Food and drink press trips are one of life’s pleasures to understand producers’ ethos or new businesses.
A recent London gin tour combined visiting distilleries, the few remaining stunning gin palaces in central London and some of the hip bars homing in on gin.
Brought to our shores by 17th century soldiers during the Thirty Years War between Holland and England, locally distilled stuff inspired the painter Hogarth’s scenes of uncontrolled drunkenness with mothers resorting to selling their babies for a drop of gin.
Dutch Courage became ungovernable, magistrates decrying gin as ‘the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people’.
Fast forward to Southsea’s Gin & Olive, the tiny bar-cum-restaurant so much in thrall to gin that it offers more than 60 types (63 on their bible, 100 on facebook: which?) mostly around the 40–45 per cent alcohol mark, Strane Uncut, a guest gin at 76 per cent.
But what is gin? Unless there are botanicals – coriander, angelica root, Spanish liquorice root, cassia bark and others – plus juniper berries, it’s just vodka.
Some come from Hampshire (Laverstock, Winchester) and West Sussex (Chilgrove, Lurgashall), the bar and cages rammed with colourful bottles. There is a rhubarb one also to choose from, an elderflower joining a French saffron gin, the USA chipping in with Death’s Door. There are other spirits, wines and cocktails.
The industrial décor on two floors – wheels, bolts, nuts, pipes, an Eiffel-tower lookalike with ferris wheel – shout ‘look at me’ alongside some lovely leather-like chairs. An ersatz olive tree adds to the clutter, er, look. Music pounds mercilessly, pointing to an evening venue, not a relaxing lunchtime place. Service is of the ‘youarightthere?’ variety, the barman showing a more genuine, charming side.
Food? Bar food joins small plates, mains, sides and desserts with gin battering used on onion rings, brie and cod. Pulled Korean pork short ribs, ground beef chuck burger, tagliatelle with creamy sauce and chorizo join steaks, fish of the day and other dishes with gin and olive sauce. Prices? From £6 for a small plate to £19 for a fillet steak. Most mains about £13.
One small plate, cod fillet in gin batter with lemon and chilli demonstrated fine sourcing of local fish, the batter crunchy and speckled with chilli which oddly lacked any heat or gin taste. An overload of harsh vinegar in a small pot of mayo-based sauce detracted as did a dullsville salad of lettuce, carrot and red cabbage. The same salad turned up with halloumi cheese and mixed pepper skewers, mostly left because of rubbery cheese chunks, uncooked peppers and an unbelievably sweet sauce.
With so many types of salad garnishes to choose from where’s the chef’s imagination, taste buds or research? A crumble or chocolate parfait could follow, or cheeses or ice creams.
Make no mistake about the ethos of Gin & Olive, gin’s king here, the food not raising the pulse sufficiently to nudge the gin alcohol strength off its perch. My bill came to just below £18 for a glass of surprisingly peachy pinot grigio and the food.
Gin & Olive, 7 Albert Road, Southsea PO5 2SE (023) 9282 7007
Open 3pm–1am (Mon-Thurs) and 11am–1pm (Fri-Sun).
Disabled access: limited.
How to get there: Albert Road is in the heart of Southsea, the restaurant nearly opposite the King’s Theatre. Parking: on-street.