What: A Soho bar from the duo behind Dalston’s Angelina. Golden Gai takes its name from a district of Tokyo known for its narrow alleyways crammed with offbeat late night bars. The surprisingly expansive 40-cover site (65 in normal, non-socially distanced times) is a re-imagining of the tiny bar of the same name at Angelina, which has been rendered temporarily useless by Covid-19 rules and is now used to prepare desserts.
Who: Angelina’s founders Joshua Owens-Baigler and Amar Takhar have teamed up with friend and talented bartender Wilson Salemos, who is heading up the project day-to-day. The duo founded Angelina last year, offering a ‘surreal exploration’ of Japanese and Italian food by way of a 10-course Kaiseki-style menu that features the likes of o-toro, lardo, umeboshi and shiso; and artichoke tortelli with soy and hazelnuts.
The vibe: The link to Japan is intentionally not immediately obvious but there a few subtle nods including square lanterns. It’s an attractive space filled with greenery including fiddle leaf fig trees and hanging plants and - like the majority of bars within its namesake - is moodily and intimately lit. While Golden Gai is certainly a place to let your hair down, it must be said that the atmosphere is more reserved than in the bars of Tokyo's Shinjuku district itself, where karaoke blares and bartenders are happy to serve customers until they literally fall off their barstools.
The drinks: Cocktails and wine are placed on roughly equal pegging, with separate menus handed over for each as customers take their seats. Cocktails are creative and occasionally odd sounding, combining Japanese and Italian ingredients (although flavours from other parts of the world get a look in too). Averaging out at roughly £10, cocktails include Navy Staple (mezcal, Japanese curry and apple); Dolce Vita (gin, Aperol, Cointreau and Brachetto D’Acqui); and Golden Gai's signature Vino Vecchio (a milk punch made with oxidised wine and meringue). Drinks are presented very simply with minimal garnishes, often nothing more than a perfectly clear and sculpted cube of ice. The exclusively Italian wine list is brief but interesting with a focus on less obvious wines from less obvious regions.
The food: The small menu is focused on piadine - a filled flatbread from Emilia-Romagna that resembles an enormous taco - and sharing boards. So far, so pedestrian, but the food offering at Golden Gai is just as creative as the cocktails. The team skilfully combine top quality Japanese and Italian produce to create dishes that are designed do a lot more than simply soak up the booze. Piadine options include taleggio, truffle soy and sturgeon caviar; and chicken karaage, yuzu kosho mayonnaise and salsa verde while sharing boards combine Italian cheeses and meats with umami-packed Japanese condiments, including aged tofu, truffled-seaweed and the extraordinary Moromi Miso (an intense soy sauce fermented in cedar barrels).
And another thing: With the ‘substantial meal’ rule in place and the possibility of an enforced hiatus due to Tier 2 rules it’s - on the face of it, at least - an odd time for a couple of restaurateurs to go into the bar business. But the move is more logical than it might first appear. The lease and rent are relatively affordable - Owens-Baigler says - and with current Tier 3 rules having turned going to the pub into a misery (Scotch egg, anyone?) many will be happy to book into bars run by skilled restaurant operators that can provide the holy trinity of great food, great drinks and professional service.