What it is: An extension of el Willy. His restaurant draws a devoted crowd of Japanese (among others) for creative Spanish cooking. This lounge already draws a devoted crowd of Spaniards (among others) for premium Japanese and classic cocktails. Cultural exchange. Willy gets to put Iberian ham and marinated anchovies on a small snack menu -- he's not a man to be without ham -- but the cocktail side of things is handled by a bartender in a vest, tie, and dress shirt, Munenori Harada. Martin Campaign, an obsessive cocktail nerd in his own right, steers the ship and has done the drink menu. Tree Mao, a favorite among the city's bartender cognoscenti, rounds out the team. The three of them together create some heavy bartender/nerd gravity behind el Coctel's sunken bar.
Mr. Harada came from three years at Tokyo's Bar Tokyo (sister to Ginza icon Little Smith; here's a primer); Campaign is an encyclopedia of drinks and cocktail culture, formerly of Glamour Bar; Mao has traded Laris' martini jugs for el Coctel's intimacy. All to say, el Coctel makes a good drink.
Fresh juices; three kinds of ice, each with a specific purpose; recipes from the cocktail's early 20th century Golden Period; home-made seltzer (home-made tonic in the works); the careful consideration to ingredients and method that is the hallmark of the Japanese bartending school. Before they opened, I watched Mr. Harada counsel a junior bartender for fifteen minutes on the most elegant way to screw the top of a soda bottle on and off (make the letter "L" with your thumb and forefinger, start at the tip of the thumb and roll it in one graceful motion). The picks for fruit and olives are stainless steel. When Mr. Harada mixes a drink, he starts by putting all the bottles on the bar. He wears cufflinks. If you're into this stuff, you'll appreciate it.
Atmosphere: If you're not into the cocktail culture stuff, you're just going to find an eminently comfortable and mature lounge. The whimsical watercolor illustrations of el Willy's menu have migrated to el Coctel's ceiling, the mismatched furniture is all plush Shanghai deco stuff, and the lights are low. You can have a conversation and a glass of wine, and not feel out of place.
Japanese cocktail bars tend towards the stiffly formal. Willy's personality, and his psychedelic affections, completely overwhelm that. He also has a way of neutralizing the Bund attitude in the highest of Hi-Life people, who are here in force at the moment, by the way. The effect goes a long way to creating a buzzing, sophisticated atmosphere that's usually associated with the waterfront, with none of its pretense. It's a singular achievement. The raw brick and factory windows probably help.
Shanghai has a tendency towards the grandiose -- outsized restaurants, ridiculous concepts. It's been a welcome change to see a countervailing trend of people opening small establishments that focus on quality, not quantity, but that's been primarily manifesting itself in restaurants. el Coctel is the first to take the professionalism of the big places, and put it into an intimate bar & lounge.
Damage: Count on spending at least 123rmb. Most of the cocktails are 68rmb, and you'd be remiss if you didn't have one of el Coctel's three buttery hot-pressed sandwiches. They're 55rmb, and good enough to warrant a shop of their own -- el Grilled Queso? -- though the least Spanish thing on the snack menu. For that, you've got Iberian acorn-fed ham, marinated white anchovies, olives, other cured meats, and huevas de mujol.
But, the cocktails. The menus is split into six headings: 1. Fizzes, Sours, Silvers, and Sidecars; 2. Mules, Margaritas, Daiquiris, and Revivers; 3. Martinis, stirred, shaken, white, dark, wet, and dry; 4. Muddled Citrus, Bruised Herbs, New & Old Fashioned; 5. Sweet: Sugar, Fruit & Cream; and 6. Digestif Coctel, Hot or Cold.
Here's one from each:
Gin, lime juice, sugar & egg white, with a drop of orange flower water. Aerated and shaken with orange bitters & a small spot of cream. Fizzed with seltzer.
2. Bermuda Mule a.k.a Dark & Stormy
2 ounces of Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda rum classically paired
with fresh lime & good ginger beer.
3. Black Manhattan
Whiskey & Italian digestif - Averna stirred & strained. Served with a cherry. The ultimate night cap.
4. Islay Old Fashioned
The classic Old Fashion cocktail is close to perfect, a precise splash of good Islay single malt brings it closer.
5. el Coctel Cosmopolitan
Gin Base with framboise liqueur, triple sec & fresh lime juice. Original recipe from Pioneers of Mixing Gins at Elite Bars, 1933
6. Dr. M
A warming, medicinal cocktail invented at the venerable Mori Bar in Ginza, Tokyo. Four digestif liqueurs stirred & served with ice.
On top of that, there's a good page of whiskys, whiskeys, and single malts, a curated wine list, and the boutique Champagnes that are a specialty of the folks at Globus Wine (Egly-Ouriet, Varnier-Fanniere, Tarlant).
It's, eh, tough to choose.
Who's going: el Willy knows a majority of the well-heeled people in Shanghai. The clientele reflects it.
el Coctel is currently deep in Pre-Explosion Buzz. Last night, in the space of an hour, I spotted the founder of KEE Club, one of the Adidas China bigwigs, the owners of Globus Wine, a bar manager from M1NT (maybe ex-M1NT; not sure) and his two cronies investigating, a few other small business owners, a significant proportion of gorgeous women, a table of young creative types with disposable income, and a party of four from a far-off land where everyone looks like a model, who stumbled in, looked around, and asked, "Is this The Shelter?"
No, sweetheart. It definitely isn't.