Since its opening in November 2015, Oriole has swept up enough international accolades to rival its world-famous sister bars, Nightjar and Bar Swift. We popped on down to the basement jazz den to try a few of the cocktails from the exhaustive menu and sample the new bar “snacks”.
Over the passed few years, London speakeasy bars have become the norm, with identically decorated spaces offering the same kinds of drinks popping up seemingly every fortnight. However, occasionally we come across one that genuinely surprises and excited us. Oriole is one such.
Head down, eagle-eying Google Maps as we are wont to do due to our Editor-in-Chief’s impressively terrible sense of direction, we find ourselves walking passed the entrance to Oriole three times before we eventually spy it tucked away between the bins on the outskirts of Smithfields Market. Tickled by this unconcerned entrance of a bar we’d been hearing rave reviews about for years, we walk over and make our way down to the basement with a sense of occasion and adventure.
Now, we’ve probably missed years-worth of sunlight from over-frequenting subterranean cocktail bars, but we can safely say that stepping into Oriole is a unique experience. Interior designers DayTrip.Studio have created a bar that is simultaneously nostalgic and refreshingly unfamiliar. Somewhere between museum of curiosities and explorers’ hangout, cabinets of worldly artefacts sandwich columns between the bar and the stage and handsome jade green banquettes providing intimate seating options. A palm tree strewn landscape covers the wall behind the stage (currently empty of the usual offering of a live band) and simple ceiling coffers a up-lit to stop the underground space feeling cramped.
We make our may over to the bar with its handsome black wooden top and golden glow, where we are greeted by the charming Ivano who pours us some water and hands us a hefty cocktail menu. Drawing on the same adventurous spirit that the décor evokes, the menu references the drinking habits of the “Old World”, “New World” and “The Orient”, with a diverse range of ingredients paired with more recognisable booze brands.
We start off with Ivano’s recommendation of Marine Drive (Bombay Sapphire Gin, Red Resin Vermouth, Tamarillo Juice, Schisandra Grenadine, Lemon Juice, Honey Smoke). Just like at sister bar, Nightjar, the serving ware is striking. We watch as smoke infused with the honeycomb that sits beside us on the bar is streamed into one half of an hourglass-shaped vessel, before being upturned onto its counterpart that holds the rest of the cocktail. We take a sip from the glass straw that protrudes from the elaborate container and are met by a fresh, fruity yet developed drink with a wispy smoke character. The fresh tamarillo (somewhere between a plum and tomato in both look and taste) imparts a deliciously sweet-savoury flavour that works well with the vermouth and grenadine.
Whilst we happily mull over our drink, Ivano asks us if we would like to order any food. We take the list from him, expecting to the usual “Bar Snack” options and are surprised to instead be greeted by something more akin to a restaurant small plates menu. Broken down into Snacks, Bar Food, Seasonal Inspiration and Sweet, the food continues in the same vein as the cocktails, with international, Pan Latin and Asian inspired cuisine. Following recommendations, we opt for the Truffle Mash Croquettes, Huancaina, Black Olives (£7), Sirloin Steak with Chimichurri (£16) and the intriguing sounding, vegan Sweet Potato, Green Curry Ice Cream, Tamarind, Sambal, Palm Heart (£10).
The bite-sized croquettes come cutely served in an escargot dish and topped with lightly spiced creamy sauce sprinkled with black olive. The truffle is light with the Huancaina being the overriding flavour, mixing with the smooth potato to create a lovely little morsel. The steak is perfectly cooked at medium-rare with fresh Chimichurri that is better than some we’ve had at Argentinian steakhouses. Both are darn tasty dishes that we’d be delighted with in a restaurant let alone at a bar but the sweet potato dish is the one that blows our f-ing minds. The natural, caramel-like sweetness of the soft root vegetable works wonders with the spices with the palm heart adding a more tempered, bright sweet note. Coconut cream “ice cream” introduces both temperature and texture play as well as general deliciousness, cementing this dish as the best thing we’ve ever eaten in a bar.
With the food being a hard act to follow, Ivano presents us with the Rob-Roy-style Skyefall (Talisker 10-Year-Old Whisky, Woodsmoke Freya Birch Spirit, Coffee Leaf Chinato, Espresso Stout Syrup, Clarified Octopus Milk). Presented in a coup with an endearing wooden cut-out of the Isle of Skye stuck to it, the drink balances smooth caramel sweetness with light bitter notes. That near-peat of Skye is gently encouraged by the birch spirit and the stout spirit and octopus milk helps soften and elongate the mouthfeel.
We leave Oriole knowing that our return is imminent. The experience the bar offers is a complete one, with an unexpectedly beautiful setting, relaxed, in-the-know vibe, phenomenal cocktails (worth it at £10-14), exceptional food and wonderful staff. We only wished we’d stayed for the music, but hey, that’s just another excuse to come back.
Oriole, E Poultry Ave, London EC1A 9LH
Reserve your table at Oriole here.