Feature – The Bar at Theo Randall’s
Rustic Italian cuisine and luxury hotel restaurants don’t seem like the most natural of partners, and on first inspection there is something a little awkward about the set up at Theo Randalls at the Intercontinental. Theo’s website proclaims that his restaurant offers “simple, rustic” dishes, and that he “hates formality and pretence”. And yet at an aesthetic level at least, everything about his restaurant screams the exact opposite. Neatly pressed tablecoths cover tables accompanied by seating straight out of the luxury hotel seating catalogue (I assume there must be such a thing), whilst the rest of the room is decked out in a pleasant but uninspiring style that is anything but rustic.
Having only eaten the antipasti, I couldn’t pass comment on whether the food sits on the rustic or other side of the fence; but my plateful of flavourful meats, cheese and breads offered much promise. This at least is a food and drink pairing that should be replicated more often. Fortunately my horror at the decidedly non-rustic nature of the rest of the room was washed away when it became apparent that the two bartenders on duty had ignored every word they had ever been taught about being ‘proper’. They were pleasingly honest individuals with whom a conversation felt genuine, rather than the incredibly polite but characterless personalities one often gets in such establishments.
The drinks list promises a combination of aperitivo’s to stimulate the palate, and three ‘modern’ offerings. The latter sit a little uncomfortably aside the first, and suggest someone was lacking confidence in the main concept. They shouldn’t have worried however, for the aperitivo selection itself is well-conceived, and more importantly well executed. The combination of Carpano Antica Formula, Campari and soda in the Torino Milano is a typical offering and whilst being admittedly straightforward to prepare well, is something that should be tried by many more than I suspect do. A step up in the complexity stakes came the Gin Italia which required some precision stirring to ensure the combination of gin and sweet vermouth was neither too boozy nor too insipid. Top marks for stirring. The Montabalno took things one step further by adding Martini Bianco, Campari, and Galliano to a gin base. The balance of sweet and bitter was perfect, and somehow things were sufficiently well balanced to allow the often weak-in-character Bombay to show its presence. These are not game-changing cocktails but nor should they be, the combination of these drinks with a plate of antipasti is a simple and effective concept that would have me return in a heartbeat. The ‘Morderno’ offerings are acceptable but lacking in finesse. Terrible name aside, the ‘Sweet and Hot’ for example was an unnecessary combination of vanilla vodka, elderflower syrup, lemon juice, honey and red chilli. I bet Italians don’t drink this with their meal, and neither should we.
Restaurants are increasingly looking to make use of their bars by offering an experience to sit alongside the main function of the restaurant. For some, this ends up feeling like a sneaky way to drag you in and hour early to loosen the wallet before it’s the lucrative wine-with-dinner ordering time. The concept of antipasti and aperitivo delivered here however is worthy of a visit in its own right, rustic or not rustic.