Coupette: a table for two in Bethnal Green
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” So said F. Scott Fitzgerald of his love of cocktails, of which the gin rickey (gin, lime juice, club soda) was said to be his favourite. And while (at the time of writing) dry January was hanging over London like a thick gloomy fog, my friend Jack and I decided to shrug it off, take a leaf out of the famous writer’s book and saunter out into the night for cocktails - lots of them.
So we step into Coupette – a charming, Gallic-inspired cocktail bar in Tower Hamlets, just minutes from Bethnal Green tube station. So incongruous to its surroundings is it, neatly sandwiched between convenience stores selling giant sacks of rice and saris hung on mannequins, that you would be quite forgiven for walking straight past it (which I do, for a good ten minutes).
The bar manages to feel totally at home on this busy, east London street, while also being international in its feel. It has won a string of plaudits and last year retained its place in the 2019 World’s Best Bars list.
Coupette translates as a “cheeky one”. Warm and inviting, the bar manages to be both intimate and cosy, vibrant and busy.
Sit up at the bar and you’ll find a multitude of Mariannes smiling up at you; the surface is covered in shining ten franc coins. The story goes that if you correctly guess how many coins there are, you get a free shot of calvados – an apple-based brandy from Normandy and the bar’s speciality. Coupette stocks it from the Pays d’Auge and Domfrontais regions in order to ensure the best quality.
I’m sure Marianne would approve – liberté, egalité, and, er, brandy. Lois Long, the indefatigable New Yorker columnist, once fondly wrote that she often stuck to brandy in Prohibition-era Manhattan because a bootlegger couldn’t fake its smell and taste. We’re in good hands here.
The exposed brick and low lighting gives the place a coppery, rustic glow, and there’s a piano, a tipsy Tabac sign, Tiffany lamps, oh – and a “terrifying owl”, (Jack’s words, not mine) glaring down at us from a poster. The vintage, misfit furnishings give the bar its charm, while the music is modern rock and roll – think Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, Amy Winehouse, The Smiths and Madness. It’s loud, not very French-sounding, but fun.
The staff are wonderfully unpretentious, effortlessly guiding us through a menu that changes with the seasons and is perplexing to say the least. All sorts of weird and wonderful liqueurs are listed, silently crying out: “Drink me! Drink me!”
I am persuaded to have a “Never Enough”, consisting of aged Calvados, brown butter, burnt treacle and smoked chestnut milk, served in some sort of earthenware mug and with two giant globes of ice. It’s too sweet for me. Never enough? More like never again, but it would likely be a dream for those with a sweet tooth.
With cocktails, of course, its horses for courses and if you do fall off, you must get back on. I decide to play it safe by immediately opting for the bar’s two award-winning cocktails. First up, “Apples”, which consists of calvados and carbonated apple juice.
The signature cocktail changes each month, with a different calvados and a different home-made apple juice. This month it is “Red Delicious”, and it most certainly is delicious, refreshing and simple.
The “Champagne Pina Colada” is also worthy of its accolade. It arrives in an elegant, conical tumbler, perfectly white and snowy, with a dusting of coconut shavings on top. The coconut sorbet gives it a lighter feel – there’s no cream in this cocktail – while the champagne gives it a touch of luxury. This is certainly not the gloopy, sometimes sickly variations you find on holiday. It is deliciously decadent and beautifully presented.
Jack, meanwhile, has plumped for a “Step in Time”, which has been niggling at the back of my mind all week, ever since I first spotted it on the menu. Grey Goose vodka, olive oil, rosemary, H. Theoria Procrastination, something called minus cream and wine. Curiouser and Curiouser.
I’ve never heard of H. Theoria Procrastination, but a quick google informs me this is a liqueur “created by two Frenchwomen with backgrounds in haute cuisine and fragrance” and made with “American oak, azuki bean, rooibos, black tea, jasmine, orange and rosemary botanicals.”It demands a taste. What mad man, or woman, would think to combine vodka, wine and olive oil? Could this concoction work? Should it? It does. Fresh, aromatic, not overpowering, sort of like sipping a cool, spritzy, herby white wine.
Meanwhile, a woman near us has announced to the barman that she will go “back to the board room”, which sounds utterly progressive and deeply intriguing. After a quick scan of the menu, I follow her lead. The “Board Room” is a smooth and sophisticated bullet of a drink – hennessy cognac, dubonnet, walnut, cherry, coffee and smoke. It’s something to retire with after a meal, with hints of port and tobacco. Coupette’s take on the classic Bellini, with rinquinquin (a French peach liqueur), is a firm favourite, although Jack is troubled.
“Can we talk about how putting plants in drinks tickles your nose?”, he says, giving the delicate foliage poking out the top of my glass – and me – a strange look. He hasn’t quite got over the silver whisp of a leaf which appeared in his “Step in Time”, fretting as to whether the correct etiquette was to fold it over or not. We thought not. Coupette also makes a mean whisky sour, and the “White Truffle White Negroni”, served in a glass with a stem so delicate and snappable it is a masterpiece in itself, is another winner.
I should add that Coupette’s bar snacks are really very good. Their homemade white bean hummus and crostini is a real stand-out, and makes the whiling away of an evening here even more enjoyable. Such excellent snacks are also probably quite wise – we cannot survive on popcorn alone.
This is a really excellent bar, serving bold, intelligent, inventive cocktails, which tickle much more than just your nose. It’s also good fun, in a miserable month, to step into a cheeky, cheerful cocktail bar in east London that plays loud music and knows how to do creative, joyful things with a cocktail mixer. I feel that had Lois Long or F. Scott Fitzgerald been here, they would have demanded that someone play that damn piano. Another time, maybe.
Coupette, 423 Bethnal Green Rd, London E2 0AN; coupette.co.uk
+44 (0) 20 7729 9562