A speakeasy for the modern drinker

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There is – seemingly – no secrecy in the very centre of Chinatown, in Soho, London. Restaurants display their menus, with bold, bright pictures, on huge entranceway panels, exotic vegetables are sliced to reveal a ripe centre, and tourists weave in and out of bakeries, bubble tea shops and buffets. Opium exists in a different Chinatown altogether, a China Town that floats quietly above the noise. It’s relatively hard to find – it hides in plain sight behind a dark, unassuming door – a quality that makes it feel secretive and alluring, like a modern-day speakeasy.

When we visited rain-battered lanterns, for once, outnumbered people. To enter the door, somewhere between HSBC and Four Seasons, was to enter a different world. Steep dark stairs, lit sporadically and smelling of incense, led high above street level. We were welcomed at the door of Opium, some three or four flights up. It’s primarily a cocktail bar, opulently and elaborately bedecked with mood-setting paraphernalia; red, gold and mahogany furnishings, Asian-style paintings in glowing maroon, and deep-hanging lanterns speak of a China that’s half real, half movie ideal.  The cocktail list is long and, mostly, unfamiliar, which makes selecting something a difficult, albeit exciting, prospect.

The bar’s eponymous Opium #5 seems a natural choice. It comes in a traditional gourd bottle, smoking with thick, cloudy nitrogen that pools over the table. Inside, an intriguing, unfathomable mixture of tequila, cactus liqueur and dark oolong tea provides a taste that’s gently floral, not sweet, but by no means bitter. To accompany, we picked the dim sum platter.

A large, steaming basket quickly arrives in front of us, its lid removed to reveal generously sized classics – cottony pork buns with a familiar, salty-sweet centre, vegetable gyozas, prawn siu mai, and beguilingly oversized prawn har gau.

It was all delicious, though a little large to eat quite as seamlessly as traditional dim sum. To follow, and as a sort of dessert, we opted for two sweet cocktails – Nuclear Pina Colada and Hello Treacle.  The former proved a clear winner, it came with a flaming lime shell on top of it – the mixologists did have a little trouble lighting this – which burns out to reveal a slightly spiced, more complex version of a classic.

We left the way we came – though decidedly more inebriated – down the dark, winding stairs and back into the cold. Opium is great because it’s like a secret you’re in on, hidden in the style of a high-up Hong Kong eatery, but certainly easier to come by, once you’ve located the door.

by Becky Zanker

Opium , 15-16 Gerrard Street, Chinatown, Soho London W1D 6JE
Tel: 020 7734 7276

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Glass Online dining and culture writer

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