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Restaurants Wine articles

London’s Best Wine Bars

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Today, wine bars are fashionable. There’s even been talk that wine itself might be… *whisper it* cool. Things were very different when I was growing up. Wines bars were considered terribly old-fashioned. Most weren’t even aimed at wine lovers. Instead, they were places to drink that were open later than pubs. You might have gotten some cheese and crackers or shop-bought pate to eat, if you were lucky. There was a chain in the north of England called Yates’s Wine Lodge; from the name, you’d imagine it was a good place to discuss the difference between left bank and right bank Bordeaux. If you tried, you’d be in for a rude shock. On a Friday and Saturday night, Yates’s would be crammed with people getting uproariously drunk on anything but wine.

Even during the dark days, however, there were places serving good quality wine and food, and some of them are still around. What the newer places offer is sharper cookery and more adventurous wines, many of which are available by the glass thanks to the wonders of Enomatic machines or the Coravin (a sort of handheld Enomatic that dispenses a tasting measure and then seals the bottle with an inert gas). So I thought it would be interesting to examine the now-thriving wine bar sector in London. I’ve tried to group them roughly in order of opening, so you go from very old school to bang up to date.

 

El Vino, 47 Fleet St, London EC4Y 1BJ

A legend since 1879. Fleet Street used to be the home of London’s newspapers and this is where the journalists would drink and gossip. Women weren’t allowed at the bar until the 1980s! It’s less raucous now as the customers are mainly lawyers. The food is basic, the meat pies are the thing to go for. The wine list extremely old-fashioned, lots of claret, generic white burgundy by the glass, and none the worse for it. It’s recently been taken over by Davy’s, a wine bar chain, so it’s not clear what the future is.

 

Gordon’s 47 Villiers St, London WC2N 6NE

Entering Gordon’s is like being in one of those Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe. The ceiling is incredibly low, there’s cobwebs and candles everywhere. I keep expecting Vincent Price to be on the next table. It’s also a total tourist trap and can get unpleasantly busy, but is worth visiting for the amazing atmosphere. The by the bottle wine list is a bit dull so I’d recommend you order sherry or madeira which come directly from the barrel.  

 

Le Beaujolais, 25 Litchfield St, London WC2H 9NJ

It feels like nothing at all has changed in here since it opened in 1972. The wine list consists of mainly negociant Beaujolais. It’s not the kind of place to share your obsession with low sulphur Morgon producers.  You’re here to have fun. Sobriety is positively frowned upon and don’t be surprised if you ended up leaving with someone else’s wife or husband. The food is good especially the Boeuf Bourguignon.

 

Cork & Bottle 44-46 Cranbourn Alley, London WC2H 7AN

Another 70s stalwart. This place used to be very popular with the wine trade. They’ve probably moved on to somewhere trendy in East London which is a shame because this place is rather good. The room, a spacious and nicely lit cellar, is inviting. The, not particularly cheap, wine list is full of tempting stuff especially from Southern Rhone and Australia.  It’s recently changed hands and the food has improved.

 

Albertine, 1 Wood Lane, London W12 7DP

Out in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, in the old days when BBC TV centre was around the corner, you might trip over  Jeremy Irons or Maggie Smith sipping a glass of Muscadet. Since the studios closed in 2013, the clientele is now mainly newish locals who have been priced out of Notting Hill. The wine list very solid, with producers such as De Martino from Chile, just the sort of stuff that I like to drink at home. The food is good home-cooked stuff, beef stroganoff, chicken curry, that sort of thing. It has a proper family feel.

 

Andrew Edmunds , 46 Lexington St, London W1F 0LP

A Soho stalwart, this is more of a restaurant but notable for it’s extensive and often good value wine list. I often run into the eponymous proprietor at tastings around London and he really knows his stuff. Cooking is simple bistro stuff, usually delicious. It’s very romantic too.

 

Mr Lawrence, 391 Brockley Rd, London SE4 2PH

I’m count myself very lucky to have this place on my doorstep in south east London. They import their own wine from south west France as well as champagne and armagnac . You can order food from the pub next door and eat it in the wood-panelled splendour of the dining room. A neighbourhood gem but worth going to visit as well.

 

Planet of the Grapes, 9/10 Bulls Head Passage, Leadenhall Market, London EC3V 1LU

This business started out as a shop in Holborn, they’ve since expanded to three wine bars in the City and one further west in the neo-baroque Sicilian Avenue. You can buy wines to take away or for a corkage fee, drink them on site with food. The wines are excellent, very much the kind of thing that you can imagine prosperous stock brokers drinking, claret, burgundy, Brunello, and Californian cabernets.  Just don’t ask for natural wine.

 

Terroirs, 5 William IV St, London WC2N 4DW

This was the only natural wine bar in London when it opened in 2009. Some of the wines are a too natural for me but the knowledgeable  staff are always happy to steer me towards something more conventional. Whilst the wines can a be a little wacky, the food is decidedly classic, very French, cassoulet etc with particularly good shellfish. They have a sister restaurant in East London called Brawn.

 

10 Cases,16 Endell St, London WC2H 9BD

The name comes from their policy of buying ten cases each of special wines and selling them until they’re gone. They also do a regular house selection. On my last visit I had a very good mosel riesling by the glass and a Xinomavro from Greece with some great tapas. They’re currently trialling a one hour wine delivery service in central London so you don’t even need to leave your home to get the 10 Cases experience.

 

Sager & Wilde, 193 Hackney Road, London E2 8JL

Where Sager & Wilde sits used to be the roughest pub in East London, the British Lion. My Uncle used to go there to talk about horses with the locals. It was opened in 2013 by Charlotte and Michael Sager-Wilde and has since become wildly popular not least with the wine trade. The list is very modish with orange wines, Santa Barbara pinot noirs and Jura whites. Their cheddar cheese toastie has achieved mythical status. They have another venue which is more of a restaurant under the arches in nearby Bethnal Green

 

Wine Pantry, 1 Stoney St, London SE1 9AA –

A few years ago a bar that only sold English wine would be a punchline to a joke. Not now. English sparkling wines in particular are winning plaudits all over the world. The still whites, even some reds are catching up fast.  Julia Stafford, the owner of this place in Borough Market, bursts with enthusiasm. If you come sceptical, like I did, you’ll leave converted especially after half dozen oysters and a glass of Henners Brut Reserve.

 

Quality Chop House, 88-94 Farringdon Rd, London EC1R 3EA

This London institution was closed for a few years but reopened in 2014 under new management. It lives up to its name by offering the finest pork chop I think I’ve ever had (sorry mum) especially with their signature confit potato. It has a great wine list, of course, with a very nice Bergerac as the house red. Particularly exciting are the early 20th century Rivesaltes and Maurys (sweet French wines not dissimilar to port) which they offer by the glass.

 

Wine makers club, 41a Farringdon St, London EC4A 4AN

This was once a branch of Oddbins, the chain of wine merchants where I worked in the late 90s. It’s an incredible space under the Holborn Viaduct but beware, it’s basically a cellar, so wrap up warm. The cold smell of damp mingled with wine when you walk into the bar took me back to my days in the wine trade. They offer a very interesting selection of wines, particularly good on Tuscany with Brunello from Sesti and Chianti from Riecine. There’s simple food available to eat alongside.

 

Noble Rot, 51 Lamb’s Conduit St, London WC1N 3NB

The owners, Marks Andrew a former wine merchant, and Dan Keeling, former A&R man who discovered Coldplay, are geniuses are self-promotion. I’ve never known a new wine bar opening to get so much attention. Fortunately the place lives up to the hype, they’ve taken on a top chef, Paul Weaver, formerly of St. John’s, and the wine list made me want to empty my savings account.  On my last visit, I had some mouthwateringly juicy hogget (somewhere between lamb and mutton in age) which went down nicely with a well-priced bottle of Vina Tondonia Rioja. The owners edit a wine magazine also called Noble Rot which you can read whilst you wait for your food.

 

67 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5ES

I shouldn’t include this place because it’s a private members club but the by the class list is so extensive that I thought it worth mentioning. I had an a delicious Cote Rotie from Jasmine for £9 a glass. It would be double anywhere else. With it I had some, very good, bar snacks but there is a proper restaurant too. My advice is to befriend a member next time you’re in London.

This originally appeared in Food & Wine magazine. 

 

 

Categories
Recipes

A not very boozy interview with Lucy Madison

I’ve been reading a delightful book that combines food with memoir called Pen & Palate: Mastering the Art of Adulthood with Recipes by Lucy Madison and Tram Nuguyen. It’s one that has made me smile and laugh more than any food book I’ve read in a long time. It’s written by two childhood friends and it’s about them growing up and growing apart and coming back together with food being the glue that binds the story together. It’s the sort of book that I wish I’d read in my 20s. There’s no melodrama, no Steel Magnolias-style death bed weepathons, instead it sort of crept under my skin and hooked me gently but firmly. What kept me reading was the quality of the writing, the honesty and the deadpan humour. This is Lucy on her attempts to become a reporter:

“The chief activities I fear in life include speaking on the telephone; talking to strangers; giving people a reason to be mad at me; dealing with people who are mad at me; and asking people to do things they don’t want to do. These activities loosely describe the day-to-day activities of being a reporter.”

There’s a chapter where Tram becomes a cartoon animal costume builder which manages to be slapstick and intensely moving at the same time. And the recipes at the end of every chapter, especially the Vietnamese ones, sound delicious. Lucy has very kindly agreed to answer to some questions :

So what’s your problem with Malbec?

To be fair to Malbec, I first experienced it as a broke 20-year-old while studying abroad in Argentina—so I wasn’t exactly tasting the finest examples of the grape. I would love to go back to Argentina and learn more about it, because I know there are so many winemakers making amazing bottles there now. But I’ve often found Malbec to be a bit harsh and acidic for my palate.

What wine do you like?

Right now I’m craving a crisp, minerally white—like a nice, nutty Grüner Veltliner. Maybe it’s because it’s almost summer. I’m also into Falanghina; I discovered it on my honeymoon in Italy and I’ve been seeking it out ever since. Oh, and I’ll never say no to champagne.

What’s your favourite drink to reward yourself after a long day’s writing?

I love a strong Manhattan.

Do you have a favourite bar in New York?

I’m about to move from the West Village to Brooklyn, so I’m feeling especially nostalgic about some of my neighborhood spots right now. The West Village can get a little touristy and overrun, so I feel a lot of fondness for my local dive bar, Automatic Slims, which is never too packed. It’s got cheap wine, great bartenders, and decent bar food. For something more upscale I like Anfora, which has an excellent wine list and the best ricotta toast I’ve ever had.

What’s your ultimate comfort food?

Cacio e pepe. Or an elaborate cheese plate. Basically any iteration of pasta and cheese.

Is there anything that you are terrible at doing in the kitchen?

I’m not super comfortable cooking red meat in a sophisticated way. I was a vegetarian for a long time, so I didn’t get a lot of practice preparing meat-heavy dishes until I was in my mid-20s. I’ve gotten better over the years, but I don’t have that built-in confidence I have with baked goods and starches.

Which food writers are an inspiration to you? (or writers in general)

Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is only tangentially about food, but it’s one of my favorite books of all time. It’s so funny. It has the perfect hilarious-to-heartbreaking ratio. And Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. I love anything that’s funny and cozy and embraces the idea of imperfection.

And favourite cookbooks?

I love the Cook’s Illustrated books. I like imagining their whole team of professional cooks in the kitchen, testing out a million variations on a recipe so that I don’t have to. I also like to read recipes online and then scour the reviews for comments on what worked and what didn’t, and tailor the recipe accordingly.

How did you get into writing about food?

My best friend Tram Nugyen and I started a food blog, Pen & Palate, a few years ago. We had wanted to collaborate on a project for years, and we both love food and cooking. We’d write about what was going on in our lives and then include a recipe at the end of each post. Tram is an amazing artist, and she illustrates the whole thing.

How did the book come about?

In a lot of ways the book felt like a natural extension of what we were already doing, because the blog was always driven by the stories and the narrative as much as by the recipes. So when someone approached us about the possibility of doing a food memoir, it seemed like a natural fit.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Don’t get too caught up in how terrible you think you are! The first draft is allowed to suck; just put down whatever you can and then edit the shit out of it. Also, try not to take criticism too personally. This is impossible but, I’m told, invaluable.

Are you working on another book?

Not yet! Right now I’m trying to take one thing at a time—the book, a baby that could drop at any moment, and a new apartment. Once that’s all settled, I’m going to try to figure out what’s next.

Thank you Lucy! 

Find out more about the book here: Pen & Palate: Mastering the Art of Adulthood, with Recipes . You can read more about Lucy Madison and Tram Nguyen on their blog: Pen & Palate.  

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Categories
Wine articles

Swarthy Chicken in 2016

Chagrinnamon Toast

Swarthy chicken is a family classic, but over the years it has evolved.  For a while, I was queen of this dish.  These days, my husband, Henry Jeffreys, is king.

Though I have always loved cooking, my abilities drastically improved when Henry entered my life.  In many ways, he taught me how to cook.  He taught me that it was not only wasteful to discard the carcass of a roast chicken, but also a shame as it makes such delicious stock.  Most of the pasta sauces I make are versions of his.  Same with my savoury pies.  I’ll admit I never even made gravy until he showed me how.

The first time I visited him in London, he made a rolled shoulder of lamb stuffed with anchovies, garlic, capers, parsley, and lemon.  He served it with a bottle of Rioja Reserva. Immediately I fell in love and then into a food coma.  …

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Categories
Spirits

The mysteries of distillation

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The image above is on the distillery door at Delord in Armagnac. It shows the working of an alambic a continuous still used to make the spirit. Continuous in that the wine is constantly pumped in (where it says vin) and spirit comes out where it says ‘60%’ (alcohol that is) rather than made in batches as with a pot still. Most are built from copper to 19th century specification by a firm in Condom. To my eye they look like something from Victorian science fiction. 

Château du Tariquet #basarmagnac #copper #alambic #continousdistillation #woodfired #shiny #authentic

Some producers such as Janneau make some spirit in pot stills. The cellarmaster, Philippe Sourbes told me that the alambic produces a spirit with  ‘more personality’ whereas the pot still makes ‘a lighter spirit that needs less ageing.’ This is the exact opposite of what whisky distillers will tell you. Pot-distilled whisky is highly prized. Many Irish whiskies make much of being pot-distilled. Malt whiskey in Scotland can only be made in pots. The cheaper Lowland whiskies with less personality are made in a continuous still not dissimilar to an alambic

How do you explain this discrepancy? I don’t actually know. So as far as I can surmise, continuous stills used in Armagnac work less efficiently than those used in Scotland and Ireland. Certainly they are much smaller and the Analyzer, the column on the left, has less stages in Armagnac than in whisky production. Also the stills in Armagnac work at a lower temperature so that the spirit that comes out at the end will be lower in alcohol therefore it contains more impurities. Ian Buxton, author of 101 Gins to Try Before you Die, put it more succintly

“Fewer plates = less reflux = more impurity = more flavour. Also they use pretty short columns and don’t distil to a particularly high strength so will retain more character.
Base is wine so more inherent flavour complexity than beer base seen in whisky.”
A bit of a nerdy post but I find this sort of thing fascinating. I’d assumed that pot stills always produced a more flavourful spirit. In fact there’s a chapter in my forthcoming book, Empire of Booze, about the difference between Highland and Lowland whiskies, which looks at the two processes and pronounces confidently that pot spirit has more character. It makes you realise that it’s not the process that matters so much as the intention. In Armagnac they are looking for flavour above all from their traditional stills. Seek and ye shall find!

You can read more about my adventures in Armagnac here