Behind a non-descript jade-coloured door in London’s Chinatown, something unique has been cooked up by two leading figures in the bar and restaurant trade. Opium has been created over three floors of a townhouse above a Chinese restaurant, with a network of rooms and secluded “boudoir” areas for enjoying cocktails and dim sum. Although inspired by an opium den from the late 19th century, it is taking a modern approach to food and drink.
It has an experienced team behind it. Born in Hong Kong, Eric Yu has been running bars, clubs and restaurants in London for over 20 years, including Salvador & Amanda and Punk, while Dré Masso has worked at some of the capital’s top bars such as Lab, the Atlantic Bar and 10 Room and is now part of consultancy Worldwide Cocktail Club. Dré has been developing the idea for Opium since visiting China over 10 years ago and teamed up with Eric who he worked with at Salvador & Amanda.
After getting past the jade door, you climb the winding staircase to the second floor where you come to the Apothecary Bar. Alongside lounge seating, the focus is a back bar filled with large medicine bottles with Chinese lettering on their red labels, each containing premium spirits and liqueurs transferred from their usual bottles. They are strictly arranged to help bartenders identify them, although tiny labels on the back give the contents in English. “I like the aesthetic and the uniformity of it,” Dré explains. “Instead of people just ordering your normal Jack and Coke, you have a conversation with the bartender about what spirits you have and what they are.”
Next to this is the Tea Parlour where Tim d’Offay of Postcard Teas has put together a range of exotic and interesting teas for serving in a traditional Chinese way. Beyond this are stairs down to a mezzanine and a small restaurant space. While food is available throughout Opium, this is the place for enjoying the “updated” dim sum such as scallop, coriander and pea dumplings as well as other Chinese-style dishes including Cantonese barbecue pork bun.
Up another flight of stairs is the Attic, a retro-style lounge filled with mid-century furniture and old pictures of Eric’s family. Passing through a narrow room designed like an Orient-Express railway carriage, you come to The Academy, which Dré calls Opium’s “liquid kitchen”. With shelves of bar equipment and bottles along two walls plus a giant map of the East on another, the room has one large “bartenders’ table” seating about 11 people which is used for cocktail training, tastings and presentations.
They have put together a short cocktail menu which, like the dim sum, draws on ingredients available in Chinatown. Priced around £12.50 to £13.50, drinks include the Opium Cocktail No 1 which combines Appleton Estate V/X and Wray & Nephew Overproof rums with absinthe, mandarin juice, lime juice, kaffir lime syrup, citrus bitters and ginseng. It is served smoking, with a straw for drinking as if through an opium pipe, with the ginseng added from a capsule at the table.
Inspired by the popular Eastern tapioca tea, the Double Bubble Tea is made with Chivas Regal 12 Year Old whisky, Bénédictine, tapioca balls, orange blossom water, black tea and condensed milk, served hot or cold with a fortune cookie. Serving rituals have been invented for many of the cocktails to bring added theatre. The list will change seasonally with input from the bar team which includes Esther Medina Cuesta, Matt Green, Bruce Govia, Marius Eisenhut, Megan Demeulenaere and Oscar De Silva.
The interior has been designed by collective Office Sian, established by architect Gurmeet Sian, and Kai Design, founded by Michaela Reysenn who has worked on other London bars including Powder Keg Diplomacy in Battersea and The Betsy Smith in Kilburn. “Opium mashes together rough and luxurious textures, antique and modern furniture, poppy fields and industrial fittings,” Michaela says. “We wanted to create something contemporary but still in keeping with the traditional opium den and the experience you might have had inside.”
Opium, 15-16 Gerrard Street, London W1D 6JE Tel: 020 7734 7276 www.opiumchinatown.com
Who did it
Interior: Kai Design
Architects: Office Sian
Wall map: Forrest & Jones
First published in the February 2013 issue of Bar magazine.