Monday, 2 January 2012

Negotiating the wine list at Angelus

Ordering a bottle of wine from a Bible-thick list can turn the coolest of customers into quivering wrecks. But help is at hand in the form of Thierry Tomasin, the ebullient, irreverent and unmistakably French owner of Angelus restaurant, a hidden jewel in a quiet corner of Lancaster Gate next to the Hyde Park stables. With 12 years as head sommelier at two Michelin-starred Le Gavroche under his belt, followed by a stint at Gordon Ramsay's Aubergine in Kensington, Tomasin is well versed in the language of wine.

Feeling charitable, he's decided to impart his pearls of wisdom on uninitiated ears, and is offering a masterclass on the complex art of negotiating a wine list at Angelus next Tuesday – a week ahead of Valentine’s Day. A fortnight ago, I was invited to be one of Tomasin's guinea pigs in a practice run before the main event. The evening began in a suitably civilised fashion with a glass of house Champagne Angelium – a tart 100% Pinot Noir, in the gunmetal grey drawing room festooned with inviting velvet chaise longues and bookcases lined with empty trophy bottles of Cheval Blanc and Chapoutier.

Moving downstairs to the chandelier-lit dining room in the cellars, Tomasin, dressed in a purple shirt and silver tie, launches into an impassioned monologue: "So many people are intimidated by wine, especially when they're presented with a list the size of an encyclopedia. But wine should be fun. That's what it's all about,” he insists. Presented with our starter – sashimi-like strips of marinated salmon with triangles of grapefruit and tangerine amid a crème fraìche and caviar garden, and an accompanying glass of aromatic, white flower and peach-filled Domaine Coste Viognier Grenache 2010, Tomasin stresses the importance of doing your homework by calling ahead or looking at the restaurant’s wine list online, so it already looks familiar when the sommelier thrusts the heaving tome into your sweaty palms.

As the nuggets of truth flow freely from Tomasin's lips, it all begins to feel very School for Scoundrels, with Thierry playing a French version of gap-toothed cad about town Terry Thomas. "Follow these simple rules gentleman, and you're guaranteed not to go home empty handed: engage the sommelier, but don't get too deep into conversation. Create a relationship but don't go too far," - quite. As the well rehearsed raconteur continues, our main appears: perfectly pink slices of Gressingham duck breast with garlic potato puree and Bayonne ham wrapped around lithe green beans. To match is a glass of the indecently affordable and delicious Château Civrac 2007 from the Côtes de Bourg.

Seductions school resumes with Tomasin describing sommeliers as "salesmen of pleasure" and suggesting that you can tell a lot about a woman's taste in wine by her taste in coffee. "Double espresso girls are likely to enjoy gutsy reds, while latte ladies will probably prefer a light white,” he offers. Debunking the myth that perfect food and wine matches exist, he calls for creativity – Sherry and soup anyone? Tomasin's approach to food pairing is unashamedly relaxed. He's a firm believer of picking a wine to suit your mood, rather than rigidly trying to marry the flavours on your plate with the aromas in your glass. To finish, Angelium NV makes a welcome reappearance, and is served with an achingly pretty rhubarb millefeuille, its lightly seared top recalling bonfire-toasted marshmallows.

As the petit fours do the rounds, Thierry tells us excitedly about his secret "love dictionary" – a guest book filled with musings from oft intoxicated diners. One of the entries from a female admirer involves melted chocolate and a desire to spread it. Moving swiftly on, he reminisces, almost wistfully, about his Le Gavroche days, and serving the Queen double G&Ts in the private dining room upstairs. “Her handbag was microscopic – barely big enough to house a lipstick,” he quips. If you want the Madonna anecdote, you'll have to book a spot at the dinner. Places are priced at £75 per person, which includes three courses and wines chosen by the scoundrel himself.

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