Despite its views of the Thames and Big Ben and its location right next to the Millennium Eye, the Rotunda Lounge at the London Marriott County Hall hotel has never quite made it onto the must-visit list for cocktail bars. But that is now changing after the introduction of a new drinks list under head bartender Carlos Santos and a refurbishment planned for early 2012.
The bar is in the former reading room of County Hall which was opened in 1922 and became the headquarters of Greater London Council. The building, on the South Bank by Westminster Bridge, was redeveloped in the 1990s, including the opening of the Marriott in 1998. The oak panelling enveloping the walls is listed so there was little that could be done to change the appearance for the bar and adjoining restaurant. While the service and the drinks may be excellent, the appearance is traditional with plain brown leather chairs and red chesterfields, overpowered by the oak panelling. When the bar shuts down on January 12 for two months, designers will bring in new furniture, fabrics and drapes to break up the oak and make it more comfortable and contemporary.
In the meantime, the drinks list has been extended, including new molecular mixology elements, over the past year, driven by Carlos who was appointed head bartender nine months ago. The current menu features the 2512 cocktail – named after the date of Christmas Day – which is made with jelly-like spheres fusing Hendrick’s Gin and essence of elderflower, served in a flute or coupe with chilled Moët & Chandon champagne. However, Carlos says this is just a taste of things to come, with more molecular mixology planned for the new list in March.
The current menu features vintage and classic cocktails as well as Carlos’s own creations. “It is a bit of a journey through cocktail history, from the Sherry Posset from the 16th century all the way up to the most forward-thinking ideas in mixology,” he says. The Sherry Posset is a modern twist on one of the oldest British drinks, similar to a Flip and originally made with hot milk curdled with ale, wine or sherry. At Rotunda Lounge, it is an elegant and smooth cocktail made with Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry, milk, egg white, nutmeg and a hint of caramel, served chilled in a martini glass.
The menu and some of the drinks are inspired by the history of County Hall which was designed by Ralph Knott in an Edwardian Baroque style and opened in 1922 by King George V. A list of Martini-style cocktails includes the County Hall Apple Martini, made with sour apple schnapps, calvados, apple juice and lime juice, while the Edwardian Style Martini mixes Absolut Mandarin, cardamom, guava juice, fresh lemon and a touch of rose syrup.
The Lyrical Ballads apertif is named after the poems by William Wordsworth, who has a meeting room named after him at the Marriott. The cocktail has little to do with the early 19th-century poet but is an interesting blend of Pampero Aniversario rum, Martini Rosso, dark chocolate liqueur and orange zest. Another drink named after a room at County Hall is the Great Chamber, inspired by the octagonal former council chamber that is now used for theatre and other events. This cocktail blends Tanqueray gin, Martini Extra Dry and apricot brandy in a martini glass.
A list of long drinks and coolers features the Aston Webb Collins, named after architect Sir Aston Webb who was mentor to Ralph Knott. This refreshing drink is made by mixing fresh raspberries with Tanqueray gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup, topped up with soda water. The St Stephen’s Tower is named after a part of the Palace of Westminster that can be seen from the windows. This combines Don Julio tequila with lychee liqueur, passion fruit liqueur, orange juice, pomegranate juice, sugar syrup and fresh fruits. Seasonal drinks include the Chocolate Gingerbread, made with Mozart Dark chocolate liqueur, Rémy Martin VSOP cognac, Grand Marnier, gingerbread syrup and egg white, served in a martini glass.
When the Rotunda Lounge reopens in March, it will also benefit from a new steakhouse that is being created within the neighbouring restaurant. The bar will also continue to serve up a simple but delicious range of food to complement the drinks. With its fantastic location, the impending refurbishment and a new emphasis on good-quality inventive drinks, the Rotunda Lounge looks set to finally become a destination for cocktail lovers.
Update (January 17, 2012): The Rotunda Lounge is to be relaunched alongside the restaurant as Gillray’s Steakhouse & Bar at the end of March 2012, named after the 18th-century caricaturist James Gillray. Carlos’s new cocktail menu will be inspired by James Gillray and the Georgian era, with a section named after Gillray’s most well-known sketches as well as modern and molecular recipes. The redesign will be led by leading hospitality designer Blacksheep.
Rotunda Lounge, London Marriot County Hall Hotel, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7PB Tel: 020 7928 5200 www.thecountyhallrestaurant.com