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Words: Rajan Virdee
What happens when an edgy, industrial hipster bistro teams up with a world-class gin bar?
Ask For Janice is the edgy, industrial hipster bistro that we’ve come to know all too well. They serve high-quality small plates, craft coffees and those crucial avocado’d brunches befitting an east-ish London market-side location. They also give themselves the breadth to transform into a ramshackle, good-times bar later on weekday evenings. You know, the sort of place you actually want to head to after work, rather than that basic-bitch pub your colleagues prefer.
Its only truly objectionable point is its setting. Farringdon is an area of London I’ve never quite been able to wrap our heads around. A former slum, centred around an age-old wholesale meat market now occupied by financial institutions, media and tech firms, chain bars and a world famous dance club; it’s a place layered with history that has little charm to actually show for it.
But holding all of that against Ask For Janice would be misplaced. One look at their Instagram tells you that they do what they do very well, and with the vibrancy and attention that you won’t find in their more corporate local competition. In their bid to keep standing out from the crowd, AFJ’s basement is now hosting a gin-soaked residency by the brains and brawn of Graphic Bar, Soho’s own juniper Jumanji.
Graphic Bar and Ask For Janice are owned by the Urban Leisure Group. Having experimented with private parties and a pop-up from the now-established Cocktail Trading Company, Urban Leisure decided to bring their basement bacchanalia in-house. As a drinks-led hospitality group, with a serious gin obsession, they conscientiously pitch themselves in the middle-ground between the too-sweet-too-sour BeAtOnes and Adventure Bars of the cocktail world, and the super-serious speakeasies and hotel bars. It’s about high quality drinks and hair-down fun, a surprisingly fine line to tread.
Once we’d fought through the thirsty Thursday City-worker crowd, a handwritten cardboard sign in the corner of the neon-lit, darkened venue directed us towards the basement, a humid concrete bunker with polaroid-littered walls. It’s a tight squeeze and very dimly lit. The drinks menu does look really good, it’s just that you might go blind trying to read it. iPhone torches at the ready.
The cocktail menu is split into house creations, some well-chosen classics, a gin & tonic pairings list, and punches served in paint tins, the latter of of which feels satisfyingly in-keeping with the industrial concrete-and-graffiti basement vibe. The beer, cider and wine selections are really great, too, for that one member of your group who insists on missing the point of going for cocktails.
We started with a Roger The Farmhand (Cotswold gin, lemon & lime, apple & rose, egg white), which was elaborately presented and garnished, well balanced in flavour, but fundamentally uninteresting. It was gin-y, it was citrus-y, and had a weightier mouthfeel courtesy of the emulsifying egg white, but little else stood out other than its Insta-worthiness.
Then we tried the Rumple Pumpkin (East LDN Liquor Co Batch #2 gin, Cocchi Torino, Aperol, pumpkin, rosemary, salt). It was viscous and ‘bitty’, with a fruit-smoothie texture; the Cocchi Torrino (one of our favourite fortified wines) came through strong and spicy, which paired with pumpkin made everything taste a little bit Christmassy. But with each sip we got little more frustrated at all those bits, and the difficulty they created in actually drinking the thing. It’s a cocktail aimed at the NutriBullet health crowd, who invariably love all things pumpkin-spiced. It would be the sort of drink that captures Graphic’s ‘high quality/hair-down’ approach , if it weren’t such hard work actually getting it through the straw.
Next round we sampled the Last Salutation (Rittenhouse rye whiskey, coffee, pineapple, vanilla, Cocchi, salt). Despite an inordinate number of ambiguously defined ingredients, it tasted like little more than the bastard child of a Negroni, a Sweet Manhattan and a free hand. Its orange twist garnish came angularly sliced and diced like that of a high-end hotel bar, and felt misplaced amongst the casual and edgy simplicity of almost everything else in that basement.
The food at Graphic’s residency comes courtesy of Ask For Janice’s main kitchen. Taking suggestions from the staff we ordered the Spiced Lamb Shoulder and Ox Cheek small plates to share, and promptly fought over them. The Spiced Lamb Shoulder is a wonderfully multi-dimensional and textured dish, where the deep, dark softness of the braised lamb was offset by the crumbly-creamy sharpness of feta cheese, the floral and citrus edge of fresh pomegranate seeds and the herby, mushy comfort of some good old peas. The Ox Cheek was a soulful and bold stew, where comforting textures of braised meat and beans made us feel rather homely, which was a strange sentiment, given we were sat in a dark concrete basement, listening to Grandmaster Flash and watching strangers drink from paint tins.
As some stools freed up, we relocated to the bar counter to settle in for our third and final round. Having been a left a little wanting from the house creations, we went all-in on some dry gin martinis, leaving all choices in the hands of the barkeep. I mean, these guys are from Graphic Bar, after all, which is the place to go for gin aficionados in this city, and it was at this point that the residency really came into its own.
After discussing our options from their expansive selection with knowledge and eloquence, they recommended the Death’s Door and Pink Pepper brands. The former, from Washington Island, Wisconsin has only three botanicals: juniper, coriander and fennel seeds, which coincidentally count as three of my favourite flavours ever. The latter is a more experimental offering from the Cognac region, made with juniper and pink peppercorns (obviously), amongst other botanicals. Stirred down in two frosty-cold dry martinis, these recommendations wiped the slate clean for the slightly down-heartening drinks we’d had before. I haven’t enjoyed a martini that much in a very long time.
Classic, gin-forward drinks are clearly their forte; the staff are passionate about gin itself, and happy to talk about it at length, and let it shine through in the sort of pared-down mixed drinks you’d expect at a gin-focused residency… which made us wonder, why does their actual menu seems so geared towards convolution and mass appeal?
Perhaps, in trying to ease the thirsty throngs of Farringdon into a life of gin-appreciation with powerful vermouths, pumpkins, coffee, pineapples and rosemary sprigs, they dilute that very boldness that makes gin such an exciting category of spirit. The residency has only been going for two weeks, so it’s clearly still a work in progress, but with all that passion and knowledge teeming behind the bar, let’s hope they decide to go back to basics, and let the spirit do the most the talking. They’re open for another three months, at least, so there is plenty of time.
Graphic Bar’s residency at Ask For Janice is open Tuesday-Friday, 5pm-12.30pm, until January 2018