I am sort of pathetically entertained by magic — it never fails to make me feel like a little kid, which I suppose is a trick in itself. But even easily amused old me found it a struggle to muster much enthusiasm when the waitress at Abajo crouched beside the table and said, twinkling: “Let me show you something.”
Here’s the stunt: turning off the table lamp, confirming that — yes, exactly as we’d seen with the light on — the orange column of drink in front of me sat on a coaster studded with LEDs. Show me something? The drink was lit up. It’s a cocktail plonked on top of some lights. The David Copperfield show this ain’t.
Sure, I got a good picture. But if you’re wondering whether it’s worth trekking across town for, pop on your phone’s torch and wave it below a pint. Thoroughly wowed? By all means, get £15 at the ready and head to the West End. The more discerning reader, on the other hand, might reckon there’s more to a bar than drinks themed by their hue, which is this joint’s conceit. And if you’re colourblind, well, Christ, there’s nothing here for you at all.
The name attached to the bar is Renato “Tato” Giovannoni, who’s won countless cocktailing trophies and by all accounts is one of the world’s best barmen, so I can only wonder if he’s been held up at the airport. The vibe here is, apparently, Eighties Argentina, when the country was celebrating the fall of fascism and democracy’s return — this seems to have manifested itself in The Cure playing at various volumes. I wasn’t around then, but I suspect there may have been more to it than that.
The room is moody and frowning, lights low. It is deliberately very “cool” — with all the little irritations to make it so. Take the loos, doors flush to the wall with no handles or markings: “Help,” a dazed-looking girl said in the hall. “I don’t know how to get in.”
Was it really as bad as all that? Well, no, not entirely. We still managed to have fun and the table next to us was coping admirably as well, though they too seemed slightly perplexed by each cocktail being nothing more than a pastel highball (one exception: a murky-tasting £17 Martini variant, completely clear, no lights, made with two types of gin and a drop of sherry). Trouble was, everything seemed so indistinct. That orange drink had Mexican corn whiskey mixed with a corn liquor, sweet corn (picking up the theme, yet?), peanut juice, mandarin and bergamot. Strong flavours set apart, but together a muted mess.
We were happiest with bottles of Fix, the gentle Greek lager I think of so fondly from countless Corfiot holidays. With them, the night was good. But if you’re one of the best bartenders in the world, bottles of beer shouldn’t be your selling point. Expectations were sky-high; let down doesn’t cover it. I did then, I suppose, feel tricked.
47B Great Marlborough St, W1. Cocktails from £15, sucrerestaurant.com/abajo