Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mokoko, as good as Tomoka Spirits or just for show?

I heard about Mokoko one afternoon when I was perusing for Christmas presents and came across Tomoka Spirits in St Christopher’s Place. The owners of this really rather wonderful Willy Wonka kind of shop mentioned they owned Mokoko and so I got straight onto Safari and browsed their website. Trendy music started playing and I already felt I was in London at one of my favourite cocktail bars, ‘The Experimental Cocktail Club’ or ’69 Colebrook Row’: Both these places are sacred for me, for what they offer in new flavour experiences is an utter thrill. 

Please believe me when I say I love my booze. We have over 100 bottles of all sorts of wondrous alcoholic potions in our home and I have long been a fan of Absinths and Gins. I talked for ages with the nice member of staff, Roberto, in Tomoka Spirits. His knowledge was boundless and the way he was so eager to let me try new spirits, and point out methods in which all the wondrous potions were distilled was heartwarming. This really raised my hopes for Mokoko and I felt like this place might just be wonderful.

Mokoko makes a bold claim of being the only real ‘style bar’ which I presume means they offer a little slice of ‘East’ London in their venue, but my question was ‘is it the genuine article, with cocktails to match, or a cheap knock off?’. There appear to be very few cocktail bars in St Albans, especially ones that pride themselves on the quality of their product like many of the food venues do, so I had really hoped Mokoko would live up to expectations.

Chris and I chose a Wednesday at 9pm to pop along. He finished work late and Wednesdays is Jazz night, so I thought it would be a nice place to chill out. Also Tuesday-Thursday you get 2 (unusual) burgers for £10 so we might as well have tried that. We walked in and the place was no where near as full as I thought it might be, and I kind of felt sorry for the really wonderful guitarists playing a mixture of Gypsy ‘style’ Jazz, really rather well. The combination of two guitarists I found incredibly satisfying; my father used to play flamenco guitar and my record producer is a classical guitarist.

Again, there was a slightly stale smell when I walked in, similar to that I found in CHI, so I am guessing it must be the old buildings; nevertheless it can be off putting. The venue was nicely lit and we sat down in the window. There was a rather loud and annoying group of slightly drunk middle aged adults spoiling the first few minutes for me, but they left shortly after. It goes to show that sometimes over 21 venues, such as this, are no different from those that use their discretion when letting certain types of groups in, which is how the aforementioned venues in London do their business.

Everyone was perfectly friendly. No real cause for concern and it was adequately laid back for a place like this, although I might add that it would have been nice, seeing as we were first timers, to be engaged in conversation by the waiter. We were talked at a little at the end of the meal which meant we left with a skip in our steps, but even in the mega busy cocktail and restaurant venues in London, it is always nice to be asked ‘is it your first time here?’ and ‘how long have you lived  in…?’. This provokes further conversation and gets things off on the right foot. In my experience all these little things do matter because they are what set certain places apart, and in my experiences, if my first time is warm and friendly even if the food or drink are not fab, then I will still go back wantingly.

The burger menu was, to say the least, unusual! But to be fair, they do say as much. Things like Kangaroo and Crocodile burgers, which actually I found a little annoying. I wanted a well made Beef burger, or at least Lamb. Something that will be tender and make the mouth water a little. Crocodile is incredibly dry and the flavour, whilst not bad, is it worth it? They cannot sell enough of them every day to have the fresh article on hand which means it will either be frozen and defrosted or sat in the fridge for a very long time. If I am wrong please feel free to shout me down. They did have a Wagyu beef version, which so happens to be the best beef on the planet, but they did not have any to serve me. Maybe the fact they had sold out should hint as to where their priorities should lie.

We both opted for the Venison burgers. These were nice enough and for the price a real bargain I thought. Chips were your typical fat oven chips, at least seasoned well and had some nice cracked black pepper sprinkled over (always much nicer than ground). The bun was nicely charred to give a smoky flavour, and the coleslaw was nice and generous in the proportion. It was weirdly dressed with salad cream which was OK, but I do prefer a little more inventive a dressing. Perhaps apple vinegar and a homemade mayo, but granted, this is not the kind of place where one comes just for food. The burger was filled generously with salad and cheese and a nice touch was the different sauces on the side; my favourite being a curry one. The only real let down was the meat itself; the star had been charred, just a little too much. It was very tough, and venison, off all things should be melt in the mouth. If it is overdone you loose all the nice game flavours. All in all, adequate, and after a few too many cocktails would be perfect.

So onto the drink. I ordered ‘For Plums Sake!’ (£8.00) a clever play on words because the main ingredient was the very sour and mouth watering Plum Sake. Chris had a ‘Heard it on Grapevine’ (£8.00). The Plum cocktail was exactly what it billed; it tasted of plums. It was nicely balanced; the sourness and strong flavour of Plum Sake came through, and the sweetness from the Plum Jam was enough to keep you coming back for another sip (the whole thing did not last very long). The Russian Standard Vodka cleansed the palate a little, and although a nicer Vodka would have been welcomed it probably would not have made a huge difference. All in all I was pretty happy with it. 

Chris’s cocktail was altogether misconceived, or not made correctly. I ADORE G-Vine Gin. It is made with Grape Spirit, very unusual for a Gin. It is made in France and comes in a wonderfully satisfying fat bottle. I first tasted this Gin, neat, on a cruise ship and it was a revelation. I definitely prefer it neat, and Chris was curious as to how it could work in a cocktail. The mixture of other ingredients sounded like it was well chosen and thought out: Lillet Blanc and Aperol both strong flavours that when mixed do subdue their tones on the palate. Then mint, which I personally didn’t see the need for. It also had some lemon and grapefruit; nice sour flavours that counteract some of the sweetness of the G Vine. Well… I don’t say this lightly, but it was a car crash on the palate. My suspicions had been founded… There was just too much going on. The star G Vine was lost: The drink as a whole was unbearably sour that I felt the shape of my face changing. The bitter flavours from Aperol, Grapefruit AND Lemon, were not balanced. The mint was ridiculously overpowering on top of that, and why on earth would you serve such a drink, in a long glass because it actually tasted like a sour Mojito? So many wonderful flavours combined, that were clearly meant to be savoured, were now being watered down by a ton of ice in a tall glass; it felt less classy, and more like a Saturday night out with the lads in ‘All Bar One’. 

I do not like being mean, but please don’t bill something on the menu with fancy ingredients, and call it premium, charge £8 for it, which is on the pricier end of the spectrum for the area, and expect someone who loves new flavours to be able to taste them. Chris was really quite sad, and went all quiet. I felt sad for him, but he was tired, and we wanted to enjoy the Jazz so he didn’t say anything. It would have been hard to say anything anyway, because the whole thing just didn’t work. It is people like Chris, who work hard all day and want a chilled evening out that are Mokoko’s main client base in the week, so it was a shame that it was not right. Unlike myself though; those people just won’t come back and won’t say anything about it either (it is just the British stiff upper lip in full rigidity)

I ordered a second cocktail, to give Mokoko a fair chance because all in all the evening had been equally up and down, and my confidence in St Albans drink scene was flittering away. I ordered the Honey Nut Ol’ Fashioned (£8.00). It was a recommended drink on the menu and therefore was a true test. It did not bill any fancy ingredients, just mentioned it tasted like Honey Nut. Well, I am pleased to say that it did - after a while. The flavours left on the palate when you finished was a nice whisky base, dissolving into the well known breakfast cereal. It was clever and I quite liked it. I hated the glass it was served in though and had too much ice: If you read any good cocktail manual the glass is just as much a part of the experience as the drink. It has to be right, and in London there are at least 15 bars I could name that do get it right, consistently. The glass in this case was overly scratched and felt cheap and too big for the drink, but nevertheless as I said, it was tasty. The only cause for concern was that on first tasting all I got was a whack of Mozart Chocolate Liquor coming through which had also been clumsily spilled down the side of the glass, which is where the sticky sweetness must have come from (I might have preferred a honey based liquor). Even Chris tasted it and although he does not like sweat things, he does love an Ol’ Fashioned and could have enjoyed it.

So.. To summarise there was a mixed bag here. Some great and inventive ideas, mixed with items that were trying too hard. I might be wrong, and the staff might have followed the cocktail recipes to the letter, but that is only half of it; not a single cocktail waiter tasted their creation before serving it. I have been to remote Spanish villages where they taste a cocktail before serving it, just like a chef should taste for seasoning. There are things that need to change here, but it is the only place of this sort in St Albans, and with such a nice mix of events in the week it would be a shame not to try it out a few times. In my opinion you should get yourself along to Tomoka Spirits, for this shop is the real star!

Drink: 6/10
Food: 5/10
Cost: Low for Food - Medium for Drinks
Good For: Night Out with Friends, A Quick Bite to Eat, A Date, To Chill Out after a Hard Day at Work, to Engage in Friendly Banter and Meet New People

26 Verulam Road
St Albans

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