Sunday, 30 October 2011

Cortina at Cantina

The clocks have gone back and the nights are drawing in. With winter upon us, it may feel tempting to hibernate under your duvet until spring, but the thoughtful people at Cantina del Ponte are determined to keep us partying through the chilly season by bringing the glamour and fun of Italy's chicest ski resort – Cortina d'Ampezzo, to London.

Nicknamed the celebrities living room, the Queen of the Dolomites has long been popular with the Italian glitterati, and became something of a celeb hangout in the '60s, with Hollywood starlets Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Brigitte Bardot all taking to the slopes. Riverside restaurant Cantina del Ponte has built its own wooden ski shack (minus the chalet girls) – Cortina at Cantina, serving up hot chocolate, warm Mojitos and hazelnut Martinis. For those fond of fondu, try the Bagna Cauda, a traditional Piedmontese dish of seasonal vegetables dipped into a deliciously moreish hot anchovy and garlic sauce.

If the biting breeze becomes unbearable, you can always nip inside for a nibble in the main restaurant, which serves up authentic Italian fare. Highlights include beef carpaccio, wild boar ragu and an Italian cheese plate with a side of heavenly white truffle honey. You may not be able to hit the slopes, but for that après ski feeling without having to leave the city, Cortina is a must.

Cortina at Cantina is open until 17 November. Moon boots optional.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


Wine and the City tries two sensational wines at Roda in Rioja – Roda I Reserva 2006 and the near-mythical Cirsion 2007, made from 100% old vine Tempranillo, with Lottie West from Wines From Rioja. Roda also makes a pair of delicious extra virgin olive oils and recently released two wines from Ribera del Duero under the Corimbo label.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Marqués de Murrieta

Wine and the City tastes two stunning wines at historic bodega Marqués de Murrieta in Rioja – Capellanía Reserva 2006, a complex old vine Viura with immense ageing potential, and Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva 2004, a classic Rioja combining red fruit with cedar aromas.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011


I’m running late for Ben Spalding – literally, running down Blandford Street in Marylebone hoping to catch the head chef before service. It’s 6.15 on a Tuesday evening and a pair of hungry Americans are already perched in Roganic’s compact, 25-seater space lined with lugubrious abstract expressionist paintings, waiting to be fed. Spotting Spalding on entry, I corner the charismatic 24-year-old before he disappears downstairs. Decked out in chef whites, his rolled up sleeves reveal arms heavily inked with tattoos. Musical notes and red and blue jigsaw pieces climb up each limb, alongside the name Tilda (his baby daughter), and the phrase ‘keep your feet on earth but your head in the clouds,’ – “As a chef, you spend so many hours in the kitchen, it’s important to be able to dream a little bit, otherwise you go crazy,” Spalding tells me. His speech is fast and furious, his words spat out like bullets. The world it seems, doesn’t move fast enough for him.

While most pop-ups have the lifespan of a dragonfly, Roganic is stretching the definition with a two-year venture. The brainchild of Simon Rogan, of Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cumbria, Roganic (a hybrid of Rogan and organic), prides itself on locally sourced (preferably foraged), seasonal organic ingredients. Manning the mothership in Cumbria, Rogan has handed over the reins to the energetic and fiercely creative Spalding. In the absence of an à la carte, diners can opt for a six- or 10-course tasting menu, with a vegetarian option available in both formats. The championing of British produce begins as soon as I sit down, when a glass of salmon pink Chapel Down Brut Rosé NV is opened and poured by the restaurant’s affable 23-year-old manager Jonathon Cannon. Team Roganic is scandalously young and ridiculously clued-up about the minutiae of the courses. With the theatrical arrival of each new dish comes an exhaustive explanation of the origins of every last ingredient.

In front of me lies a solitary black pebble, foraged by Spalding from a beach in Folkstone. Pondering the philosophical significance of the stone, I become privy to its purpose when a waiter arrives wielding a knife and slathers it in sea salt-flecked, well-whipped butter to be spread on an array of freshly baked spherical bread, including buttermilk, spelt and pumpernickel, all with warm, fluffy interiors. The first step of our edible journey begins with an amuse-bouche of squid ink paper with lind seeds, aioli and cucumber foam, accessorised with an edible purple pansy. It is a thing of beauty, and too pretty to put in my mouth, but when I do I’m rewarded with an explosion of flavour and texture, from the crunchy black paper, to the creamy foam and silky flower. This is the laying down of the gauntlet; a glimpse of the culinary peacockery Spalding is capable of, which perfectly sets the tone for the dishes ahead.

To describe all 10, (15 if you account for amuse-bouches and palate cleansers), would be to fill a book, so I’ll stick to the highlights. Our first dish: heirloom tomato, poached lamb tongue and dill custard is as curious as it is delicious. The playful preoccupation with texture is a thread weaved throughout each course. Multi-layered and deconstructed, the dish is of such complexity, it feels like the culinary equivalent of Inception. Strangely, the overriding flavour is of the warm, salty gherkins you encounter in a McDonald’s cheeseburger, despite the dish being gherkin free. It’s a very specific and nostalgic taste; the taste of childhood. Dish three: smoked Cornish ling, arrives dramatically in a Plath-esque bell jar billowing with smoke. Protected by a crab apple shield, the ling is nestled in a bed of crispy onion slithers that lend the ensemble an enticing smoky edge.

Mention must be made of the wine. Throughout the five-hour epic, we are offered seven glasses from any array of regions, including Washington, Santorini, Campania and Wagram. To my disappointment, my glass remained empty on a number of occasions, our switched-on sommelier Sandia Chang (previously of Per Se) pouring frugal measures rather than full glasses. With a £50 supplement for wine, I was hoping my cup would runneth over. And we didn’t see red until dish nine – a haunting Alto Adige Lagrein brimming with cherries, rose petals and tealeaves – having been inundated with cool climate whites. Food is very much the star of the show at Rognic, with wine happy to play a reliable if uninspiring supporting role.

Back to the main event – dish five: pig and smoked eel comprises two square croquettes amid a tweezer-shaped swoosh of canary yellow pickled corn dotted with mustard seeds that detonate gently on the palate. The sugar cube-shaped squares burst with flavour on biting, displaying the smoky bacon character of Frazzles. Has Spalding been let loose with the monosodium glutamate? Mixing the forest and the sea in dish six: grilled langoustine, purple sprouting broccoli and loganberry oil, is the only miss of the evening – the subtle flavour of the crustacean overpowered by the sweet berries. But the broccoli is the best I’ve ever tasted, expertly timed to give it a satisfying crunch.

Meat makes a cameo appearance in dish nine, in the form of a perfectly pink cut of Cumbrian veal cooked in buttermilk. Soft as a pillow, it melts in the mouth. We are then treated to a septet of British cheeses, lovingly cut by our a walking encyclopedia of a waiter, including the nettle-wrapped Cornish Yarg and intensely tangy Harbourne Blue, enhanced by miniature poached pears. In preparation for the final furlong; a trio of desserts, our palates are cleansed with a vivifying ginger beer granita. Soldiering on, we munch our way through the textured trilogy, the highlight being a scoop of frozen natural yoghurt set beneath a dried caramel roof. Completing the homage to childhood flavours, the bilberries recall blackcurrant Fruit Pastilles.

At £80 for 10 courses, with a £50 supplement for wine, Roganic isn’t cheap, but it’s a destination restaurant. A night in its clutches is as entertaining, awe-inspiring and surprising as a night at the opera. Dish after dish, Spalding delights with his exquisite presentation, playful flavour combinations and deftly cooked ingredients. To send out hundreds of equally beautiful plates a night is testament to his exacting standards. These are more than dishes; they’re edible works of art to be deliberated over then devoured. It will be fascinating to see what this wild child does next.

Roganic, 19, Blandford St, London W1U 3DH

Tel: +44(0)20 7486 0380

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Bodegas Baigorri

Wine and the City tries two delicious wines at the cutting edge Bodegas Baigorri in Rioja – Baigorri Reserva 2007, which scooped the best Rioja gong at the New Wave Spanish Wine Awards, and the signature Baigorri de Garage 2007, with Lottie West from Wines From Rioja.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Fleeting eateries: pop-up restaurants

When Michelin star-spangled American chef Thomas Keller announced he was to launch a pop-up version of his landmark Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry in a section of Harrods’ Georgian Restaurant for ten days in October and charge customers £250 a head for a seat, British gastronomes wept with both joy and despair. That such an acclaimed chef would set up shop on our shores is testament to the strength of Britain’s burgeoning pop-up scene, but his £250 price tag rendered the experience attainable only to the super rich. In the most ambitious project to hit London’s temporary dining scene, the 70-cover Californian institution, lauded as America’s best restaurant, will be faithfully replicated in the luxury department store, with Keller offering a nine course tasting menu for those lucky enough to land a reservation. “Pop-ups are a lot of fun, but they’re usually done in less than pristine environments and are almost like the thief of the night,” Keller says. “It’s an enormous amount of work, but what’s better than combining The French Laundry with an iconic property with world-class appeal?”

The project came into fruition after Harrods approached the Yountville-based chef last spring. “The energy, excitement and commitment behind this project is extraordinary and sets another benchmark for what a pop-up restaurant can be,” Keller enthuses. Wine, which will conveniently come from the expansive Harrods wine department rather than being outsourced, will be “integral” to the pop-up, with 1,500 bins on offer ranging from £50 to an eye-watering £16,000. Making a cameo on the list will be Modicum, The French Laundry’s own, small production Napa Cabernet, while Michel Couvreux of Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se will be on sommelier duty, tailoring recommendations to suit guests’ individual tastes.

Reaction to the project has been mixed. Such was the outrage on Twitter that Keller was charging £250 for the chance of a London French Laundry experience, that food blogger Sabrina Ghayour decided to create a spin-off, cheekily titled The French Laundrette, and charge only £2.50 a head – 1% of Keller’s asking price, for a seven course tasting menu. Drawing inspiration from Keller’s signature dishes, the supper club will open for one night only – Sunday 2 October, at The Chancery restaurant in the City of London, with all donations going to Action Against Hunger. Ghayour launched the event via Twitter, highlighting the importance of the social media site not only for the survival of pop-ups, but also the creation of them. “Twitter is massively important,” says Ghayour. “It allows you to strike up relationships and network with like-minded bloggers. What started off as a joke soon went viral, and I had food and wine suppliers offering to help out, so decided to go for it.”

Social media savvy Naked Wines saw Sabrina’s tweet and quickly got in touch, offering to supply all the wines she needed for free. “It sounded like a really good idea,” says Naked’s Derek Hardy. “We liked that it was for charity and thought Keller’s asking price was extortionate, so we wanted to get behind it.” Diners can opt for a flight of wines to match each dish, or play it safe with a bottle of house red or white. On going to press, the wines had yet to be finalised, but they will all be from lesser-known, independent producers from France, New Zealand, Italy and Spain. “Wine will be pivotal in raising money for charity,” says Ghayour, who has yet to decide how much she will charge for it. Boutique Hammersmith distiller Sipsmith has also stepped in, providing the gin and vodka for the complimentary arrival cocktails. “The French Laundrette shows exactly what social media can do,” says Hardy. “Of course it will be at a cost to us, but we’re a community and we help each other out. It’s a fun project to be involved in. London’s pop-up scene is electric at the moment – there’s so much talent being unearthed.”

While most pop-ups have the lifespan of a dragonfly, Roganic in London’s Marylebone is stretching the definition with a two year venture. The brainchild of Simon Rogan, of Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cumbria, Roganic prides itself on locally sourced, (preferably foraged), seasonal organic ingredients. Diners can opt for a six or 10 course tasting menu whipped up by ambitious and outspoken 25-year-old chef Ben Spalding, whom Rogan has handed the reins to. The project came about when Rogan was offered the Blandford Street site by an estate agent with two years left to run on the lease. “The quirky underground feel of the space fitted with what we wanted to do. I like the freedom a pop-up brings. It’s not about drapery and expensive lighting; it’s about what goes on the plate.”

Rogan believes Roganic’s focus on vegetables signals the next stage in dining out. “People are moving away from prime cuts, and further and further towards vegetables. We offer a 10 course vegetarian tasting menu but the trick is to use the ingredients in such a way that people don’t even realise there isn’t any meat on the plate.” Wine plays an “incredibly important” role at Roganic, according to Rogan, with around 90 bins priced between £26-129 on offer. The focus is very much on organic and biodynamic natural wines, and the list is heavily weighted towards whites due to the abundance of fish on the menu. “We change the list a lot to keep things fresh,” Rogan says. Isn’t it a bit risky focusing on “natural” wines? “They might be dead in a year or two and stop being interesting to people, but the craze has yet to die down. The industry is forever changing, but that’s the beauty of a pop-up – you’re able to push the boundaries and experiment, and if something doesn’t work, it’s easy to change it.”

The restaurant works with a number of suppliers, including Les Caves de Pyrène, Dudley & de Fleury, Fields Morris & Verdin and grower Champagne specialist Vine Trail, with by the glass offerings from the likes of Chapel Down and Dr. Loosen, and bottles from Domaine Albert Mann and Zind Humbrecht. “If you build good relationships with suppliers, then they come to you,” says manager Jonathon Cannon. “We’re in the fortunate position of being able to choose who we work with. Ideally, you should have at least three suppliers – any less is limiting, but it’s harder with a short term venture,” Cannon admits. Pop-ups set up by established chefs are at an advantage in terms of sourcing wine, as they are able to use the same suppliers as their flagship. Les Caves de Pyrène only agreed to supply Roganic due to its strong relationship with L’Enclume, as sales rep Dario Poddana explains: “Roganic’s manager used to be a client of ours, so we were keen to get involved.” Working with previous clients limits the risk for suppliers, who seem wary of one-off projects. “Roganic wasn’t dangerous for us, as it was essentially an existing account. We’d only do one-offs if we receive cash on delivery, but even then we’d rather avoid it and stick to working with people we know and trust.”

Fiona Cochran, marketing director of Bibendum, which supplied 10 wines for Michelin-starred chef Robert Thompson’s Northwood House pop-up during Cowes week last year, agrees: “We got involved with Robert’s pop-up as a result of supplying his restaurant at The Hamborough Hotel. Events like this don’t provide sustainable sales, but taken on a one-off basis can certainly be profitable.” Would Bibendum consider working with another pop-up? “Certainly,” Cochran says, “But it would all depend on the specific opportunity. It can be a great chance to sell wine to a new customer base. The term “pop-up” has become slightly overplayed, but the best examples, such as The French Laundry, can still pull in the crowds as long as they’re creative and offer an amazing dining experience in an unusual environment.”

The recession has forced restaurateurs to think outside the box, and indeed, the restaurant. Pop-ups give chefs an arena in which to innovate their chef whites off, cut costs and experiment without going bankrupt. A pop-up doesn’t need to lay down foundations, it just needs an element of theatre and spectacle. It doesn’t even need a reputation – just enough hungry people to fuel it. Their evanescent nature is a huge part of the appeal, especially in a city like London, which has become almost unhealthily obsessed with the “new”. “There’s real quality coming from the underground dining scene,” says Rogan. “There will always be a market for fine dining, but the way in which food is served is changing. We’re seeing a movement away from stuffy spaces to top-notch food coming out of casual environments.” Pop-ups are a symbol of our fast moving times. Experiences are becoming more and more ephemeral. We have come to demand a forever changing culinary landscape, and the shoestring budget required for a pop-up allows this to happen. As our culture becomes ever more disposable, so does our dining scene. In today’s fluid times, pop-ups are the only thing malleable enough to be able to keep up to date with the day-to-day.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Legendary French chef Pierre Koffmann got the luxury pop-up ball rolling in 2009 with a month-long pop-up at Selfridges. The former three-Michelin-starred chef patron of La Tante Claire replicated his Royal Hospital Road eatery in a marquee on the roof of the department store for 80 lucky guests a night, marking both his return to cooking and the start of the inaugural London Restaurant Festival. The £75 set menu now appears cheap compared to Keller’s £250ar offering.

East London institution Bistrotheque celebrated the excess and glamour of the ‘80s for five days in July with its “88” pop-up in a soon-to-be-demolished postmodern office building in Canary Wharf. Somewhere between a historical document and a soap opera, the menu featured dishes from the culinary giants of the decade. Mumm provided the bubbles, matching each course with a different Champagne. Guests were ferried to the venue Miami Vice style in a speedboat.

UK art gallery Lazarides, owned by the man who launched Banksy’s career, has joined forces with pioneering pop-up caterers Kofler & Kompanie to create a subterranean restaurant, bar and art gallery in the Old Vic tunnels beneath Waterloo station. Opening on 10 October for two weeks, the Minotaur & Pret A Diner project will see Michelin-starred chefs Nuno Mendes of Viajante and Andreas Caminada from Switzerland’s Schauenstein man the stoves at the pop-up, which coincides with the London Restaurant Festival and Frieze Art Fair.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Neil Dickson: My Passion for Wine

Wine and the City chats to English actor Neil Dickson, most famous for playing Biggles, but more recently appearing in Mad Men, about his love of Californian wine, trips to Bordeaux in the '80s, and quaffing Cheval Blanc 1947 with Julian Sands during the World Cup final.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The hottest cocktail in the world

Ben Norum, editor of Blue Tomato magazine, tackles the fiery Illiana cocktail at Zenna Bar in Soho, claimed to be the world's spiciest cocktail. Named after a mythological Indian dragon, the cocktail comes complete with a waiver form imbibers have to sign, and a fire extinguisher filled with Gin Fizz to assuage the inevitable burn.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Giuliano Morandin, The Dorchester

The affable Giuliano Morandin, longstanding bar manager of The Bar at The Dorchester, tells Wine and the City how he revived the long forgotten "Dorchester of London" cocktail to celebrate the hotel's 80th birthday, by recreating the all-important ingredient – Forbidden Fruit, a pomelo-based liqueur that disappeared with Prohibition.