Nick Harrison, co-founder of Slink & Bardot, talks about the bar menu at his French restaurant, which recently received accolades for its top-notch cocktails.
At the recently concluded India Nightlife Convention Awards 2017, the Best Bar for Cocktails category threw up a pleasant surprise. Manu Chandra and Chetan Rampal’s Toast & Tonic bagging it seemed obvious enough, but five-month-old French venue Slink & Bardot — hidden in the sleepy Worli fishing village in Mumbai — was an unexpected joint winner.
I say unexpected, because from the word go, co-founders Nick Harrison and Alexis Gielbaum had quite the challenge ahead of them. French cuisine traditionally hasn’t had much success in India, let alone in Mumbai, and neither has the tucked away location, where a couple of half-decent spots have opened and closed.
Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned
To their credit, the duo – who wisely partnered with F&B honcho Riyaaz Amlani for the venture — took a difficult-on-paper concept and turned it on its head. The initial thought was a classic three-course menu with an amuse-bouche. That concept changed over time, and evolved into small plates. “But with the beverages, we didn’t want to restrain ourselves. There’s not really any true identity for our cocktail menu other than it being contemporary,” Harrison tells me.
Here’s the clincher, though: the award-winning bar menu has been designed by Harrison himself, and the Canadian has had no formal training and barely any prior experience with mixology. He grins at my surprised expression, telling me that his culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu, London, was more than sufficient. “For me, the bar should be treated as a kitchen. You should have everything in-house, as much as possible. So, no Monin syrups or Peychaud’s bitters. I insist on making everything from scratch, including tonic water.”
Harrison’s cocktail menu is fuss-free, much like the people he’s come across in Mumbai. “I love that the restaurant business doesn’t allow you to take yourself too seriously. The big trend I’ve noticed in modern India, at least, is that people don’t vibe well with formal spaces. There’s also this, ‘Fuck it, I’ll deal with it in the morning’ mentality that’s so much fun. I haven’t seen that back home in Canada, and it’s something that keeps me here,” he says.
Slink & Bardot currently draws a decent dinner crowd on week nights, but it’s Friday and Saturday nights that really transform it into a hotspot for Mumbai’s hip partygoers. “They usually come in and start off with a cocktail. Then the ones who want to get drunk inevitably switch to a vodka-soda or something similar,” laughs Harrison.
In a way, the cocktail menu is reflective of Harrison’s own journey with alcohol over the years. He flips through the menu with me, and points at various names that pop out, sniggering at the ones that are an ode to inside jokes on himself. “There’s one called ‘Jamaican Me Crazy’, which is something an ex-girlfriend would say to me all the time. ‘O Canada!’ is obviously a tribute to my country. From the shooters menu, there’s also ‘Me Oh My… Pumpkin Pie’ that is named after something my dad says every Canadian Thanksgiving. I turned that memory into a shot. And ‘Liquid Cocaine’ – made using Jagermeister and homemade cinnamon liqueur — is inspired by perhaps the first shot a friend made me have,” says Harrison, offering an insight into the making and naming of the menu.
Jamaican Me Crazy
Currently working on a new menu, Harrison refuses to divulge much about what to expect, only saying that he’s going to stick with the same formula he began with. “We want to put forth quality products that are also affordable. Making everything in-house allows for good pricing. We also sell barrel-aged cocktails that are very reasonably priced, compared to the few places that serve them,” he explains.
The new menu will retain favourites and repeatedly ordered tipples like the Smoked Hazelnut Manhattan, but some experiments will go off the menu. Harrison cites the example of a cocktail named ‘Uncouth Vermouth’, saying, “It’s very challenging to perfect the balance between its ingredients, which include bell peppers and chili syrup, orange and more. If it isn’t a 100 per cent right in proportion, it’ll taste like garbage. But when it’s on, it’s the bomb.”
Of course, there’s been negative feedback and some dissatisfied patrons too, but the excitable Harrison sees an up-side in that too. “Interestingly, the negative feedback was exactly the sort I wanted. Initially, we were making cocktails that were a bit on the sweeter side, thinking that that’s what would appeal to people more. Increasingly, that’s not the case. Sometimes, people have sent back drinks even if there’s been barely 5 ml extra sugar. And that’s great, because it shows the market is evolving,” he explains.