Wednesday, 23 March 2011


Wine and the City chats to Sam Galsworthy, co-founder of the Sipsmith gin and vodka distillery in Hammersmith, about being the first new distillery in London for 200 years, the secret to making flavoursome gin, and celebrating copper pot still Prudence's 2nd birthday.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Salon '99 launched with fish 'n' chips

Salon is one of those mythical wines like Pétrus and Yquem that you usually only ever hear about other people drinking. But I got lucky last week. My editor was unable to attend the launch lunch for Salon '99, so I gallantly stepped in in his place.

Rather than a swanky, seven-course do, Corney & Barrow rather stylishly opted to host the lunch at trendy fish 'n' chip restaurant Geales in Notting Hill. I'd often heard about the brilliance of Champagne and fish 'n' chips – The Wine Society staff swear by the ritual every Friday, so was keen to try the pairing out for size.

Based in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, known for its chalk-rich soils, Salon, made from a single cru and a single grape; Chardonnay, is only released in exceptional years – just 37 vintages have been released since it was founded in 1905. The Blanc de Blancs spends 10 years ageing on the lees before disgorgment.

Salon president, the dapper, debonair Didier Depond*, introduced the wine, quipping that it was the first time he'd ever tried Salon with fish 'n' chips: “1999 was an exceptional vintage, and the resulting wine is naturally sophisticated and rich in flavour, but it’s difficult to judge its character at the moment, as it’s still only a teenager." Having already compared 1997 to Audrey Hepburn for its femininity and grace, I push Depond for a '99 comparison. "It would be a pretty boy actor, like Brad Pitt. It’s unmistakably masculine, but also beautiful and elegant."

Bottled in 2000, the '99 vintage will be disgorged in batches of 2,000 every six months. Only 50,000 bottles will be produced. Vinification is entirely in stainless steel, and there is no malolactic fermentation. The dosage is a bone-dry five grams per litre of residual sugar.

Speaking with Depond, he tells me Salon is becoming more and more of a collectors' item, and is enjoying considerable success at auction. "People are going mad for the magnums, because it’s the best size for ageing Champagne, and we only release a very small amount of them. The older vintages are selling at crazy levels in Hong Kong, London and Paris.” Salon jumped 20 places from 46 to 26 in the Liv-ex Power 100 chart last year, coming in just two places behind Krug.

So what of the combination? I thought it worked incredibly well with the battered haddock, cutting through the fat with its zesty freshness. Pale gold in colour, with small, ebullient bubbles, it had an intense citrus nose, almost like lemon drops, with accompanying notes of white flower, white fruit, and bitter almond. Light and refreshing and yet steely and direct on the palate, it had youthful lift, assured elegance and underlying purity. Contrary to Depond, I found it feminine, fragrant and perfumed – perhaps more of a Grace Kelly than a Brad Pitt.

A half case of Salon 1999 will be available through Corney & Barrow for £950 from mid-May.

*Picture of Didier Depond courtesy of Jamie Goode

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bompas & Parr pancake magic at Harvey Nichols

Culinary alchemists Bompas & Parr unveiled their latest set of tricks at Harvey Nichols last week, celebrating Shrove Tuesday in style with an evening of pancake-flipping frippery at the 5th floor restaurant. The event, in collaboration with Lyle's Golden Syrup, kicked off with a pear Bellini, which, when stirred with a magic swizzle stick, turned purple.

While enjoying my now grape-tinged Bellini, I'm ushered to my seat. The restaurant is packed with expectant spectators. At the crashing of a cymbal, Bompas & Parr appear, handsomely dressed in black tailcoats and white bow ties. Overflowing with energy, the boys explain their aim for the evening – to woo and wow us with their magic skills – then quickly launch into their first act: electrocuting a gherkin. Bompas stabs electrodes into the gherkin while Parr mans the mains. It sparks a little a first, but doesn't create the fireball they were hoping for. The second attempt proves more fruitful – the gherkin lights up like an engorged glow-worm, and leaps into the air from the 240-volt shock.

Having made the humble gherkin magnificent, there is a two-course interlude in which to get down to the serious business of eating. The paper-thin discs of beef carpaccio served beneath a rocket and parmesan salad are delectable, as is the hearty, silver-skinned sea bass piled high atop a new potato throne, though I was slightly disappointed at how un-magical the food was, given the theme of the evening. I'd rather hoped for something more ludic and Heston-like, or at least a sprinkling of popping candy here and there.

Before our magical pancake pudding, the boys reappear. Bompas is holding a huge black goblet filled with moonshine. He passes it round the restaurant, asking everyone to take a sip. When it gets to me, I stick my head in. It's the most intoxicating smell I've ever experienced – like pure ethanol mixed with nail polish remover, making me instantly light-headed. My lungs object to the onslaught and I begin to cough. Soldiering on, I take a sip. It's lethal. A few more and I'd be on the floor. The salty aftertaste leaves me craving for something sweet.

For their next trick Bompas leaps inside a black box, while Parr attempts to make liquid nitrogen ice cream on Sam's stomach. He cracks a few eggs, pours some cream down a test tube, fills the black box with nitrogen, then proceeds to saw Sam in half to the sound of the Top Gun soundtrack. Having been put back together, Sam emerges, Humpty Dumpty-like, covered in egg. "Some things are best left across the road", Parr quips, in reference to Heston Blumenthal's runaway success Dinner at the neighbouring Mandarin Oriental hotel.

After a quick outfit change, the boys have two more tricks up their sleeves before pudding. Having traced the enzymes that make fire flies glow, they show us the enzymes in action, making the clear liquid inside a medicine bottle glow turquoise for a few glorious minutes. For their final flourish, they blow up a tin of Golden Syrup, causing a bang so loud my ears nearly bleed. The violence of the explosion is offset by the beauty of the resulting Time Square-style ticker tape shower.

Finally, it's time for pudding. We're presented with a pair of pancakes, upon which is a silver spoon. Upon the spoon is a red pill made from the miracle berry – a small red fruit grown in Africa. Along with the pill is a note, stating: "In 257 years of production, there have been no known side effects, but please take the pill at your own risk." Always keen to push culinary boundaries, I can't wait to try it. Sucking the pill blocks your bitter receptors, causing sour foods to appear sweet.

I give mine a good go, sucking it almost into non existence, and then, having doused my pancake with lashings of lemon juice, take a bite. It has worked. The sharp sensation has been replaced with an overriding sweetness. Still unconvinced, I chomp on a wedge of lemon, expecting to wince, but it's perfectly sweet. My tastebuds have been hypnotized into thinking sour things sweet. I'm seriously impressed, if a little concerned that my sour receptors may never return. How clever to have tricked my tongue. Alas, I didn't go home with one of the 10 food and magic kits the boys were giving away, but I did bag a box of Golden Syrup chewing gum, which tasted of childhood.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Bompas & Parr pancake magic

Culinary magicians Bompas & Parr celebrated pancake day in their typically quirky style by electrocuting a gherkin in the Harvey Nichols food court as part of their pancake magic event. Don't try this at home...

Wednesday, 9 March 2011


Having only been open a mere three months, Cocochan, the new pan-Asian kid on the block, is already being compared to modern Chinese heavyweight Hakkasan a few tosses of the wok away. Walking into the dimly lit venue just off Oxford Street (my bright white featured photo is somewhat misleading), the comparisons soon become clear. From the deep purple lighting and metallic, mirrored latticework, to the carved wood partitions and black bamboo tables, Cocochan is highly stylized, but manages to pull the look off with modish insouciance.

The names Cocochan and Hakkasan are remarkably similar in their three-syllable, trip off the tongue, ending in 'n' playfulness. They even rhyme. But enough of the comparisons, for Cocochan does more than ape its role model, it succeeds as a destination venue in its own right. The chefs here champion the sous-vide technique, where food is slow cooked in a vacuum pack to ensure consistency and retain vitamins.

The menu is formed around the three 'cultures' of Asian food – southwest (Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Burmese) with its focus on spices, northeast (Chinese, Korean and Japanese) famed for its frying fetish, and the aromatically influenced southeast (Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Malaysian). Divided into sections, such as 'small dishes', 'dim sum', 'large dishes' and 'sides', the menu allows you to choose between Asian-style sharing or British plate hogging. I'd strongly advocate the former – it makes for an exciting dining experience; a tastebud tour of Asia and all its flavour nuance.

My journey begins with cocktails in the basement bar that seems somewhat disjointed from the restaurant above. While Moorish music blares from the speakers, I sip on a Scarlet Club – a mixture of Beefeater gin, Galliano, lemon sherbet, raspberry syrup and egg white. The colour of a pinched cheek and garnished with an edible pansy, it's satisfyingly sharp, and has a pleasingly creamy texture from the egg white. Before making my way back upstairs, I find time for a second, opting for the intriguingly-titled and dangerously strong Secret Garden, made with Plymouth gin, Cachaça, apple brandy and grenadine.

Craving nourishment, my dining companions and I take our seats upstairs, among the quiff-sporting fashionistas and bespectacled media types. Preferring the small plates concept, which so many London restaurants have successfully adopted, our dishes are brought out individually, and considerately come in threes, meaning less squabbling and more gobbling. Our feast begins with piping hot edamame, and quickly moves on to an innovative take on sesame prawn toast (£4.25). The size of a snooker ball, they are perfectly round and flecked with poppy seeds. Designed to be dipped in the accompanying sweet chili sauce, their spherical shape renders the journey from plate to mouth problematic, but the flavour rewards are worth the effort.

Our taste tour of Asia continues, amidst glasses of steely, lime-laced Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner, with crispy duck spring rolls (£5.25), thick as a Cohiba and enhanced by the salty hoisin, glutenous chicken and chestnut gyoza (£4.25) served in a spicy broth, and pleasingly fishy scallop and prawn siu mai (£4.75) topped with jewel-like orange caviar. The crab-fueled California maki (£7.75) and salmon sashimi (£4.25) are textbook, while five paper-thin slithers of hamachi (£8.75) sprinkled with emerald green flying fish roe and laced with truffle soya mirin are too tiny to merit their price tag.

Main events include well judged, juicy tiger prawn tempura with spicy mayo (£8.50), and an outstanding aromatic duck and watermelon salad (£7.75). Ablaze with red and green, the juicy duck, cooling watermelon and mint, and salty hoisin and cashews create a flavour crescendo. We finish on a high note with a Korean dish: 'bulgogi' ribeye in a wasabi jus (£18.50). Meaning 'fire meat', our version, served medium rare, is perfectly pink, packed with meaty flavour and wonderfully soft – an ideal match for our opulent Opportunist Shiraz. Pudding comes in the form of an almost airborne pomegranate crème Brûlée, served with a pair of windmill-like peanut brittle sails.

Cocochan certainly seems to have been modelled in Hakkasan's image, but this is no bad thing. The service is impeccable, food almost faultless, and most pleasing of all, the prices are incredibly fair for its central London location. Hakkasan may be the pan-Asian king, but this princely pretender is a deserved heir to the throne.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Tequila tasting at Wahaca Soho

My second encounter with Tequila came when I was invited to be part of a tasting panel tasked with selecting the shortlist of Tequilas for recently-opened Wahaca Soho's Tequila bar. Based in the basement of the cavernous space, the bar has a beach hut feel to it, from the bright blue walls to the pod-like wicker hanging chairs. Joining me on the panel were fellow Tequila nuts Alice Lascelles and Clint Cawood from Imbibe magazine, and beer buff Ben McFarland and partner in wine (and spirits) Tom Sandham. Before we get stuck into the plethora of Tequilas waiting expectantly on the adjacent table, we are given a strip of Blue Agave to suck on. Tasting it in its raw form, it has a wonderful malt loaf and molasses nose, like an earthy Pedro Ximenez.

Tequila is made from the agave plant, which is not a cactus as is widely (and wrongly) thought. There are over 200 varieties of agave in Mexico, but only Blue Agave is used in the production of Tequila. A beautiful turquoise colour, the plants are cut and left to steam in a brick oven for a day-and-a-half to help increase their sugar content. The juice is then squeezed out and placed in fermentation vats, where yeast is added. The spirit is double distilled before bottling, or, in the case of the Reposados and Añejos, barrel ageing.

Like wine, flavour is obtained from the oak barrels and differs depending on the amount of time spent in cask, with French oak imparting a chocolate aftertaste and American oak offering vanilla sweetness – old Bourbon barrels are becoming increasingly popular as they offer attractive smokey aromas associated with whisky. Of the 11 Tequilas we try, price isn't always indicative of quality. A large number of brands seem to be jumping on the Grey Goose bandwagon, packaging their premium Tequilas in bling bottles that wouldn't look out of place on a dressing table and charging their club-hopping customers three times the price for the privilege. Even Justin Timberlake has gotten in on the act, with his 901 brand.

Luckily for Wahaca, the panel is almost always in agreement about the top two Tequilas of each flight. The best examples are smooth and soft on the palate, with complex aromas of herbs, woody spices, vanilla, caramel and honey. Los Abuelos, meaning 'the grandfathers', stole the show. Smooth, creamy and rich, it had an elegant, alluring nose of vanilla, caramel and honey, and a lingering length that left us all craving for more of its molasses-tinged sweetness.

Unfortunately, Abuelos isn't available anywhere in the UK yet – the bottle we tried had been snuck through customs by Wahaca owner Thomasina Miers. But hopefully, with the revamping of Wachaca's Tequila list, London will soon be able to enjoy this exemplary Tequila, one of a select few spearheading the quality revolution in Mexico.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Tom Parker Bowles bacchanalia lunch at Blacks

Tequila is having a moment. Once the preserve of the Aztecs, who used to drink it an a digestif, the spirit fell spectacularly from grace, and until recently was more readily associated with cowboys, bandits and stag weekends than discerning drinkers. But with ultra premium brands like Patrón now on the market, Tequila has got the makeover it desperately deserves, and is not only cool again, but the fastest growing spirits category in the UK.

To toast Tequila's newfound success, I was invited to attend a Mexican-themed bacchanalian lunch whipped up by Tom Parker Bowles and Alberto Figueroa at Soho institution Blacks members club. Reached by descending a black steel staircase, the 18th century Georgian townhouse is modeled on the dining club created in the same spot 300 years prior by writer Samuel Johnson and painter Joshua Reynolds. Quintessentially English, Blacks is furnished with roaring fires, creaky wooden floorboards, powder blue walls, painted ladies, fraying armchairs and the odd ghost or two.

Taking my place by the roaring fire, a welcome Margarita is thrust in my hand. Noticing it contains no ice, I sheepishly ask the barman for a few cubes, to dilute the super strong concoction. Gesticulating wildly to my left is flame-haired one time Kenny Everett sidekick turned Tequila ambassador Cleo Rocos, who is so potty about the drink, she founded The Tequila Society to promote Tequila in the UK. To my right are Guardian food writer Matthew Fort and MasterChef winner and Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers, sporting a perfectly round bump.

Rescued from the fire before I begin to melt, we are ushered upstairs and asked to take our seats among the school-like wooden bench. On my table is Zeren Wilson of Bitten and Written fame, boy about town Ben Norum and Scotch eggspert David Constable. Foodie banter soon ensues. Having just been asked to be a food critic for the erotic review, Constable whips out his black notebook and begins writing sordid descriptions of our citrusy sea bream ceviche and crunchy tostadas served with lashings of luscious guacamole.

We all get in on the act and take to reading our lewd passages aloud. In need of slaking after our literary endeavours, we crack open a biodynamic Cortese from Piedmont producer Valli Unite. Golden in colour, it has a mineral core and a green fruited nose of apple and pear. After scandalously simple and pleasingly cheesy quesadillas, we move onto the main event, 'Drunken Lamb' – made tipsy by its beer marinade – served with fluffy tortillas and juicy black beans, and silky slow roast pork with Seville orange wrapped in banana leaves.

The highlight of the feast is raspberry red hibiscus and Tequila sorbet served in a modest glass goblet. Fresh, fruity and fun, the forest fruit flavours are lifted by the Tequila kick. Whilst savouring the sorbet, Tom PB emerges in a besmirched Tabasco apron and grey T-shirt. Humble as pie, he immediately defaults to thanking Figueroa, then scurries back downstairs. Catching up with him after the meal, I ask whether it's possible to do a quick video interview, but he concedes to having had one too many Tequilas to be sufficiently coherent for the camera. Disappointed, I ask him what he thinks should be served at the forthcoming royal wedding. "Cottage pie!" he exclaims. "I had it at my wedding and it's the ideal dish to serve to hundreds of people: it's simple, full of flavour and unmistakably British."

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Robert Joseph interview

Wine and the City talks to wine writer Robert Joseph at The Drinks Business' annual conference, about the so-called 'new consumer', the UK's yo-yo discounting trend, and why premium wine should stay in heavy bottles.