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“standfirst”>Mark Pratt has been briefed to transform the bar at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze into a destination venue. Seasonal cocktails are in the mix, and so is plenty of rhubarb, says Robyn Lewis

If 2004 was the year of Tom Aiken, 2005 belongs to Jason Atherton, chef at one of the year’s hottest new openings, Maze. Part of Gordon Ramsay’s burgeoning restaurant empire, the eatery came top of London’s Most Talked About list this year with its “tapas” style grazing food and the New-York-inspired luxury interior.

There were, in fact, rave reviews across the board: “Dining here turns out to be a chain of sparkling moments that blaze together into a dazzling whole,” said Jan Moir in The Telegraph; “For Maze I have not a word of criticism,” said Giles Coren in The Times.

So far so good – yet another Ramsay success (can the man do no wrong?) – but what of the bar? While other top restaurants and hotels have also managed to develop reputations for their bars as destinations in their own right (think Cecconi’s or The American Bar at The Savoy), none of the Ramsay restaurants have managed this up to now.

Enter Mark Pratt. Ex Mint Leaf and The Lanesborough, he has experience in creating destination bars in London and has been hired to do the same with Maze.

“The brief I got when I started was very open,” says Pratt. “There are no real bars within the group as such. All the others are just dispensing bars really, but the brief here was to create a really buzzy cocktail bar that served, obviously, really high quality drinks that matched the quality of the food here.” Clearly, not an easy brief when one considers the standard of food that El-Bulli-trained Atherton churns out.

And this wasn’t the only problem – in order to match the restaurant’s seasonal food philosophy it was decided that the drinks list would be seasonal too. “Unfortunately, that was a decision that was made at the last possible minute,” explains Pratt. “And so a week before opening we were re-doing the drinks list and trying to make it match up with the menu. Fortunately, it wasn’t too dissimilar and we managed to sort it all out in time. Now we change the drinks menu every six months, rather than quarterly like the restaurant menu, because that is more practical for us. I haven’t ever done a seasonal drinks menu before, so it’s been quite a challenge for me.”

In order to make this process as simple as possible, Pratt says he keeps the structure of the menu all year round, just changing the fruits and flavours involved each season. The aim of the cocktail menu is to provide “variations on the classics, really. Things like Fig Sours (vanilla-infused Wyborowa shaken with lime, lemon juice and figs), Raspberry and Pomegranate Caipiroska (Absolut Raspberri muddled with fresh lime, raspberries and pomegranate juice) and the Rhubarb Mule (ginger-infused Wyborowa, lime juice and fresh rhubarb, shaken and topped with ginger beer). We go through a lot of rhubarb – it’s the bane of my life making rhubarb purée every day!”

The menu also features infusions quite heavily, although Pratt says he was careful not to overload the bar with flavoured vodkas. “We made a conscious effort to be very selective there, otherwise you can go on forever,” he explains.

Unusual beers

Cocktails make up around 50% of the bar sales, with wine making up another 25% and beers and soft drinks the rest. The wine list is not Platt’s remit, there’s a sommelier team to deal with all that, but beers were an issue. “The difficulty was providing a variety of beer but without listing too many,” Pratt says. “Clearly we didn’t want to just stick to the well-known big brands on the list, we needed to keep the high-quality feel throughout the drinks menu. In the end I settled on three – a dark Mexican beer called Negra Modelo that’s an old favourite of mine, a beer called Sleeman Honey Brown that is excellent with food, and Cruz Campo, a Spanish Pilsner for easy drinking. Sometimes people do get confused and are looking for the familiarity of a big brand but it’s up to us to explain and encourage them to try something new and out of their usual comfort zone. Much of the skill behind that is just the passion that the staff themselves bring to the job. Sometimes it is too busy to talk and when someone orders a vodka and tonic that’s what they’ll get, no questions asked, but at other times a big part of the job is talking to customers and asking what they want and why they want it and getting them to try new things. Sunday is a really good day to come in here for that reason, it’s a bit more chilled and everyone has more time for everyone else.”

The bar team under Pratt is some 10 strong, many of whom have worked with him before. “When we opened the entire team – which was slightly bigger then – were mine, bar two. Today that figure is slightly higher but still there’s only about four in there that I hadn’t worked with before.” The team has to work seriously hard as Maze is open 365 days a year for lunch and dinner. Pratt admits, “Sometimes we are stretched.”

Food is also served at the bar. “This means there is even more training of staff than normal involved and, due to the ever-changing menu, it is continuous,” says Pratt. “Basically, the team has to intimately know the cocktail list, they have to know the 300-odd wine list, which is always changing as we come to bin ends and things, and they have to be able to talk someone through the menu as well, and it isn’t a short, simple menu either. I thought I knew a reasonable amount about food before coming here but I’ve had to learn loads.”

Food focus

The food has, of course, taken priority and Pratt admits that up to now the main emphasis has been on getting the restaurant right rather than creating a destination bar, but, he says, with things now settling down, it’s time to start really pushing the bar. “We are definitely going to start looking at that in the new year, maybe getting some PR done and getting the word out, really. The main problem from the bar point of view is Gordon’s name above the door. It might be a name associated with amazing restaurants and fantastic food, but it isn’t a name that’s associated with drinking in any way. However, the advantage we have here is that the layout means people have to walk through the bar area to get to the main restaurant anyway. So what we need to concentrate on first is things like lunchtimes, where really we just get the overspill from the restaurant and things are pretty quiet most of the time. Also in the evening, while we are really busy from about 7.30 onwards as people have pre-dinner cocktails, we are really quiet before that point. So, the main target to start with will be local businesses for the after-work drinks crowd and we also need to start building up relationships with those people who are re-visiting us in order to develop some regular clientele.”

But is it the right time to be developing another destination cocktail bar in London, a city which now seems saturated with the Martini, Manhattan and Mojito crowd?

“I think the London scene has levelled out a bit,” Pratt admits. “But it was always going to have to do that as people run out of ways of making a cocktail bar different from all the others. You know we’ve had tequila-based cocktail bars, bourbon cocktail bars; you name it, someone’s done it, but I still think this is the best city in the world to get a drink in. It’s a better scene than New York because we have more variety, different sectors of the industry. I mean, you can go into any bar in New York and get a Martini but in London you have to go to a cocktail bar and if you want a pint of ale you go to a pub; if you want a decent glass of wine then go to a wine bar, that makes it much more diverse. Also in London the quality of bars is higher, I think. Even in the peripheral areas like Battersea or Brixton there are some really great cocktail bars now. The scene is shifting out of just the centre of the city.”

And there are other developments in the UK bar scene with the new licensing laws coming into effect and the proposed smoking ban. “It will be interesting to see what happens with the new opening hours and what effect that has on the industry.

“I’ve heard some people talking about targeting the bar staff trade after hours now they can open later, which would create a very exciting new scene. After work there’s currently nowhere for us to go for some decent food and a wind-down drink. And bar staff are high spenders in drinks terms because they order premium brands.

“As for the smoking ban, Gordon made all the restaurants in the group non-smoking some time ago, but at the moment we still have smoking in the bar areas, which is good as it gives people a choice. We’ll have to wait and see what next year brings.”

Indeed we will – and we’ll all be waiting to see if 2006 is the year of Mark Pratt.  db

© db January 2006

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