches leading toward Clapham High Street Station, frantically Googling to figure out exactly what I’ve got myself into. Along the journey, my iPhone takes me through a number of press releases, dutifully informing me that the very bar I am standing in is a “new social experience”, styled like a “Victorian opium den with a modern, graphic edge”, filled with “hidden corners” and a “series of dramatic light installations”.
Well, I’m standing in a long railway arch, with fairly standardised nightclub lighting, searching for hidden corners that simply aren’t there. The “modern, graphic edge”, translates in real-time as exposed brickwork, with a bust of the bar’s namesake spray-painted on the wall. There are few large bamboo-ish plants dotted around the place because, you know, ‘Asia’. Duly, there isn’t really much of an opium den vibe going on. This is in-part due to the wide open spaces, high ceilings, bar tables, thumping dance music, busy dance floor and the distinct lack of pillows to recline on.
Like most press releases, Fu Manchu’s are rife with on-trend buzzwords that fundamentally fail to deliver. Had some miraculous truth serum been administered at the time of writing, by that fictitious villain Fu Manchu himself, these would all seemingly read: ‘Fu Manchu is a train-arch nightclub with a lazily-exploited, vaguely Asian theme.’ Standing in line for the bar, I hear someone behind me smirk “Well, it’s pretty Clapham”… I’m resigned to agree.
Then we order drinks.
While the names and inspirations fail to communicate any real unity-of-concept other than ‘That Series Of Books We Forget To Tell You About’, the drinks themselves are genuinely great; certainly a far sight better than you are likely to find in any other lively venue in south-west London (unlike the east of this fine city, where accomplished mixologists seem to loiter on every street corner, smoking roll-ups and giving open lectures on vermouth).
‘Lin Tangs Szechuan Sling’, combines Szechuan pepper shrub, mango vodka, Yelllow Chartreuse and mango juice to produce a complex, herbaceous and spicy cocktail, underpinned by fruity sweetness that dances upon the tongue and throat long after you take a sip. Similarly, the ‘Mai Chai’, in which the Ron Zacapa 23yr and Kraken Black rums are softened with curacao, lime and a Chai Tea syrup provides are interesting and playful twist on the Trader Vic’s classic, full of depth. The ‘Dragon Fruit Paloma’, boldly garnished with a thick, satisfying wheel of dragon fruit, manages to make a garishly pink-in-colour cocktail remarkably balanced and three-dimensional; the use of Sauza tequila and Cocchi Americano vermouth providing substantial body to the lime and dragon fruit juices.
While the fruit-forward disco drinks seem to reign supreme with the dancing clientele, the menu caters for the more discerning, Mad-Men-esque tastes with ‘Fortune Favours The Bold’, a moody and powerful twist on the classic Sweet Manhattan, incorporating El Dorado 12yr rum, Punt E Mes vermouth, Black Cherry Southern Comfort, orgeat, and Angostura and chocolate bitters, stirred to a silky-viscous clarity and served straight-up.
Much to my surprise, I find a craft-brewed Pale Ale on the bottled beer menu; ‘Nayland Smiths Pale Ale’, flavoured with lemongrass and kaffir lime and made especially for Fu Manchu (bar, not villain). It’s a smooth American-style pale ale, dry and hoppy to the taste, with south-east Asian edge courtesy of those key additions. It almost brings some fullness to the Fu Manchu theme and concept; certainly I learnt more about who Fu Manchu was and why he matters in the world of drink and food from the bottle’s blurb, than I did from any other aspect of the venue.
Then there is the dim sum. Served in traditional bamboo baskets, it comes steamed, friend and baked; incorporates upon seafood pork, beef, poultry and vegetables and genuinely overrides the drinks in its excellence. The standout morsels include the Sui Mui, a steamed prawn and chicken open dumpling, decorated with red fish eggs; the Tai Chi Bo Coy Gow, a mysteriously green, translucent scallop and spinach dumpling; the exemplary Cha Sui Bao, composed of honey barbecue pork encased in smooth fluffy bun, and the Nan Gua Su, a sweet pumpkin puff that would surely be a fine desert in a real restaurant, if only for the lack of clotted cream by its side.
Yet, this is the hardest part to figure out; with all the creativity and tastefulness of the drinks menu, and the unfathomably enjoyable dim sum, why does Fu Manchu insist on turning itself into an almost identikit archway night club? One could gladly gorge on the cocktails and food all evening, were it not for the venue and pumping music. It is unfortunate that in its bid to be all things, Fu Manchu obscures the great things it actually has to offer. Were it not for the shadow of late-night hedonistic drinking and profiteering, Fu Manchu could fully inhabit the concept of Sax Rohmer’s novels, and Clapham could have that very cluttered and intimate “Victorium opium den”, full of “hidden corners” and “new social experiences” that it was promised.
Let’s be honest, you’ll probably end up here one Saturday night, but come the next morning you’ll end up thinking it was one of those other loud venues around the corner on the High Street where you’d secretly intended to end your night in the first place.
Fu Manchu Clapham review by Raj Virdee