It was a little over a year ago that I attended the reopening of Akbar, the basement bar underneath The Red Fort restaurant in Soho, London. The space originally emerged as a bar 10 years ago but was badly damaged in the fire that broke out in a nearby building in Dean Street in July 2009.
With so much competition in the West End, the restaurant’s owner Amin Ali has decided to rethink the concept and teamed up with mixologist Dan Thomson to create “London’s first Indian cocktail bar”, Zenna. The name relates to the restaurant above, inspired by the “zenana”, or women’s quarters, in the Red Fort palace in Delhi, but Dan plans to position the bar as a stand-alone destination for cocktails.
The original interior by Russell Sparke of RSD Interiors has been given a few tweaks such as low warm lighting to create a chilled luxurious atmosphere. To reach the bar, you walk down steps lined with bronze water vessels filled with floating flowers and twinkling candles. Zenna has azure blue walls, plush blue velvet stools and silk-upholstered gold chairs, with Italian tiles and oriental rugs on the floor. To the left of the bar, which is covered in shimmering metallic discs, are two intimate alcoves with exposed brickwork.
Dan, who has worked behind the bar at the likes of Nobu, Zafferano and the Ivy Club, has created a new cocktail menu that includes drinks made with Indian ingredients to reflect the cuisine upstairs. Look out for fresh chilli, chai, saffron, coriander and mango as well as Indian single malt whisky Amrut. “We wanted to create a contemporary bar that was still true to its Indian heritage and provide a chic and welcoming space in the midst of Soho,” Dan explains.A “spiced cocktail list” includes what Dan believes must be “the world’s spiciest cocktail” – the fiery Illiana, which is made with Chairman’s Reserve Spiced rum, orange curaçao, orgeat almond syrup, lime juice and orange juice plus a drop of a “secret” chilli sauce. It comes with a “fire extinguisher” of Bombay Sapphire gin, lemon and soda water, served in a small soda siphon with its own glass. Customers must sign a waiver before drinking it. I managed to get about halfway through the drink, served in a lowball glass, before having to give up. It is a flavoursome cocktail until the chilli kicks in and blitzes the taste.
In the meantime, my friends and I sampled a few of the other cocktails on the list. The Chocolate Orange Martini is a delicious combination of Stolichnaya vodka, Cointreau, Mozart chocolate liqueur and a dash of fresh chilli. There are also exotic twists on the classics such as a Chai Tea Martini, a Coriander and Lychee Daiquiri, a Raspberry and Mango Margarita, a Pineapple and Sage Mojito and an Elderflower and Saffron Collins. The list also includes Dan’s cocktail that won him the Spirit of Speyside cocktail competition a year ago – a mix of a Speyside whisky, amaretto, cinnamon syrup, lemon juice and fresh pear juice. Other spiced cocktails include The Red Fort cocktail made with Bombay Sapphire, fresh apple juice, orange juice, strawberry puree, orgeat and hot chillis.Dan has also managed to create alcoholic lassis despite the challenge of mixing a yogurt-based drink with alcohol. The whole list of non-alcoholic lassis can be given an extra pick-me-up, such as adding Saffron Gin to a mango lassi or Zubrowka and crème de banane liqueur to a banana lassi. Snacks and canapés are also available, cooked to order in The Red Fort’s kitchen under head chef Azadur Rahman. “Zenna is London’s first-ever Indian cocktail bar, and the carefully thought-through flavours, recipes and ingredients used in the drinks list as well as the authentic canapés make it a unique offering in the capital,” Dan says. He has bold ambitions for Zenna and, while it will be a challenge for a small bar underneath a restaurant to make its mark, he has all the right ingredients.
Zenna, 77 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 3SH. Tel: 020 7437 2525 http://www.zennabar.co.uk Open Tuesday to Saturday 5pm – 1am.