Yesterday it was the boy’s birthday – and being the truly excellent girlfriend (!) that I am, I decided to get all his favourite people together for the night…something that is a rarity in London, with such busy lives!
I have spent many years being “party planner” for my group of friends, organising venues for celebrations, advising on the best bars and clubs for nights out, etc. However, with such a plethera of agreeable establishments in this fantastic city, it’s often difficult to find and choose the perfect setting for a group you don’t know so well.
Last night, my list of requirements was of course based around @WhatleyDude’s favourite things, with a few additional factors thrown in for good measure. He has two preferences when it comes to food; steak or Asian, so I wanted to find somewhere that did one or both. We had some vegetarians coming, so my original choice (Hix) didn’t seem quite right, and whilst I considered Hakkasan, I thought I’d look for something a little different. The boy loves music and dancing, so the search was on for somewhere that offered a mix of high quality steaks, Asian options and live music/a good atmosphere. I remembered Trader Vic’s – and the decision was made.
Trader Vic’s is unusual for many reasons. It’s been here in London, in the basement of the Park Lane Hilton since 1963 – yet many people still don’t know it’s there. It’s Polynesian Tiki bar theme precedes that of Mahiki by many years, yet is less clubby and well known than it’s newer, sparklier cousin. It’s kitsch and eclectic, with splashes of Fiji and Hawaii everywhere you look, and the decor is just on the right side of gaudy – with palm tree carpet under foot and puffed up puffer fish suspended over head. It’s completely against what you’d expect to find at this world famous hotel, and that’s exactly why I chose it.
We arrived at the bar just before 7 and were greeted by glamorous hostesses in traditional style dress, and ordered cocktails from mixologists in rather fetching Hawaiian shirts. James chose a standard Mojito which I scoffed at, ordering a much more adventurous “Trader Vic’s Stinker” – which promised to be a delightful combination of dark rum, berries and spices. A HUGE bowl arrived and I took a healthy slurp – and regretted it instantly. That drink has definitely never even seen a berry or spice…it was lethally strong and tasted of pure alcohol…not necessarily ideal for the first drink of the night. I tried my best but eventually had to swap the Stinker for a Peach Tree Punch, which was infinitely more drinkable and went down a bit too well, actually. Peachy and delicious, but still I suspect, bloody strong!
As friends arrived we tried various other cocktails before moving to our table, which was in the much more sensibly decorated dining room. Standard heavy wooden tables and leather chairs (on wheels…very exciting) remind you you’re eating on Park Lane, while carved wooden statues and Polynesian style prints on the wall carry the theme into the dining area, without being too “in your face”.
As a group of eight, we were looked after well. The service was good – not super-speedy but definitely not slow either. There was always someone on hand to take drink orders or top up wine glasses, and the wait between ordering and courses arriving was hardly noticeable. We had enough time to chat, without starting to feel hungry or neglected. Certainly nothing to complain about.
On to the food. I was really pleased that we weren’t forced into having a set menu – a bit of bug bear of mine when dining in groups, especially at this time of the year. As mentioned, the diverse menu at Trader Vic’s was probably the defining factor when it came to me choosing the venue, as it’s a rich mix of Asian inspired dishes, mixed with steak and some great fish options, ensuring there is something for everyone.
Each guest at the table ordered their own starters, other than @helenarea and I, who decided to share. We chose the Steamed Scallops, which arrived as a pair, presented in their shells with a chilli and soy dressing, and were delicious. I am used to scallops that have been seared and have that delightful crust, but these were soft, plump and a gorgeous texture – easily as nice as when prepared the other way. I would have been happy with this, but we also shared the Titbits platter – which consisted of 2 very meaty ribs, some slices of pork with a Chinese style rub, some crispy wontons and breaded shrimp. It’s the kind of selection you’d get from every local takeaway, but better – although some bits were a little dry. The sauces that arrived to accompany the dishes were a little weird – strong mustard (which was VERY strong) and a rather sharp barbeque sauce. I ended up using the soy sauce from the scallops with most of the titbits, except the ribs.
Other people around the table had the soft shell crab, smoked duck breast salad, ribs and baby spinach and bacon salad (which was tossed at the table, very dramatic). All were very good…and I must say portions are generous, which is great. Prices for starters range from Â£9.50 – Â£15, so I’d take exception if they were stingy.
After another round of cocktails, we moved on to main courses. Trader Vic’s is one of those restaurants that has a fairly small menu, on which everything looks delicious, so there was much debate about who should have what before finally orders were placed. I chose the Szechuan Butterfly Prawns, which came with thin spicy noodles and were amazing. The prawns were cooked to perfection, soft and perfectly flavoured. Again, the portion was big – the prawns were also sizeable – at least 4 bites each. Helena chose the Thai Red Curry and rice, a couple of guests chose the duck pancakes, there was one order of sea bass and a black bean beef…and the piece de resistance for the birthday boy, who shared the Chateau Briand with a friend. Every single one of us loved our dishes and again, portions were so generous that many of us actually struggled to finish. I tasted the Helena’s curry and it was very pleasant – with delicate, well balanced flavours and heat that tickled the taste-buds but was not overpowering. I also tried the steak and almost cried with food envy. I would quite happily return to Trader Vic’s weekly just for that; the outside was perfectly seared with a great crust (perhaps some kind of rub? It had exquisite flavour) and the inside was rosy pink and glistening with deliciousness. I am salivating just thinking about it now. Out of this world.
We all declined desserts as we were just so full, but sat and chatted with some after dinner drinks and listened to the live tropical music from the bar next door – which was actually very good in an amusing way. The incredibly kind staff brought the birthday boy a special birthday pudding anyway, and sang him Happy Birthday – which was a lovely touch and a really nice ending to a delightful evening.
The total cost for 8 of us came to just under Â£700 – so it wasn’t cheap but considering the cocktails, wine and other drinks consumed, along with all that fantastic food, it is definitely value for money. I’d happily recommend Trader Vic’s for a group dinner. They looked after us brilliantly, it’s a quirky and unique venue, food was delicious and we had a lot of fun.
What more could you ask for?
PS: I have read some really bad reviews about Trader Vic’s in the last couple of weeks and was in two minds about booking. I’m pleased I did. Most of those reviews seem to be from the start of 2012 and mainly refer to a time when there was a special offer on. My experience was good – and that’s all I can go on!