“I created this cocktail myself,” grins the smartly suited barman, handing me an orange libation topped with a floating pink flower. “It’s got black ants in it!”
I’m sitting in one of the tropically patterned arm chairs in Waeska, The Mandrake Hotel’s botanical in-house bar. The Mandrake opened in Fitzrovia in 2017 and its vibrant interiors and eclectic artworks are inspired by its namesake plant’s hallucinogenic properties. At its epicentre is an open-air courtyard swathed in rampant botany. I’m admiring the hotel’s resident gargoyle leering at me from the roof when the barman adds, “it’s not like we’re in Fitzrovia at all.”
This other-worldly hotel is split into a ‘dark side’ and a ‘light side’. Waeska is, unsurprisingly, sitting in the dark side. And dark it is. Arriving at The Mandrake, I pass down a dark tunnel lit by psychedelic projections that set a surreal and enchanting atmosphere. Waeska itself is a fantastical riot of trippy paintings and strange statues.
A cabinet of bony sculptures hang above the bar next to a giant goat crossed with a peacock, the walls slathered with abstract paintings. Pounding, bass-driven music sets a youthful tone yet the clientele is a mixture of well-heeled businessmen, loved up couples and, apparently, Johnny Depp (whose favourite seat is a booth tucked behind a metallic curtain). While it can be tempting to hide away in the shadows, Waeska’s best seats are at the bar. It’s here that you can absorb the soul of the room.
The drinks are inspired by ethnobotany, which is the study of how people from different cultures and regions use indigenous plants. What this means for the cocktail drinker is that each of the 14 tipples contains an ingredient that wouldn’t sound out of place in Harry Potter: Pandan? Galangal? Wakamomo?
We are informed that the ethnobotanical concoctions are designed to give you the whole experience. Part of this experience involved sipping a South American ant-infused drink on a Monday evening surrounded by psychedelic taxidermy. The cocktail in question, the ‘Cactus Blossom’ is warming and made with tequila, sherry, umeshu (Japanese plum wine) and a clarified Mexican punch flavoured with black ants.
Other creations are twists on classic cocktails. The ‘Wakamomo’, so-named for the unripe Japanese plums that flavour the cocktail alongside a powerful kick of rhubarb is a sweet take on a Bellini while the ‘Enokitake’ is a smooth blend of coffee and whisky with a hint of enoki mushroom, the Mandrake’s take on an espresso martini.
What sets Waeska apart are their spicy cocktails. If you try one new drink in 2020, make it Waeska’s Szechuan cocktail, which is a head f*ck on par with The Truman Show. Tequila, mezcal, yuzu, agave and basil sorbet are shaken to create a vivid green liquid, served with an all important Szechuan flower. The flower is eaten first and sets your mouth tingling before the first sip of the cocktail reveals a fragrant yuzu sweetness. After swallowing, that sweetness suddenly gives way to a completely different overwhelmingly satisfying salty taste. It’s mind-bending and an experience that suits the spectacle of Waeska perfectly.
It’s these spicy cocktails that sum up the full experience of Waeska. You can taste every ingredient in the drinks, much like how every nook of the bar is designed to be explored; from the felt lining the underneath of tables to a library tucked away at the back.
Waeska wants you to notice everything, to taste every flavour and explore every corner. What’s guaranteed is that you will have an intriguing experience and emerge out of the dark side a few hours later in full agreement that it’s really not like we’re in Fitzrovia at all!
To discover more about the dark side and Waeska, visit: www.themandrake.com
By Georgie Young
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