The last time I visited The Mandrake was back in June; I was attending the launch of their Jurema terrace and vividly recall having taken my aunt out for a day in town. She’d been going through what could only be termed a mid-life crisis, recently returned from hiking in Japan, newly divorced and wearing a miniskirt. On that summer’s day the celebrated terrace had been full of West London hippie-types, swaying along to a Hawaiian drummer in a grass skirt. I lost my aunt during a cult-like ceremony involving Szechuan buttons and when I found her again she was surrounded by a table of ‘shamans’, each offering to take her on spiritual voyages to their respective retreats in Bali, Indonesia and Canning Town. So that was The Mandrake.
Anyway, after the fun of the terrace launch, I’d been waiting for the right opportunity to return to this architectural gem. So I decided to take the plunge and revel in the avant-garde sexiness that is Waeska, one of the hotel’s two bars. To enter, you strut down a darkened passage into a foliage-filled wonderland, and the first thing I beheld was a taxidermied gazelle, dressed as a peacock wearing full-on S&M headgear, The Mandrake was straight back on form.
A fifteen drink menu is based on ethnobotany. Inventive and researched, it might well have been the product of an eccentric professor, lurking behind one of the bar’s tropical-print armchair. Take, for example, the Nutmeg. King of Soho gin paired with sweet potato puree and dressed with a chorizo crisp. The bar team works closely with the chef, I was told. It’s bizarre, but it totally works – albeit weirdly. Jalapenos (in season and fiery hot) were a warming highlight of an eponymous cocktail, paired with a carnival-esque mix of grapefruit, tequila and chipotle.
The Mandrake’s ethereal vibe was reflected in each drink. A particularly memorable example is simply called Barley. Like the mandrake plant, barley was famed amongst Ancient Greeks for its hallucinogenic properties. When partnered with a healthy splash of Chivas 18 year old whiskey, a saccharine dollop of maple and an apple kick, you’d be forgiven for feeling pleasantly woozy. Out of body experiences seemed to be a running theme at The Mandrake. Even the name of the bar, Waeska, alludes to the Amazonian vine ayahuasca, said to result in spiritual enlightenment (a known synonym for a sore head and the odd regret the next morning).
The team excelled. I was surprised with bar snacks and revelled in them. Octopus empanadas were rich and fishy, the pastry buttery and flaky. They arrived alongside parma ham croquettes, hearty and comforting. Parmesan and tapioca squares popped with little bursts of joy. I’d return just for the food – I’ve never had bar food quite like it.
The Mandrake is made up of two buildings. One side is dark and the other light – this is an architectural trick, designed to mirror the daily rise and fall of the sun and the concept applies throughout. While the decor may be moody, brooding and mysterious, Waeska is an enlightened dreamworld. Though it navigates a careful path between pretension and indulgence – ethnobotany is, after all, the study of a people and their plants – I wouldn’t be surprised if it one day formed a basis for an anthropological thesis. For me, The Mandrake is the city’s most hedonistic hideaway.