Bar review: Mojo, Merrion Street, Leeds

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SO, here I am, right, the guy who champions real ales and proper pubs week in, week out in this column, and I’m sitting in a cocktail venue drinking from a bottle of American beer through the thin twist of orange that has been jammed into the neck.

You might find this both perverse and contradictory, but I would excuse my behaviour by saying that the beer – for all its cute name, slightly twee American styling and attendant fruit – is a real beauty, and I’m drinking it in the city’s coolest bar. Period.

Let’s start with the drink, which is Blue Moon, a Belgian-style wheat beer from the town of Golden, Colorado, though its cutesy-sounding location shouldn’t distract from the fact it is brewed by Molson-Coors, one of the true global beer giants. Like most wheat beers it is slightly cloudy, though this one is less markedly clovey than some, and its taste holds a suggestion of citrus and coriander. The orange slice is more than just decorative; it draws out the beer’s refreshing zesty flavours.

The bar is Mojo, and if you’ve hung around this column for long enough, you’ll already have gathered my unhealthy infatuation with the place.

It’s now something like 15 years since Mojo first burst onto the scene, and it’s simply impossible to imagine Leeds without it. Which seems a strange thing to say about a poky little bar which serves no real ale – in fact no draught beer at all – and is tucked away in the same grubby little rat-run between Briggate and Vicar Lane which boasts Reform and Verve.

And yet Mojo’s heady compelling combination of music, cocktails, lager and sheer atmosphere makes it quite simply the unrivalled daddy of the Leeds bar scene. The same multi-award winning Mojo formula can be found in Manchester and Liverpool too – and also in Christchurch, Barbados, if you happen to be down that way.

It’s probably the atmosphere I love the best – slightly shabby and louche and treading a delicate balance between edgy and laid-back. Its walls are covered with the music legends revered by those of us of a certain age, and to drink here is to escape the humdrum world outside and bask in the reflected cool of Bob Marley and Neil Young, Pink Floyd and Patti Smith. The CD system pumps out a changing mix of rock and jazz, to match the deepening mood of the room. And late on, it gets real loud.

Yet (again perversely and contradictorily) I like Mojo best of all shortly after opening, say between five and seven, when you can get served without having to fight through the crowds to reach the bar, when you can find a seat, when you look around at those fantastic photographs, when you can listen to the music and enjoy a quiet conversation, ideally in the leather-backed booths beside a giant mural of the Pepper-era Beatles.

It was six-ish when my mate and I called in for an afterwork beer, to compare the Blue Moon with the surprisingly rich Alhambra Reserva, which at 6.4 per cent is the kind of Spanish lager to put most of its compatriot beers deep into the shade.

All this was pretty much hair of the dog stuff, a whole bunch of us having been royally entertained by Mojo boss and cocktail guru Mal Evans the night before. Mal had been keen to show off the new drinks menu, a process which involved us not only drinking the cocktails, but trying out the raw ingredients first. After shot glasses of vermouth, bourbon, tequila, sherry and a literally dizzying array of rums it all got a bit messy, truth be told.

The menu is a lively blend of old and new, with favourites like the Rum Punch, the Pina Colada and the Caipirinha joined my new ones – well new to me at least – with names like Novacaine, Killer Punch, Bramble, Blood and Sand.

We started with the Mojo Swizzle, a beautifully refreshing blend of a full-bodied Guyanese rum with lime, pineapple and Ting – a Jamaican grapefruit soda. More followed, the dry Tommy’s Margarita, bitter Diplomatico Daiquiri, and a really hard, sharp, sour Bloody Mary. It was around the time we tried the 50% ABV tequila that my shorthand notes became rather spidery and even more unreliable than usual.

Even so, I can confidently report that for me the very best of the lot was the Corpse Reviver No 2, an off-the-wall melange of Beefeater gin, the French aperitif Lillet Blanc, lemon juice and Cointreau. If this were not enough, a dash of absinthe makes the draught grow stronger.

This comes from Mojo’s “Top Shelf” collection, a choice of premium-priced drinks for the cocktail cognoscenti – among them high-octane takes on old favourites like the Daiquiri, the Margariti and the Martini – and the lovely combination of premium bourbon and Vermouth which makes the smooth Single Barrel Manhattan.

For those who wish to learn the subtle art of cocktail mixing, Mojo runs a series of masterclasses, where Mal and his colleagues will introduce would-be bartenders to some of the essential ingredients and the tricks-of-the-trade. Or you can just use it as an excuse to get seriously blathered, as we did.

FACTFILE

Host: Mal Evans

Type: Rock, cocktails and cool

Opening times: 5pm-late every night

Beers: Bottled beers only – Heineken (£3.20), Carib Lager (£3.50), Alhambra Reserva (£3.80), Cusquena (£3.50), Bohemia (£3.20), Blue Moon (£3.80),

Wine: Small but select wine list with choices from £3-glass and £15-bottle

Cocktails: Great new selection from £5

Children: Not suitable

Entertainment: Eclectic selection of classic rock at all times.

Occasional live music

Disabled: Access via rear of venue – ask doorman or bartender for assistance

Functions: The Rhum Room upstairs holds around 50 people and can be hired for private events.

Beer Garden: None

Parking: Multi-storey and pay and display areas nearby

Telephone: 0844 549 9090

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