On early mornings throughout the working week, the elegant Victorian arches of London’s Smithfield Market buzz with life as chefs, butchers and caterers from across the capital come to stock up on quality produce at the largest wholesale meat market in the UK.
But come evenings and weekends, there’s a whole different buzz to the area, as a host of lively bars, restaurants and nightclubs open their doors on the streets surrounding the market’s vast covered space.
Somewhat surprisingly, the most exciting of these venues is in fact found in the bowels of the market itself. Upon entering a door in the gloomy, unprepossessing lorry-lined tunnel that is East Poultry Avenue, you pass through a velvet curtain and descend the stairs into the golden glow of what feels like Narnia – albeit with an exotic twist.
Opened in 2015 by the same team behind nearby Shoreditch speakeasy, Nightjar – which consistently appears in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Bars list – Oriole takes its name from a brightly-plumed migratory bird whose flight route spans the world.
The bar’s décor takes inspiration from this spirit of travel and adventure, adorned with mysterious treasures including masks from the Congo and bronze sculptures from the Amazon. This exoticism combines with touches of old-school glamour – soft leather-lined booths, candlelit tables, a speakeasy-style stage hosting jazz, swing and blues bands – to create an overall effect that is perhaps best described as ‘tiki-chic’.
But it’s not just the interior design that takes the breath away at Oriole – the drinks are pretty astounding as well. The adventuring theme continues through the cocktail menu which, presented in a beautifully illustrated explorer’s picture album, is split into three parts: Old World (covering Africa and Europe), New World (the Americas) and Orient (Asia and Australia).
The cocktails in each section make use of a wide range of botanicals and ingredients in unique combinations. As bartender Mihai Ostafi told me “The album brings to life the opportunity to experience specific flavours from all over the world.” And be prepared for flavours you will never have come across before: graviola, snow chrysanthemum, saponaria, voatsiperifery – the ingredients sometimes sound like something from a Roald Dahl story (and the glossary at the back of the menu can prove useful!).
And it’s not just the unusual flavours that are fantastical – the cocktails at Oriole work on multiple senses at the same time to truly magical effect. Drinks arrive with jaw-dropping visual presentation, wreathed in aromatic smoke, decorated with taste-tingling foams or even on fire.
If you want a bite to eat to accompany your drinking, there’s a suitably globe-trotting menu of bar bites, small plates and sharing platters available, with delights such as South American crab arepas, Creole chicken and a Korean-inspired burger served with kimchi coleslaw.
Head chef Gustavo Giallonardo and his team occasionally hold masterclasses about pairing spirits with food. For example, a recent Campari Aperitif Club Night featured a specially created Mini Campari Trifle with pistachio cream and Champagne zabaglione – which, frankly, sounds a bit like heaven.
It’s perhaps no surprise that, with their shared passion for adventure, unusual ingredients and great drinks, Elephant Gin and Oriole have in fact found ways to work together, including creating new cocktails and ingredients.
“We love Oriole as they are so experimental and creative in their cocktail making,” Elephant Gin’s co-founder Tessa says. “They have lots and lots of different botanicals, creating new cocktails or giving a twist on classics.”
And the love is mutual – as Mihai from Oriole explains “Elephant Gin has a distinctive flavour profile, the African botanicals bring herbaceous, fruity, spicy notes to the complexity of the gin, making it an optimal choice for a Martini or mixing cocktails.”
One recent collaboration at between the two saw specially-created Elephant Gin cocktails served throughout the night to an audience gathered at Oriole to see West African band, Hilife Allstars. You can see one of the most popular recipes from that evening here – but rather than attempting to recreate this one at home, it’s probably advisable to visit this subterranean wonderland to sample the original. You can be sure it will be an adventure worth having!
Oriole’s Elephant Gin Invention
Spuma Adriatica (an Italian soft drink similar to cola)