London has a new style of restaurant, one which has been quietly assembling itself over the last few years, carefully encroaching on our dining experiences. It adheres to a principal of overachieving, of not being the jack of all trades, but rather the master of them all. These are restaurants which serve great food, have an outstanding wine list and an innovative cocktail programme. They’re an import from America, an A-team of culinary, alcoholic and barrista expertise.
Nestled beneath a cavernous railway arch at the beginning of Bethnal Green’s Paradise Row is where this particular story starts - at Mission E2. Born with the intention of championing Californian wines, its kitchen focused on rustic Italian-style food to pair with the beautiful American vintages and varieties. The brainchild of Michael and Charlotte Sager-Wilde (of Sager+Wilde on Hackney Road), it was named after a restaurant district in San Francisco not dissimilar to London’s Shoreditch.
And it was while touring the famous foodie destination of the Mission district in San Francisco that Michael and Charlotte Sager-Wilde experienced venues which excelled at more than one discipline. Even the much-respected classic cocktail knowledge that Michael had from London wasn’t enough for the forward-looking Californians. Instead they wanted cocktail menus which pushed the boundaries. All of which brings us back London, back to Mission E2 on a typical grey Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before opening.
We’re not here to see the owners, although Michael is pottering about, plucking wine bottles from the racks and chatting with staff. Instead we’re visiting their main cocktail man Marcis Dzelzainis, who is currently bent over the main bar sanding back the gleaming polished surface.
His employment here signals a big change for the venue. Marcis is a well-known and respected bartender in the London scene who’s CV ticks off a lot of the city’s best cocktail bars. 69 Colebrooke Row, Satan’s Whiskers and Dandelyan to name his most recent posts.
Now he’s here, and has put together a small team and a menu which is pure genius thanks to its simplicity, the easy to understand drink descriptions and its subtle use of unusual ingredients.
“Most of the ideas had been perculating in the back of my head for some time and writing the first draft came very easily to me. Mission customers aren’t your usual customers going into a bar with the express purpose of ordering a cocktail. Here they’re coming into a restaurant with an amazing wine list. There’s a small margin of actually getting people to drink cocktails. Essentially they need to know how a drink will taste and have an understanding of what it is before they order it.”
His hook is brilliantly simple – most of the drinks pair a safe flavour with an unusual one. That way people are drinking interesting cocktails but aren’t intimidated by them. An old trick picked up from his ex-boss Tony Conigliaro.
“London’s restaurant scene is amazing at recognising its influences,” says Marcis. “Fergus Henderson's St John is a great example, a venue which inspired so many of its ex-staff, who have then gone on to open their own places while still remaining true to that original influence which can be seen in their venues today. What’s more is they’re proud of this – proud if people can see the influence. But bars can be so preoccupied with making their own mark. If people come in and see this menu and say they can see Tony’s influence, then that’s a badge of honour for me.”
Behind each cocktail is a careful preparation methodology which shys away from refrigeration and uses older preserving methods to lock in rich, fresh flavours.
“Refrigeration is the worst thing to use and really harms our relationship with food. You can just put something in there and forget about it, chilling everything down makes us much less aware of seasonality, and have a lot less respect for our food - it becomes disposable, a commodity.”
Marcis has also been incredibly careful about the amount of choice on his list. It’s a fascinating thing, he notes, that current thinking seems to be either too much choice or none at all. Striving for that elusive perfect number, he’s presented a menu where drinkers don’t feel shoehorned into something yet still have a chance to pick what they want.
Le Montrachet – folding the wine and cocktail worlds together, the drink references the appellation region of France known for big, buttery chardonnay. It’s made using toasted coconut vodka, burnt honey syrup, moscato vinegar and un-oaked chardonnay.
“It’s playful and subtle and next we’ll look at another wine region, this time Syrah’s Saint-Joseph and its flavours such as cassis.”
Peach & Fino Hi-Ball – this simple mix of peach shrub, fino sherry and soda has benefited from the luscious fresh peaches just recently in season. Wanting to keep the drink on the menu but adamant not to use frozen fruit or a puree he made a shrub – an old method of preserving fruit with vinegar and sugar – which will last until peaches are back in season and is stable at room temperature.
Olive Oil Old Fashioned – easily one of the most popular drinks on the menu, made with olive oil bourbon, sandalwood syrup and olive leaf bitters. The oil makes for a luxurious experience, rather than gulping down olive oil, the infusion gives the bourbon a silky, smooth mouth-feel while the sandalwood adds a vanilla flavour. There’s also a grassy note from the high quality olive oil. “It’s very easy drinking,” explains Marcis.
Rose Petal Ramos – a drink Marcis is particularly proud of, it’s made with gin, rose petal syrup, lemon and lime juice, egg white, cream, maraschino and soda. With plenty of beautiful florality, the maraschino underpins the rose flavour.
The Frozen Section – inspired from a drink on the 69 Colebrooke Row menu which in turn was based on an Italian classic called a Sgroppino. Found all over Italy, in particular Sicily, it’s a mix of sorbet, vodka and proscecco. Mission’s Skammppino is the most classic, replacing vodka for Kamm & Sons while the Campari & Melon, made with melon sorbet, Campari, lemon and fizz, has a deliciously tart and refreshing bite. Most dessert-like is the Rhum & Green Coconut which combines coconut sorbet, rhum, lime sherbert, pine liqueur, lime and coconut water.
Fig & Guava Hi-Ball – a new addition to the menu coming from one of Marcis' team, Alix Nardella. It’s a long, smooth drink of scotch, fig leaf syrup, guava, lemon juice and soda.
As Marcis sums up “There’s a freedom working in an environment where you can talk to chefs, to sommeliers, and be surrounded by gastronomic stimulus. I don’t see why it can’t be done. Places like Hawksmoor and Foxlow are already doing a great job. Why not take that approach?”