With summer threatening to unleash its golden chariot on the captial at any moment, a flurry of exciting new openings have popped up in anticipation. Last week I popped down to the soft launch of ex-Brindisa chef José Pizarro's latest venture, José, a Sherry and tapas bar modelled on Barcelona's Boqueria market, with a little Andalusian flair thrown in for good measure.
Decked out with authentic azulejo tiles, open brickwork, hanging jamons and an open kitchen, José has a friendly feel, and is distinctly understated in comparison to Sherry bar siblings Bar Pepito and the newly-opened Capote y Toros on Old Brompton Road. I tried an array of Sherries from the 18-strong list, beginning with the refreshing, sea-air filled La Gitana Manzanilla, then moving on to the deliciously nutty Fernanado de Castilla Amontillado and ending on a high note with the citrus heavy Pata de Gallina Oloroso from Juan Garcia Jarana.
Tapas were varied and forthcoming, from fail-safe jamon, to chunks of battered hake with aoili, crab croquetas and pork belly slathered with sheep's cheese. Pizarro was working the room in his chef whites, a smile plastered across his face all night. The consummate professional must be pleased to finally see José come to life, but the work doesn't stop there. Pizarro is already busy planning his fine dining restaurant, named simply Pizarro, due to open down the road on Bermondsey Street before the year is out. Watch this space.
I also found time last week to check out the Courtyard at the 51 Buckingham Gate hotel in St James's, which is preparing for its summer season. Through July and August, the courtyard, modeled on a Victorian garden and centred around an ornate fountain, will be transformed into a live music venue, serving up a series of opera and classical music performances by The London Quartet.
With architecture dating back to 1890 featuring a Shakespearean frieze of the bard's silvan plays, the courtyard features a Tanqueray 10 bar, where on my visit I enjoyed the signature 51 cocktail, a mix of Tanqueray 10, St Germain Elderflower liqueur and grapefruit juice, but was tempted by the Raspberry Collins. Heaters keep you suitably toasty and an impressively long shisha list brings the Edgeware Road to SW1. I experimented with watermelon, apple and banana, with apple just pippling the others to the puffing post.
The week before, I managed to escape the madness of the London International Wine Fair at ExCel to attend Grey Goose's latest experiment: Taste by Appointment at the St Pancras Grand hotel. Greeted at the door by a glamazon in a midnight blue dress, I was ushered upstairs to a plush living room and asked to sit down.
A Grey Goose Fizz thrust in my hand, I am given a tour of my tastebuds by Grey Goose brand ambassador Joe McCanta, who diligently explains the importance of the five tastes: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and the more recently discovered umami – the elusive fifth taste. I'm then offered a selection of artistic-looking canapés, which turn out to be trompe l'oeil tricks. The candy floss is as bitter as a Negroni, while the Parmesan-like foam is white chocolate.
They are designed to help work out which of the five tastes you're most drawn to in order to create a fanstasy cocktail. A fascinating exercise, the results confirm what I already thought: I am most attracted to salt, then sour, with umami in the middle, sweet bringing up the rear and bitter at the bitter end. McCanta leads me into his private bar and begins translating my taste results into a cocktail, beginning with a large sprinkling of salt. He quickly pours generous measures of yuzu (Japanese lemon) and framboise into the cocktail shaker, then in goes Grey Goose Orange and a slug of vanilla syrup for sweetness. Shaken and toppped off with Champagne, we christen it the I Love Lucy.
Having recently written an article on Champagne by the glass sales in the on trade, I was keen to check out the latest Searcys venture, so made the pilgrimage across the millennium bridge last week to Searcys at One New Change in St Paul's – the forth in the Searcys series and a sibling to Paddington, Westfield and the original Champagne bar at King's Cross St Pancras. The bar, fashioned like a giant chandelier by upside down floating flutes, is going great guns, with 25 Champagnes by the glass – the most extensive offering in London.
Both vintage and rosé styles are proving popular at One New Change, where City suits are shunning the Grandes Marques in favour of more obscure grower Champagnes like André Jacquart and Francois Diligent. On my visit, in between beetroot jellies and foie gras macaroons, I enjoyed a glass (or three) of Lanson Extra Age, a blend of three standout vintages released last year in celebration of Lanson's 250th anniversary. Their next project? A single clos Champagne – Clos du Lanson, made from Lanson's own clos above its cellars in Reims.