Something a little different this week, as the Gourmand and Danny go down the rabbit hole and emerge bewildered, enchanted, and drowsy as dormice.
A recent and exciting addition to the increasingly dull Oxford watering-hole scene (heretofore ancient pub, ancient pub, ‘Spoons, grotty college bar, ancient pub), The Mad Hatter has set up shop in what used to be The Cricketer’s Arms (poor chap probably can’t bowl any more…) on the corner of Iffley Road and the aptly named Circus Street – in other words, a stone’s throw from the Cowley roundabout and not even as far as this so-called ‘gime’ that I’m told is down Iffley way. With naught but a hanging sign and an inviting chalkboard to give away its presence, The Mad Hatter’s secluded entrance is elusive indeed. But even if you find it, the gatekeeper ensures that not just any old riff-raff is allowed access to this veritable wonderland; no thuggish, mountainous bouncers here, but rather a speakerphone which, in the vein of the Ravenclaw common room, poses a riddle which you must answer to be let in. Cranial conundrums such as “What can you catch but not throw?” (answers on a postcard, please) as well as the strong Alice in Wonderland theme mark The Mad Hatter out as a uniquely Oxonian establishment, comfortably ensconced in the nichest of niches.
Once seated at a table inside the minimalistic yet intriguingly decorated cocktail bar, we are presented with cocktail menus – ingeniously camouflaged within copies of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ – and introduced to the ordering system; no more queuing at the bar, desperately trying to attract the overstretched barkeep’s attention, for at The Mad Hatter each table is equipped with a proper old-fashioned telephone from which you can call the bar to order your drinks. This is possibly the coolest thing ever ever ever and should definitely be implemented basically everywhere in the name of convenience, laziness, and just pure, glorious kitsch. So, giggling at this ridiculosity, we call up the guy standing about ten metres away and put in our first order: a blueberry bramble, intensely violet and packed with beautiful fresh blueberry flavour, and a café crème brûlée, rich and strong with espresso and vodka, yet caramelised and creamy, and at no point suffering from the harsh kick of cheap spirits, as it goes without saying that The Mad Hatter’s wares are top notch.
What does Wonderland’s Mad Hatter offer if not a bangin’ tea party? It was, therefore, with some anticipation that we awaited The Tweedledum: a teapot full to bursting with smooth gin, summery raspberries, and floral elderflower, amongst other things, which we delightedly poured out into dainty teacups for our boozy tea party. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as the sharers go up to the gargantuan ten-person Hatter’s Hat, which features – besides the usual liquors and fruity additions – an entire bottle of Champagne in what is, whilst perhaps an absurd luxury, definitely a better outlet for your inebriated profligacy than that overpriced bottle of Grey Goose you bought at Camera, according to a receipt found the morning after.
We eschewed the less novel parts of the menu (‘the classics’, ‘bubbles’, ‘wine’, etc.) and instead rounded off our tasting session with a shooter, Crackbaby, which was largely the intensely sour tropicality of passion fruit with hints of tongue-teasing fizz and plenty of kick, as well as The Hatter’s signature Rum Punch, redolent of that jewel of the childhood lunchbox, Um Bongo – except with a healthy dose of rum for the grown-ups. Shrouded in mystery are the drinks in the only section we didn’t manage to sample: Molecular Madness. Simply named Alice’s Growing Juice and Alice’s Shrinking Juice, they are fantastical potions which are mixed and then (and God knows how Health and Safety aren’t onto them about this) smoked with either hickory or applewood smoke in what we presume is a spectacular show.
One thing to bear in mind is that, thanks to a combination of high-quality potent potables and excellent theatrics, it’s not an especially cheap bar, so if your student loan hasn’t come in and you’re pinching pennies, head for the lowest shelves at Tesco, or perhaps your college bar. That being said, if you’re feeling flush, are sick of the same old routines, or want somewhere merry for an unbirthday party, The Mad Hatter really should be top of your list. Just hope that they don’t ask you why a raven is like a writing-desk, else your plans for the evening might be scuppered…