As a wee tyke, effervescent with life, you took ingredients from the cupboards and mixed them to see what you’d get. After all, it might be delicious.
It never was.
You think that so-called “creative cocktails” are often made the same way. Like a chef throwing fancy ingredients at a dish (recently, you had caviar and truffle on a lamb chop), some mixologists try to overawe with a multitude of fancy spirits. So you get cocktails loaded with stuff like Elephant sloe gin, St George absinthe, Regan’s orange bitters, Zubrowka bison grass vodka, oolong tea and Kimino yuzu soda. And you get wild garnishes (burning cinnamon sticks seem to be in vogue). But in your experience, if you put aside the razzle-dazzle, these drinks are usually insipid. There are brilliant exceptions, of course. But you think most creative cocktails – some now available canned – taste vaguely fruity and sweet, a lot like watered-down Life Savers. With all the designer liqueurs, liquors, sodas, bitters and teas thrown in and listed, most also strike you as pretentious, a form of liquid name-dropping.
Smug in your superior understanding, you journeyed to The Old Man in Central, a bar that was rated the best bar in Asia a few years back and that you heard takes inspiration from Ernest Hemingway. The Hemingway bit – which struck you as an attempt to confer his juju on themselves – reinforced your ‘tude.
Down a set of stairs, hidden from the road, it was difficult to find. This gave The Old Man a sense of exclusivity you couldn’t help liking. You also immediately liked the interior, dim, snug, comforting, comfortable, vibey for romance. Like the prep counter at a Cold Stone ice-cream shop, a chilled metal surface for your drinks ran the centre of the bar.
The bartender was backdropped by Willy Wonka machinery and had the aura of a necromancer.
You started with a drink called A Moveable Feast, a kind of transparent Bloody Mary. They just activated a new menu, and this is a popular holdover from before. A Bloody Mary is a good drink, but not so great that you’d choose it as your last drink before they strap you into Old Sparky. Just one sip of this drink though and your mind changed. A Moveable Feast is exactly the drink you want before they strap you into Old Sparky. It knocked you on your tuchus, awestruck.
The mixology here is at the extraordinary level of Elon-Musk-flip-the-rocket-and-land-it, staggering complexity to give the illusion of elegant simplicity, daunting to capture in words. The nucleus of this drink is a) tomato water. In your experience, it’s made by puréeing tomatoes and putting them in a cheesecloth in order for the clear, intensely flavourful plasma to drip through. The Old Man vastly improves this process by using a centrifuge. They use flavour-intense cherry tomatoes with Tabasco and Worcester sauce (you’ve already been on Amazon looking for kitchen centrifuges with a notion of trying to duplicate this). This is mixed with b) fresh clams cooked in a rotovap (a rotary evaporator that is a kind of distillation machine) with vodka and three different salts, c) centrifuged fresh lemon juice, d) sweetened and salted coconut water. Finally, e) the drink lists “oyster” as an ingredient, which is sly. It is oyster, not the crustacean but the leaf, oyster leaf, which tastes astonishingly just like an oyster. You’ve never heard (or conceived) of such a leaf before, and if you hadn’t tasted it, you’d scoff. You take a bite of the improbably flavoured leaf and then a sip of the drink. It’s served in a smallish glass with a large, square, transparent ice cube. No easy thing to make transparent ice cubes, but they do it here. Ultra tomatoey! Ravishingly delicious! Elegant as a young John Travolta in a tuxedo at the White House dancing with Princess Diana! And, like almost all the cocktails here, $120 – an excellent deal.
You drank many drinks, and given the complexity of each (plus the cumulative alcohol), describing them strains your literary biceps. Yet “yours not to make reply, yours not to reason why, yours but to do and die,” you’ll briefly take a go at a few more.
Dreams of Lions. The old man in The Old Man and the Sea would often dream of lions he’d seen walking on the beaches of Africa when he was a young man, one of your favourite literary images. To you, it evocatively conjures sentinels patrolling the margin between two unknowns. As though walking the battlements of a castle, the lions overlook the mystery of infinitude. Can this drink possibly equal such genius? Yes!
One of the major ingredients is a low-alcohol brew from rye bread fermented in water. Rum is cooked with scamorza cheese and strained, which somehow imparts smokiness. Clove, coriander, dill seed are added. Coffee and cacao nibs infuse their flavour. Somehow banana makes its way in. It’s boiled with milk and lemon juice, which curdles it, and is then strained to remove the colour, which reminds you of adding whipped egg white to a stock and straining it through a cheesecloth in order to clarify it. Then, in a daring stroke of brilliance, a wooden cap is put in place with a hole in the centre and a small applewood fire is started. The smoke goes into the glass. Before drinking it, you eat a homemade candy of miso caramel wrapped in rice paper as a kind of taste and texture segue. Had you not had this drink, you would have thought it was pretentious, silly and fussy, a joke. In fact, it sounds like the basis of a Saturday Night Live parody skit. Having had the drink though, you can only say, forgive the cliché, you’re blown away. Your wife tries to get more than her share. So do you. Only advanced conflict resolution settles things. You both adore it.
Doomsday also has a fire. In this case, it’s sandalwool-infused steel wool. When it lights up, it looks like a nebula in outer space dying, stars flashing, supernova and blinking out. Or an MRI of the brain of someone having a seizure, flashes of neurons lit brightly and carbonised darkness. Or Doomsday. It’s dramatic! And satisfying to your inner pyromaniac.
Vetiver, an Indian root, is infused in rye. Sherry is infused with grapefruit and jasmine flowers. Gum syrup is made from tonka beans, which brings a slight viscosity to the drink. The fire is started on a lid with a hole in it, leaving its exhaust lingering above the liquid like chimney smoke on a pond. The drink exceeds excellent. Miraculous is apt.
Sustained by excellent potato chips replenished attentively (the bar is too small for a kitchen), you have many other drinks. All were standouts – proof of how utterly wrong preconceived notions can be – but a few were particularly striking.
Lost Generation. There’s a cold mango daquiri below and a hot coconut crème brûlée on top. The mango is fermented with Cascade hops and infused with cheese-gum syrup. Brazil nut is shaved on top, and it’s spritzed with a perfume of pink guava. The contrast of temperatures reminds you of putting your cold hands inside warm mittens. You love the contrast in flavours and temperatures. It’s delicious and comforting.
Wax Puppy. It is redolent of mushroom. The mushroom has been lacto-fermented, which somehow brings forth its woodland essence. House-made soy caramel is added to vermouth and centrifuged. Irish whiskey, bergamot and black pepper are added. Their goal is to “capture the feel of a morning forest after the rain”. Though your wife doesn’t care for the drink, you adore it. The flavour profile is unlike any other you’ve ever had. Deeply evocative of old forest and the ferment of autumn, it is a contemplative sipper. It is the cocktail that woodland elves drink at elf bars. Good Lord, how did they think this up?
Solitary Man. This is a Bellini made with patchouli distilled with Scotch and black pepper, plus fermented peach. Marzipan somehow finds its way in. It is garnished with fresh tarragon and one of the most delicious fruits you have ever eaten, a Japanese baby peach. By far, the best Bellini you’ve ever had.
Over the Hill. The entire glass is dusted with tart, delicious plum powder, which makes the glass itself delicious. There is grappa with plum seed, marigold flower, lime cordial, orange liqueur, Sichuan baijiu (a highly alcoholic Chinese liquor), champagne. The simple garnish is an Indonesian plum that is as insanely delicious as the Japanese peach.
And on and on. Each drink phenomenal. Each an epiphany. Each immensely clever, not for the sake of cleverness, but to illuminate tastes most of us can’t begin to fathom.
How does this relate to Hemingway? Hemingway surely loved to tilt a few. And, a bon vivant, he was discerning about what he tilted. Partaking of this spirit, the restaurant’s name pays tribute to the book that prompted his Nobel Prize, The Old Man and the Sea.
The problem with writing this review is that it has required you to use so many superlatives that they lose potency. But that doesn’t negate the truth that this is an extraordinary bar. Perhaps it requires Hemingway’s prose to do it justice. Its drinks combine a knowledge of food chemistry, an encyclopedic knowledge of alcoholic and non-alcoholic libations, incandescent imagination and poetry. In anything but the hands of a master, the ingredients used to make these drinks would yield swill.
Each drink served here contains within it a rare, spiritual ingredient that is not found elsewhere. Perhaps it’s the ingredients that are responsible for making them extraordinary: lions overlooking the mystery of infinitude.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall greatness: 5
Restaurants are intuitively rated within their particular realms. So Michelin restaurants, pizza places and stand-up sandwich joints are judged against like restaurants, not each other. A 5 for a high-end restaurant is not meant to be the same as a 5 for street food.
From my website, here’s how I rate food: “I believe the quality of a restaurant’s food is vastly more important than any other factor. Even if I love a restaurant’s food, I’m very conservative about giving out 4s or 5s. I reserve 4s for food that is uniformly excellent. Preponderantly excellent tends to get a lower score. 5s are for food that is uniformly stunning.”
The drinks were comped.
LG/F, 37 Aberdeen Street, SoHo, Central, 2703 1899