Our evening begins with a degree of befuddlement, primarily from a pair of confused customers hovering by the innocuous barbershop doorway on Queen’s Street that forms the entrance to Panda & Sons.
After assuring them they have indeed come to the right place we descend the narrow staircase and pull open the fake bookcase doors that hide the cavernous bar beyond, speakeasy-style. What greet us are lacquered floors, studded leather and rich mahogany panelling; like the living-room set of some Prohibition-era movie.
The waitresses, too, feel as if they have jumped off a 1920’s cinema screen – dressed all in black-and-white and scampering around as if in some cranked-up Pathé newsreel.
No sooner have we taken a table than we are provided with complimentary water, piri-spiced popcorn and a pair of drinks lists as thick as your thumb.
The menu reads more like a novel. Each chapter is devoted to both a family of mixed drinks and a family member of the Panda lineage and their adventures through the tandem worlds of booze and barbering.
Recipes are revealed, stories are regaled and, while the detail could be maddening for anyone just wanting a quick pint, it is clear that proprietor Iain McPherson has lavished as much attention on the bar’s backstory as he has on its beverages.
"If a Negroni puts hairs on your chest then this singes them off with a barrel charrer before tattooing them back on again."
Our first round is ordered (one ‘Vida Villa!’ and one ‘Siam Saoco’) and we munch on the popcorn and read about the macabre origins of the barber’s trademark red-and-white striped pole. First, the ‘Vida Villa!’ – a strawberry and Mezcal sour with Aperol and paprika-spiked agave syrup.
I can imagine this is what sauntering through a pick-your-own patch at the height of summer while some hay burns gently in a nearby field might taste like; the elegant berry fruits and bitter rhubarb of the Aperol linger as the soft smoke of the Mezcal rolls in from a distance, The ‘Siam Saoco’ is pale apple-green in colour and tastes sharp yet subtle; roasted coconut water and Thai sweet basil square up to each other on the palate as Bacardi rum steps in to prise them apart – a deliciously delicate tussle ensues.
We take a brief intermission in the form of a small, slender platter of lightly toasted baguette slices with dipping oils and pesto, the decorative side-plates and bone-handled butter knives flashing me briefly back to tea with my gran. Round two follows with the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ – listed as grilled pineapple syrup, fresh ginger, bitters, bianco vermouth, apricot brandy and Talisker 10 year old Single Malt.
It arrives as a generous, unsullied dram of Skye’s finest in a small wicker boat next to a dainty pitcher of liquid Caribbean with a tiny treasure map tied to the handle. The old-school Scotch drinker in me tries to resist emptying the jug’s contents into the glass of whisky but the result is anything but a shipwreck – the peppery fire of the Talisker is perfectly tempered by the tropical tastes, with the ginger providing a rickety rope bridge link between the two.
My better half strays from the storybook and orders an Old Fashioned – partly as a surreptitious test but mainly because she just loves a good Old Fashioned. Panda and his progeny do not disappoint – just one sip elicits a single, satisfaction-filled syllable: “Yes.”
The welcome supply of water, sipped throughout our stay, leaves us all set for another round. ‘Twelve Mile Limit’ is a formidable-sounding combination of St Lucian white rum, rye whiskey and cognac with home-made grenadine and lemon which belies its apparent onslaught of hard liquor with a surprising burst of forest berry flavour.
The ‘Boulevardier’, on the other hand, seems a sedentary mix of Campari, rye and quinquina which has been barrel aged ‘for a period of time’. The result is deep, rich, mouth-puckeringly bitter and all the nicer for it. If a Negroni puts hairs on your chest then this singes them off with a barrel charrer before tattooing them back on again.
For a chilly, mid-week evening (and considering how new and camouflaged it is) the bar purrs with the pleasant buzz of custom. The music is eclectic, fitting and the right volume; a chilled vibe – though Iain assures us things get a little crazier at the weekend.
Prices are reasonable for a city centre bar and besides the cocktails there is a modest yet varied wine list (including bubbles), bottled and draught beers (including a regularly-changing guest ale) and sharing platters of cheese or cured meats (available until 12:30am).
Table service is the norm; tables can be booked in advance and large groups can hire out an alcove for themselves.
Right now we are experiencing the biggest cocktail renaissance for nearly a century and if Panda & Sons is the vanguard then exciting times are ahead.
Of course it won’t be to everyone’s tastes – the Pint-o-Stella/sugary shooter crowd may feel out of place – but, just as any exceptional restaurant will alienate as many as it delights, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Panda & Sons is an evident labour of love – and a true accomplishment.