What do you do when you take top bar operators from East London and place them in charge of the beverage programme at a top, swanky hotel?
The Mondrian gave us a glimpse of this vision when it recruited the Mr Lyan gang to create Dandelyan, and now the Corinthia’s partnership with Michael Sager and Marcis Dzelzainis from Sager + Wilde is taking full form.
So what has been happening in Dzelzainis’ world in the last few months? Quite a lot, it transpires.
Dzelzainis and Sager are onto a winning streak at the moment, with Fare Bar & Canteen in Clerkenwell set to open soon, and the recent win at the Spirited Awards, where Sager + Wilde was named Best International Restaurant Bar.
‘It was really amazing. It’s a really tough category, restaurant bars. On paper it shouldn’t have worked, selling cockails in a wine-driven restaurant,’ muses Dzelzainis.
‘When you’re a restaurant bartender it’s a really tough gig. You’ve got to jump in where you’re needed. You don’t often get a bar back. You work really hard. We’ve been doing it for three years, and to win was a very humbling experience.’
Enough of that, however. We’re here to peep behind the curtain at Bassoon, the Corinthia’s swanky bar bedecked in mocha tones and jazz-influenced artwork, and see what Dzelzainis has done with the space.
While he hasn’t entirely adopted a slash-and-burn approach and started again, he’s certainly made his mark.
‘I’m a big believer in holistic experiences,’ he explains. ‘The décor, drinks, service, music should all respect each other. When I walked in there was a really lovely 1920s New Orleans feel to the design. [So I thought] how do we advance the conversation having one foot in the past and one foot in the future?’
The answer was to tweak certain aspects – introducing stools at the bar, bringing in DJs playing music with jazz influences such as funk and disco – and by creating one of the simplest yet most exciting drinks lists I’ve seen this year.
‘I wanted to revisit New Orleans classics, giving them an update yet still being recognisable as having the New Orleans DNA in there. There’s a Julep, a Sazerac, a Ramos Gin Fizz… all quintessential New Orleans drinks. I thought that will be a really nice way of setting the tone and updating the room.’
It certainly hits the right note, with a simple list of 16 cocktails and three non-alcoholic drinks presented in a vinyl album format. (‘I think of drinks menus like an album, I try not to have any filler on it,’ Dzelzainis smiles.)
One of the most notable aspects is the prominent inclusion of cognac – 25% of the list includes it.
‘I love cognac, it’s one of my go-to spirits,’ says Dzelzainis. ‘Cognac also has quite a lot of history associated with New Orleans, with the Sazerac and that French influence in New Orleans, so I wanted to incorporate as many cognac drinks on the menu, but also not go down that route of its stuffy association, that old men with cigars and mahogany furniture feel.
‘With [cognac]drinks, I think it’s time to go, right, how are we going to reemploy it in a different context? So [we’re aiming for] fresh, fruit-driven drinks that make people say “That’s really tasty!”’
The Champagne and Basil Julep really hits those parameters. Mixing cognac with basil, peach, verjus, champagne, it’s rich yet fresh, layered with flavour yet dangerously easy-drinking. Every single ingredient rings out with the clarity of a bell.
Then there’s the Cognac Hi-Ball. An exercise in creating a clean, modern, exciting drink, it combines Remy Martin cognac, verjus, distilled lemon and red sandalwood soda. Bold and fruity up front before leathery earthiness and spice comes in, there’s a depth to the cognac flavour that feels as if it’s on steroids rather than washed out, as can often happen in a highball serve.
The next Champagne Piña Colada?
But enough of all the delicious cognac drinks. Of all the cocktails we tried – and there was not one misstep in the seven we sampled – one in particular stood out: the Wild Strawberry Ramos. Listed on the menu as ‘gin, strawberry, neroli, lime and lemon, cream’, it features a strawberry syrup made with coconut water ‘for roundness’ and orange flower water ‘to give that wild strawberry character’, while a sprinkling of dehydrated strawberry on the soufflé-like top amps up the fruit character even more.
Light, frothy and moreish, it’s beyond delicious, and invokes a similar response to the first time we tried Coupette’s Champagne Piña Colada.
‘For me, it’s reminiscent of a Strawberry Mini Milk ice cream. I’m always trying to rewind and make something like a watermelon Jolly Rancher,’ says Dzelzainis.
This sense of fun, of stripping back the frills that can be associated with hotel bars, is possibly what makes Bassoon feel like a beguiling space that guests will want to return to time and again, moving it more towards the neighbourhood bar vibe that Sager + Wilde does so well.
‘We’ve gone past that east London versus west London versus central idea now. We’re bringing all the good elements of London into one place,’ he explains. ‘I think the Mondrian kickstarted that notion that you could bring east London to your venue, and it elevated it.
‘What the Corinthia has is the luxury and comfort, while there’s a bit of chaos to East London [where Sager + Wilde is based].
‘Hotel bars historically used to be a bit chaotic – the Savoy used to be a place where gangsters, politicians, boxers all used to mix. It’s going back to that idea that this is a melting pot of classes, and looking after everyone on the same level.
‘The ambition is to get this place to be its own unique thing. It’s a hotel bar, but how is it going to be different from the Savoy and The Connaught?’
As we wrap up, a silver platter of Ferrero Rocher is presented. And here is the perfect metaphor of Bassoon in its current form: these chocolates are approachable and accessible to almost anyone, while boasting a tongue-in-cheek veneer of luxury. It says all you need to know about the bar and its current team. You’ll go in, you’ll have a delicious experience, spend a not too extortionate amount of money, and you’ll leave wanting to go back for more. London’s bar scene is all the richer for Bassoon 2.0.