Chinatown has a little drinking den hidden away above the steaming dumplings and bustling crowds of Gerrard Street. Opium’s innovative cocktail menu draws discerning clientele looking for late-night drinking with a difference.
The doorman, who goes by the name of Rowlands, is a real gentleman and adds a sense of mystery to the place. Follow his directions up two flights of stairs, and you'll find yourself in a dimly lit bar, sprinkled with Chinese motifs and oriental décor. Opium’s theme may be fitting for the location, but it’s a little twee in places with the waitress wearing a stereotypical Chinatown top and cheap silk cushions scattered on the sofas. That said, the vintage chairs, comfortable bar stools and little saloon tucked round the back of the venue bring their charm. If you go to the bathroom, listen out for 300-year-old Mandarin poetry playing softly on the speakers.
Aimed at cocktail lovers in the know, guests are mostly young groups of friends or couples on dates. While it might feel like a members’ club when the doorman ushers you through the subtle doorway, the atmosphere inside is much more relaxed and easy-going. Drinks come quickly and the emphasis on sharing food and impressively large jugs of cocktails brings people together.
Platters of steaming dumplings and crispy prawn toast miraculously emerge from behind the cocktail bar, which are actually created by one little guy stationed in the kitchen downstairs at Dumplings Legends. His siu mai steamed pork and prawn dumplings (£6.50) are a highlight, as salty sweet pork mince is packed into a delicate fine casing. The char siu bau (£6) are a light and fluffy incarnation of traditional Cantonese buns, with a sticky barbeque pork filling, and king prawn (£7) or scallop dumplings
(£7) are well seasoned with a slight crunch of water chestnut in the filling. Dim sum is excellent for a snack, but it's a little overpriced and really, it's the cocktail menu that demands feasting on here.
Dry ice billows from an ornate pot as the bartender sets sparks of cinnamon powder alight over rum-flambéd peaches: this is cocktail theatre. Drinks as imagined by cocktail expert Dre Masso start from £11 and every drink at Opium has an original little twist in the presentation, whether it's a medicine bottle of potent elixir, bright blue G&T or whiskey bubble tea with the classic extra wide straw for almond and orange flower tapioca balls. Bar staff are busy but attentive; they pride themselves on creating one of their multitude of cocktails from the menu or a bespoke concoction just to your liking. Ask curly-haired Bruce for his Bloody Mary (gently rolled, not shaken) for a savoury pick me up.
Like the food and decor, cocktails have oriental flavours with a western edge. Innovative ingredients are key; homemade fruit juices and jams feature strongly, as well as syrups of tonic water, white peony tea or almond, and tinctures of cinnamon, schisandra or ginseng. Groups get stuck into impressive teapots of cocktails, which serve 12 and start from £110. Life After New Life is a refreshing combination of cucumber, rocket and watercress, pepped up with vodka and lime – it's so green you could convince yourself it was a health drink.
Hard liquor drinkers are satisfied by the respectable list of shots, somewhat ironically referred to as ‘prescriptions’ as if they were an unorthodox form of Chinese medicine. It's pleasing to see more unusual gins like Colonel Fox on the list, and fine whiskies like the Macallan 18 also make an appearance. For those after a softer option, non-alcoholic cocktails are very good indeed and receive the same attention to detail as their stiffer counterparts. Specialist teas like Golden Mulberry tisane (£6) or Shan Tuyet black tea (£6) come served in pretty pots and are sourced from small-scale family tea producers by renowned tea expert Timothy D'Offay.
The Last Word
Fun and original, Opium is a shabby chic imagining of a Soho townhouse opium den. Come for cocktails and dip into the dim sum menu – you might just get addicted.