One of my favourite articles from last year came from LA Weekly entitled Hatchet Hall’s Wine List Is A Cruel And Maddening Joke. The author, Besha Rodell, has great fun with a list that is designed to baffle and exclude rather than help. Rather than name producer, region, vintage and grape variety as is normal the restaurant have come up with cryptic descriptions such as “Ham wine” or “Vieilles Vignes (old vines) 13”. My father-in-law sent me the article. When I was in Los Angeles he took us out to one of the most interesting new restaurants in town, Le Comptoir. (thanks Da!)
The food is very interesting. It’s based around vegetables grown in chef Gary Menes’ garden which are pickled, seared, or pureed in ways that accentuate the flavours. I was particularly taken with a pumpkin soup with raw mushrooms and toasted breadcrumbs. You don’t really need any animals with vegan cooking this good but you can add extras such as cheese, truffles, beef and scallops. Read Besha Rodell on it here. There’s also wine served alongside. Much is made of the provenance of the produce but oddly not of the wine. The list isn’t as cryptic as Hatchet Hall but it’s still a little opaque with offerings such as Muscadet, White Burgundy and Nebbiollo (sic), Piedmont. There’s no mention of producer’s names. I had to ask to see the bottles so that I can fulfill my wine bore quotient for the evening. I probably don’t need to say that the wines were from well-thought of producers. I was particularly taken with the Chardonnay from Whitcraft Winery in Santa Barbara.
Le Comptor, meaning the Counter, has room for only ten so it’s not a problem to ask about the wines, there are only five, and indeed it was a good way to strike up a rapport with Menes’s team (though not with Menes who works in silence.)
Things are a little different at a wine bar, Le Bouchon, that has just opened up the road from me in Blackheath. We popped in before Xmas so that my wife could have a glass of mulled wine. The list is long but almost every single wine is listed generically. Even more unhelpfully it says at the top ‘many of our wines are produced by biodynamic methods.’ Yes but which ones?
I asked the owner about this and he said they did once have a longer list with tasting notes but people complained that it was too long. Also the new list saved the trouble of rewriting it when vintages change. So why not have a paper list rather than something laminated? Or a chalkboard? And surely putting the vintage and producer isn’t going to take up that much room. He shrugged and said that people can ask him if they want more information. As a wine bore, I wanted to know almost every producer and vintage. The whole thing seems designed to create more work for him and more likely people just won’t venture further down the list. Who is going to spend £119 on a bottle of Pomerol (or indeed Pommerol as an eagle-eyed reader pointed out – see comments) without knowing the producer or vintage ? It’s a shame because I have a feeling that most of the producers are good. Certainly the glass of St. Chinian I had (Cave de Roquebrun 2013, he somewhat reluctantly showed me the bottle) was very enjoyable.
What was maddening for the wine lover was that both the charcuterie and cheese lists had information about provenance and even short tasting notes. It’s funny that so many restaurants seem to want to withhold information about wine but then give extensive notes on who their butcher is and what their chickens had for lunch.
I’ve written an article for the Spectator that should be out next month examining this thorny issue in greater detail.