Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Chateau Musar 2002

Majestic £17.99

I decided on Musar for a number of reasons:

1.) The snow arrived in London today which, as a man whose general contentedness is directly proportional to how warm I am, has made me extremely unhappy. I also happen to live on the road that Lambeth Council, in their infinite wisdom, decide to grit last in the entire borough. This is usually sometime around the end of March, and timed perfectly to coincide with the week-long Great British Summer.

2.) Having slid my way home I took my shoes off this evening to discover my right foot covered in blood. Again.

3.) I seem to sleep very little at the moment on account of a mysterious night-time rash that causes me to itch my hands and arms until they bleed.

4.) The normal recourse for this sort of situation would involve making a cup of tea, drawing a hot bath and swallowing a fistful of prescription drugs. But that was off the cards due to lack of codeine.

And whilst all this is no doubt just retribution for my myriad vices and the dubious company I keep, I also concluded that it was ample justification to open a bottle of wine from my rack's lowest and most expensive row.

Now the last time I started an evening with a bottle of Chateau Musar things went awry. I finally returned home two days later, sans sleep, but well fed, and unburdened by heavy memories.

But that was the '03; a delinquent wine. Vinified for the asbo crowd, with a Musar-funky nose backed by deep plummy fruit. Very drinkable and liable to cause some pretty dubious behaviour.

The '02, I was assured, is a different beast altogether.

Out of the bottle the brett on the nose made me want to gag. Any fruit character had been comprehensively swept away on a tide of shit, piss and acid-sweat. I am not about to revisit this old and dungy debate, but this was far too far into the farmyard for me.

The palate was completely discordant with this. It was still pretty heady, but with some softer raspberry and even peach flavours. Very fine grained, elegant tannins. However those given to homicide will be pleased to hear that all this was emphatically undermined by volatile acidity levels that would have taken the face off a fresh corpse.

This is a savage and bestial wine, but I think the Lebanese are taking liberties. Market appeal to bulimics and perverts.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Gaucho Tower Bridge

2 More London Riverside, London. £50 pp inc wine.

We had reserved a table at the London Bridge branch of Gaucho Grill. A restaurant that unashamedly promises bloodied steak, blood-y wine and blokiness.

On arrival the most noticeable aspect of this particular establishment was the decor, which consisted entirely of bits of cow draped around a dining room. The effect, need I say, was largely unpleasant.

We were dining off the back of a three-hour wine tasting session run by Laithwaites at Vinopolis. TOD had spent much of this time talking bollix at two young ladies who seemed content to feed him cheese and claret whilst pretending to listen. I opted for the more ethereally sexy charms of Pinot Noir, served (winningly) by a woman who had a bag of Liquorice Allsorts under her desk. Afterwards TOD preposterously claimed not to like Liquorice Allsorts, but I think this was jealousy and beneath it he recognized who made the better call.

All this gluttony meant that we decided to skip starters and head straight for the restaurant's raison d'etre- steak.

I cast aside a perplexing folded menu, that probably would have required some advanced knowledge of origami to untangle, and let TOD do the necessary talking.

Before the main show we enjoyed an amuse-bouche of bread with posh herby oil. The dish had been a little over-hyped by my companion, who had insisted the waiter bring extra as it was so delicious. I put this down to a rather 1990s-surburban-houswife enthusiasm for flavoured olive oil, because, though was nice enough, it certainly wasn't a revolutionary take on the tried and tested "bread with posh herby oil" formula.

Afterwards what arrived at our table was; two rare rump steaks, two sauces, a bowl of chips, a second of leeks and a third containing something orange.

All that needs to be said of the steaks is that they were excellent: good quality, cooked accurately and satisfyingly meaty. The chips too were reassuringly chippy.

Accompanying sauces (creamy-with-mushrooms and creamy-with-peppercorns) could well be described as 'semantically challenged'. Their runny consistency seemed to place them firmly in the 'sauce' camp, but the portion size, and the manner of presentation in small pots in the middle of the table, was that of a dip. This duality of purpose amused me for some time and certainly didn't rankle, as they went excellently with the chips.

TOD finished the bowl of orange before I could get to it, but he tells me it was something involving sweet potatoes. This would strike as a slightly peculiar lie to invent, so I have no reason to doubt him.

And anyway I didn't care because I had something far more exciting on my side of the table... leeks.

I know what you're thinking: "Leeks!? But they're the poor man's scallion surely? And preposterously over-rated by Welsh people and sociopaths." And to be fair, I would tend to agree; the leek is an 'umble vegetable, never the star of the show, certainly not Prince Hamlet, somewhat (whisper it) downstairs.

In this instance the addition of blue cheese was transformative and revelatory. The salty zing cut through the char-grilled sweetness of the leeks perfectly. And with the pristine steak it was mesmerising.

I had been charged with selecting the wine, but with the clear implication that nothing but Malbec would do. TOD, always confident in his own infallibility, decided somtime ago that appreciation of red wine has reached its zenith in getting smacked around the chops by the grape's slick jamminess. Our waiter offered us a couple to taste, which was a nice touch, but we went for something more expensive. I'm pretty sure I ordered a Malbec, but our man distinguished himself by bringing a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. I took this as a divine justification... que sera sera. TOD sulked a little.

Without a chaperone I might have fallen at the first, flummoxed by the weird interior design and foldy menu. But my companion steered us through these early setbacks admirably and we emerged fed, watered, and happy.

Laithwaites Grand Tasting

The message simply read 'Help'

When I found him sometime later, dribbling to himself in a back corridor at Vinopolis it transpired that he had gone rogue and ended up cornered by a German lady who was alledgedly making him smell mushrooms before offering any of her Pinot Noir. The Shock and Awe approach to the Laithwaites tasting had been decided upon some time before, but it was clear now that TOD would need some guidance and a little more nerve if he was going to make it through.

Some other spirit knew this too, because, excellently, on our way back from the corridor we got lost and ended up in a pub. We did this I'm pretty sure without leaving the building. Sensing the hand of God at play I bought a couple of ales and we sat down to assess the situation.

Some time ago we had procured tickets to Laithwaites first 'Grand Tasting' session in the cavernous Vinopolis at London Bridge. The show promised 200 wines from across the globe served by their enthusiastic producers, lectures and tutored tastings from industry experts, friendly and knowledgeable staff on hand to offer advice and 10% off any wine bought on the day. We were clearly going to be hopelessly out of our depth...

On re-entering the arena TOD immediately latched on to two young ladies in Laithwaites shirts who were serving Le Chai au Quai with a big plate of cheese. They didn't seem to know much about Bordeaux, but were contented to listen whilst he told them all about how much he loved cheese. The wines were fairly nondescript apart from the top-of-the-line Pauillac, which had a nice attack.

I left him to go remonstrate with the German lady from earlier. She was still trying to get people to smell mushrooms and Liquorice Allsorts, but having been briefed on this I flatly refused. Instead I ate some of the Liquorice Allsorts and had a glass of Chilean Pinot Noir, which was, interestingly, mushroomy. We then made our way back to the main hall via a man who who had some Whisky to get us in the fighting spirit.

Downstairs we set about some more serious drinking.

The producers stalls were mostly set out by country, to aide the nationalist set. An Aussie gave me some fizzy Shiraz which the winemaker had, rather unimaginatively I thought, made taste exactly as you would expect, i.e. of Vimto.

Onwards to a pleasant Spier Pinotage 2008, nice but lacking a little varietal distinction. I chose not to believe the man’s optimistic declaration that ‘This is probably the finest red you will taste today’ but it seems others were more easily gulled as this was voted the crowd’s favourite wine of the day.

A brace of modern, zippy Rieslings from Von Buhl were good enough, but didn't really excite, so I moved to the next stall with the intention of practising my inimitable Spanish on a woman from Carinena. 'Though this was scuppered when she inexplicably took against me when I asked if her wine contained any.

Meeting up with TOD again we spotted an opening at the sole Argentinian stand, and an opportunity for one of his famously prolix Proustian eulogies on the joy of Malbec.

Unfortunately before he could really hit his stride the producer happened to mention Chilean wine... "Bastards the lot of them!" exclaimed TOD loudly as the atmosphere around the table darkened. The man serving the wine looked frightened, but another, standing beside us made the mistake of pressing TOD further on the finer points of his assertion. He muttered something about the Chilean being an unpredictable sort before declaring them "Untrustworthy in matters of business and affairs of the heart." This did the job and, as people started to edge away, I kept a close eye on the Chileans at the stall next door in case the scene turned ugly.

Up until this point the highlights had been some cracking NZ Pinot Noirs, especially the Forrest Wines Stonewall 2008 which matched a cracking savoury nose, to a smooth deep and long fruit palate. But the best was saved 'til the very end.

The final NZ stall we visited was that of Seifried Estate, whose ice wine Riesling was a revelation. Full and honeyed in the mouth, with bags of clean lime acidity on the finish.

We left with the firm intention of taking advantage of the 10% off deal at the shop, but queues were prohibitive. Instead we stole a couple of tasting glasses and made our merry way.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Canton Arms

177 South Lambeth Road, London. £15pp not including drinks.

We were unlikely quartet of diners in the Canton Arms that evening:

A Russian of my acquaintance (crazy in a good way), a young Irish girl who I currently live with (crazy in both the good and bad ways), myself (crazy, probably in a bad way) and the Russian's American sister (pretends to be crazy to get the meds).

The Russian had flown his sister in from South Carolina the previous week for a party he was hosting, and we had been degenerating since then. I had been feeling unhinged and paranoid for several days, and the Russian's mysterious skin condition had returned spectacularly.

Still, there's no better dining venue in Old London Town than the Canton to bring a comforting, meaty normality back into one's life.

The South Lambeth Road pub re-opened its doors earlier this year under a management team who have had success with a number of other posh pubs in London, and was met with a generous slathering of superlatives in the national press, and immediate enthusiasm from the locals.

We began, as is apparently mandatory, in the bar area with the famed Foie Gras toastie. Now this is a nice idea, an idea described by John Lanchester in The Guardian as 'so epic I can't believe no one thought of it before.' And whilst I am inclined to agree, I would also point out that idealism has been known to numb the senses. And great ideas don't necessarily make great eating.

The particular problem I feel they come up against is the need to butter the outside (for crispness) coupled with a meat filling that is almost exclusively goose fat making for a mouthful so greasy that it tickles the gag reflex.

Through in the dining room (no reservations, but rarely a long wait) we analysed the pithy, meat-driven and very reasonably priced menus and couple of specials to share. Both menus and specials change daily, which offers ample encouragement for repeat visits, but leads to occasional disappointment when certain dishes sell out before the end of the evening. Alack we fell foul of this, when the kitchen proved unable to execute the Russian's epic order: "I'll have the special steak-for-two, for one, as it were."

Undeterred, we finally decided on potted shrimps and Jerusalem Artichoke soup as starters, boiled gammon, whole roast partridge, roast plaice fillet and a strange vegetarian pie-thing involving fennel and Swiss chard as mains. All to be washed down with a selection of ales for the men folk and wine, from a fairly idiosyncratic list, for the women.

The real standouts were the alliterative trio of partridge, plaice and potted shrimps. My plaice was a top quality piece of fish with a deeply savoury crunchy crust on the skin. The American tackled her good-looking partridge with glee, and potted shrimps were well seasoned and served properly, at a warmish room temperature.

Other visits have suggested that any dish involving slow cooking (ox-tail, venison haunch &c.) is likely to be blindingly good, and I once got a plate of veal heart that made me want to hug the chef. It's proper unpretentious cooking, made by people with an interest in eating, and paying great respect to impeccable ingredients.

All this is not to say the place doesn't have it's quirks: The commendably terse menu descriptions, for example, are completely accurate. Your plate will be replete with teeth, eyes and taste but sans pretty much everything else, which means that every dish you order they suggest a side of potatoes or vegetables as well. The food is good value, but you're only getting half a meal, which is a sneaky way of adding an extra few quid on to every order.

It should also be noted that at peak times you will have to wait for a table, and then probably be seated on a table sharing with another party. This is all very well, but it is a method of dining for which etiquette has yet to be fully formed. This leads to people like me who will sit down and immediately take all the other places' napkins and make sure that the single set of salt and pepper pinch pots is firmly ensconced at my end of the table, perhaps pick my nose a bit for good measure.

A friendly, delicious and reassuringly simple meal. Leave your crazy at the door.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Electric House

191 Portobello Road, London £???

We decided upon lunch at the Electric on what was clearly the back-end of a very long and very successful run of excellent decision-making. But before eating it was obvious that we required a hat for the otherwise preposterously dressed CV - a man not entirely equipped to deal with the sartorial rigour demanded by West London. His hat's raisin of debt was not merely to complement my hat, but also to furnish him with an early Christmas present worthy of our longstanding friendship-cum-rivalry, and to secure his safe passage through the members-only doorway of the Electric.

Actually completing the purchase of a hat proved beyond our abilities at the time, although we did make it as far as having one gift-wrapped in All Saints (prior to beating the hastiest of retreats), and also incurred the wrath of a man whose top hats were revealed (by some pretty rigorous testing) to lack the structural integrity implied by their £40 price tag. The aforementioned merchant also accused CV of being drunk, or possibly of being a fully-fledged drunkard - clearly here was a man of great insight & integrity, and he was not to be trifled with.

But I digress, let me set the record straight about how we came to be in Electric House. The name that I used to secure access for CV & myself was not made up, as his insane ramblings below would suggest. The name we used was wilfully purloined, and - in the events that followed - probably also blackened.

Without the hat, gaining entry to Electric House was going require even more derring-do and subterfuge than we had accounted for. There was one brief moment at which the success of the entire venture hung in the balance: the otherwise charming young lady on the door felt compelled to remark upon the fact that I possess considerably shorter hair than the man whose photo popped up when I deployed my stolen name at the appropriate time.

A look of grave terror came over CV's face at the thought of what might become of two plucky adventurers caught in the act of deception, but luckily I was able to employ some quick thinking and skilfully deflected her subtle probing with an oblique reference to the excellence of my hat - we were on our way into the heart of the Forbidden Kingdom!

In reference to CV's review - I concur entirely on the food, and am even willing to defer to him on the wine in this case. I can shed no more light than my companion on the nature of the third dish, but I certainly enjoyed the chicken livers. Electric House, though, is one of those places that you do not really go to for the quality of the food. The atmosphere and the service are what bring in the crowds.

I don't think enough emphasis can be placed on the extent to which our waitress was both charming and long-suffering. Quite how long-suffering is a matter of debate, and one that can probably only be settled with recourse to close-circuit television, or possibly police reports. In any case, she was lovely, if not quite as disposed to furnish me with her number as I had hoped.

The Electric Brasserie downstairs offers more of the same, and more importantly has the advantage of being open to non-members. If you are not of a brazen disposition, and prefer your dining experiences to come sans outlandish acts of deception or forced entry, this may be the option for you.

The menu is near-identical to that in the club, the food every bit as consistent, and the service just as friendly. They are also blessed with the prettiest pair of hostesses that you are ever likely to come across. They certainly aren't knockout, Eastern-European-hooker beautiful like the hostesses at the superb Japanese restaurants that abound in Mayfair and Knightsbridge, but their general encouraging friendliness really does lift the mood in the inevitable 10 - 20 minute queue for a table.

All in all a successfully executed dining operation. The front of house staff may have gently prodded us in the direction of the door as a result of various aspects of my conduct, but they did so the most cordial manner possible, and I have no doubt we would be welcomed with open arms should we choose to venture there again.

Highly recommended.


Electric House

191 Portobello Road, London. £???

Disclaimer – At the very best the objectivity of this review should be doubted. What we ate, drank, and indeed whether we were actually there at all are all matters of some debate.

First of all it should be noted that Electric House is a private club, part of the Soho House Group, with sister venues in such retro-glamourous locations as New York and Berlin. This particular establishment was less salubriously located behind an unmarked door on Portobello Road, though within convenient reeling distance of a Sam Smith's pub.

In theory one should be a creative new-media type on an informal networking lunch and a paid-up member of the Group in order to gain entry, so what follows will probably be of little use to anybody bored enough to continue. However this is, in fact, no barrier to lunch, assuming you are a tenacious sort. Put on a good hat, storm in, hastily scribble a made up name and signature and run upstairs to the bar for some Espresso Martinis. Which is what we did.

The restaurant was curiously busy for a Friday afternoon, but TOD was quick to mark out territory by shouting loudly about an important call he was expecting and forcing a frankly scared-looking barman to look after his phone.

Once it had become apparent that we weren’t leaving, we were seated in good time having polished off our aperitifs at the bar.

The menu has a fair breadth of starters, mains and various bar snack type things, three of which we ordered; chicken livers on toast, fishcakes, and something else.

TOD also plumped for a bottle of Meursault, as part of an ongoing campaign to drag me through his inexplicable fondness for white Burgundy. There may have been some bread and/ or olives involved at some point before our charming and long-suffering waitress brought the food.

The livers were mouth-fillingly rich and rather tasty, the fishcakes unmistakably that and served with a white dip which I recall quite liking. It was doubtless Tartare, or some variant thereof, but in the interest of journalistic integrity all I can say with absolute certainty is that it was white.

I don’t imagine the third plate was much cop as neither of us have any recollection of it whatsoever above the fact that it existed. The wine was jadingly typical, 'though not, if I recall, subjected to a horrific mark-up.

We enjoyed coffees, and I whiled away pleasant half hour watching TOD on a concerted but predictably fruitless mission to extract our waitress' phone number. As he began to lapse in and out of consciousness it became clear that it was time to make a move. Unburdened by the credit card we had left at the bar, we made a fleet-footed escape.

If all this sounds a little damning-with-faint-praise, let me assure you that Electric House is actually a superlative eating experience. The food is good, the ambience buzzy and pleasant and the staff met behaviour that must have pushed the limits of credulity with an heroic stoicism.

*If anyone from Electric House ever happens to come across this review, please feel free to contact me with any revisions or clarifications you may have. Especially if you know what the third dish was.*