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Counter bar and brasserie celebrated its first anniversary of opening in the heart of the Vauxhall LGBT scene this February. Jonathan R Jones popped in to find it going from strength to strength.
Food and drink
I’d heard good things about Counter’s cocktail list and wasn’t disappointed. The Goding Fizz was a refreshing blend of rosemary-infused Beefeater gin over crushed ice with cucumber, lavender syrup and Fever-Tree bitter lemon (my mouth’s watering just writing this).
The Vauxhall Vesper was equally successful: Bombay Sapphire, Tito’s Vodka (my vodka of choice since discovering it in Texas), sweet vermouth, Cointreau and orange bitters, finished with a spiral of orange zest. Enjoy with the surprisingly generous portion of olives.
The Parisian gnocchi starter was a revelation. This was nothing like the flabby supermarket take on the Italian stodge. Instead, expect tiny pan-fried parcels of yumminess. They were served with oxtail – bear with me – which actually works incredibly well with the saltiness of the accompanying anchovies. Just add sprouting broccoli for what can only be described as posh comfort food.
The Tostada was an equally unexpected combo: carpaccio of stone sea bass with creamy avocado works beautifully with a yuzu vinaigrette and microgreens, including spicy coriander, and earthy black sesame seeds.
For mains, we opted for steak and lamb. The hangar steak was flavoursome yet firm. Although we tried some fries on the side, this was not your average steak frites. The star was a zingy parsley salad which – with red onion, barley and capers – was like a contemporary take on traditional tabbouleh.
The lamb comes mouth-wateringly pink with a delicious red wine reduction (I only wish there was more of this flavoursome jus). The green beans could be better described as ‘blanched’ rather than cooked. Why restaurants insist on serving vegetables like this and whether anyone actually chooses to serve them like this at home are questions which continue to perplex me. However, all was forgiven when I dived into the divine Lyonnaise potatoes!
There’s an accessibly-priced wine list with a good mixture of French and American wines. We selected a Southern French Malbec which saw us though the steak and lamb nicely.
For dessert, we tried the ‘Chocolate Bar’, an unbelievably heavy concoction of chocolate torte, pistachio cake, cherry ganache and white chocolate cream. What would you drink with this? An Oreo martini of course!
For a lighter option, the blood orange tart comes highly recommended. The presentation makes you think that Barbie has been in the kitchen but the flavours are very grown up. Old-school candied angelica meets decidedly un-old-school popping candy.
Look and vibe
The bar and restaurant – and cabaret space to the rear – are housed in a railway arch under Vauxhall Station. You don’t even need to get your hair wet if visiting on a rainy winter’s evening – from the tube just duck through Sainsbury’s and you’re there.
The interior is dominated by the ‘counter’ of the central bar, crowned by translucent blocks which emit a welcoming earthy glow. Ceramic pendant lights, banquettes upholstered in grey leather and a wooden parquet floor, somehow work together, in part because they don’t feel too painfully ‘now’.
Thonet bentwood bistro chairs offer a witty nod to the French brasserie, whilst 18th-century prints of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which occupied an area behind the current Vauxhall Tavern, add local interest. In the back, a sparkling display of mid-20th-century studio glass curated by Mark Hill is ready to tempt cash out of well-lubricated wallets. Music comes from everyone from Marvin Gaye to Róisín Murphy, via Rod Stewart. It is Vauxhall, guys.
If you go to town (cocktails, three course and wine) expect to pay around £55-60 per person excluding service. But there’s a burger (with fries) for £13 so it doesn’t have to be a blowout.
The bottom line
A quirky menu with some unexpected flavour combinations in the heart of the Vauxhall gay scene. I’m going back to work my way through that knock-out cocktail list!
For more information, visit the Counter Vauxhall Arches website.