Opium’s Academy sits at the top of a narrow, coquettish building tucked away in Chinatown. Outside, the relentless deluge serendipitously evokes images of Far Eastern monsoons; an opium pipe acts as a further reminder that this is an establishment deeply rooted in China. The playful cocktail names are reminiscent of the Orient, too (among them, Blue Eyed Tiger), careening from being tenuously contrived toward an altogether happier and drunker land. By the end of the night, you will have arrived.
Our host for the evening, Bruce from Trinidad fondly recalls prandial moments with his mother, experimenting with flavours in the kitchen. Evidently, these recollections of exploring infinite flavour combinations inform Bruce in his day-to-day work. He speaks of his determined resistance against giving up on a blend of flavours, born from confidence that his innate understanding of what works will eventually prevail. Later, we learn that his youth was informed first by rum in his milk and later by regretted sessions with Malibu. This is a man who has learnt his craft through experience.
The masterclass starts with a welcoming drink, all champagne fizz and hot ginger, and swiftly progresses to an abridged discussion about solutions, freshly made syrups and purées. We taste the intensely creamy and nutty Orgeat and reduced goji berry syrup, all the while beginning to develop an appreciation for the elusive intricacies that make a professional cocktail so much greater than anything we can make at home.
Next up are some cocktails, passed round for everyone to share. We act as obliging guinea pigs – the new cocktail menu is soon to be launched. The standout is an inversion of the traditional eggnog: the redolence of nutmeg instantly places your nose deep into the midst of December while the rejection of cream enables you to develop an evening-long relationship with it. The reliance on a whole egg for creaminess and aeration transforms this cocktail into something you want to come back to. It is at once salacious and familiar, luxurious yet light.
After such laborious work (each guest is given the chance to make their own cocktail) the arrival steaming baskets of dim sum is gratefully received. Cha Siu Bao is the standout. Its deep, umami-inducing pork filling is everything you could possibly want from life, let alone food – it takes you to a higher place. The entire basket is ample evidence to suggest that the restaurant downstairs is no slouch either. Sure, the vegetable-filled dumplings are a touch denser than ideal, but here, such fine margins are not up for debate. At Opium, Bruce and the rest of the team are creating something unique. In fact, if you’re a lover of cocktails, it would be a dereliction of duty not to visit soon.
Photos: Emre Zengin
For further information about the Opium Cocktail Academy or to book a table at the restaurant, 15-16 Gerrard Street, Chinatown, London W1D 6JE, call 020 7734 7276 or visit here.