Wednesday, 30 January 2013

50 Shades sparks interest in Napoleon's sweet elixir

A passing mention of Napoleon’s favourite sweet wine – Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance – in E L James’ novel 50 Shades Darker has sparked unprecedented interest in the South African sweet wine. The 2004 vintage appears in the second novel of the 50 Shades erotic trilogy at a masked ball attended by protagonists, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.

The elixir is enjoyed with the third course at the event, paired with sugared-crusted walnut chiffon candied figs and maple ice cream. According to The Telegraph, restaurants in the US have begun staging Fifty Shades evenings with replica menus. The sweet wine’s cameo has also led to daily requests to try the 2004 vintage at the estate in the Constantia Valley near Cape Town.

"We're asked every day by people coming into our tasting room about the wine appearing in Fifty Shades Darker," managing director Hans Astrom told The Telegraph, adding, "We were surprised to discover that Vin de Constance was featured in the book, but as a result many new people are discovering one of the great wines of the world,” he added.

The Constantia valley is the oldest vineyard region in the Cape with vines first planted in 1685. Napoleon is said to have drunk a bottle of Vin de Constance a day while in exile on the island of St. Helena, and every day in the week leading up to his death. French poet Baudelaire claimed that only the lips of his lover surpassed the “heavenly sweetness” of South Africa's “honey-coloured” Constantia wine.

And in 1811, the golden elixir was prescribed for Jane Austen's heroine Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility for its "healing powers on a disappointed heart.” Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr. of Le Gavroche has even written a cookbook devoted to the wine. "Vin de Constance’s romantic qualities were recognised by Jane Austen, eulogised by Baudelaire and have now been taken to a new level by E L James,” co-owner of the estate, Charles Harman told the DT.

Production of Vin de Constance ceased at the end of the 19th century after a Phylloxera epidemic swept through the Contantia Valley. The sweet wine was revived 30 years ago when the Vin de Constance vineyard was redeveloped. Up to 30,000 bottles of Vin de Constance are produced per year, depending on yields. The wine is now selling as fast as the estate can produce it, at around £35 a bottle in the UK. The 50 Shades trilogy has sold 65 million copies worldwide.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Lutyens Wine Bar

With the carafe set to surge in popularity this year, in keeping with the casual dining and sharing plates trends currently sweeping the capital, I ventured out with my wine-obsessed flatmate one frosty night late last year to try a selection of wines by the glass at Lutyens’ newly relaunched wine bar. Owned by wine loving restaurateur and soft furnishings expert Sir Terence Conran, Lutyens is housed in the former Reuters building on Fleet Street, next to a church built by Sir Christopher Wren a tuppence’s throw from his magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral.

The often stuffy sphere of wine is being forced to keep up with our ever-changing, increasingly impatient times. Ordering a 75cl bottle of wine in a restaurant specialising in small plates seems old fashioned – anachronistic even. Londoners now expect their wine choices to be as varied and flexible as their food options. Enter Lutyens… Boasting over 40 wines by the glass – impressive even by London standards – each wine comes in five different measures: a 75ml or 125ml glass, a 250ml carafe, half bottle or bottle, encouraging experimentation and variety rather than having to commit to a whole bottle.

Ordered by grape variety and split into two key categories: “Young & Exciting” and “Fine & Rare”, the former gives charming and immaculately turned out French sommelier Romain Audrerie the opportunity to showcase expressive, fruit forward, young wines from emerging winemakers and up-and-coming regions that might not get a look-in on a conventional list. The latter meanwhile, is all about the great estates, and the chance to try high-end wines, from Chassagne-Montrachet to Barolo, without having to splash out on a bank-breaking bottle. Audrerie, formerly of the Hotel du Vin group, the Savoy Grill and Brasserie Roux, also offers thematic wine flights for curious imbibers, including one showcasing Old World icons and another rare European grape varieties, along with tutored tastings from 5.30-6.30pm daily.

But man cannot live on wine alone. Playing an important supporting role is a selection of dishes from young Swedish head chef, Henrik Ritzen, who has a penchant for smoking and pickling. Sharing menu space are the likes of charcuterie and cheese platters, oysters, tartines, and small plates such as venison carpaccio, steak tartare, grilled squid and cauliflower soup. Settling into a chocolate brown banquette, I order a glass of 2011 Louro Do Bolo Godello from Valdeorras rising star, Rafael Palacios, brother of Priorat pioneer Alvaro Palacios. Imported into the UK via Spanish wine trumpet blowers Indigo Wines, the subtly oaked wine was delightful in both flavour and texture, with notes of apple and peach wrapped around a mineral core given further complexity by the 70-year-old Godello vines from which it was made.

Romain Audrerie
Our second white, suggested by Audrerie, was a 2010 Pegasus Bay Riesling from New Zealand’s Waipara region in north Canterbury; a heady cocktail of petrol, squeezed lime, pineapple, lemon balm and herbal hints that hid the 14.5% alcohol deviously, and paired well with a Stichelton, pear and walnut salad. 

Moving on to the meat of the matter, we devoured a charcuterie sharing board loaded with earthy venison and pistachio terrine, creamy duck rillettes, salty ham hock and saucisson, washed down with a glass of 2010 Graci Nerello Mascalese from Etna, bright with notes of sour cherry and peonies. For the main event – a rich, comforting dish of crab gnocchi served in an orange Le Creuset dish, Audrerie served us an off-the-menu modern style Barolo redolent with cherries, garriguey herbs and black truffle.

Keeping us sweet, our feast ended with an indulgent spiced apple tart with caramel ice cream, the warm, textured tart contrasting pleasingly with the sweet, cold caramel. Our final wine, 2007 Bentomiz Moscatel de Alejandria from Malaga, charmed with notes of Turkish delight, nectarine and white flowers, offering a sweet, floral and refreshing mouthful. For the urban wine lover, Lutyens’ shiny new wine bar is a must, offering simple, flavour-rich food, enthusiastic and informative service, and an ever-changing by-the-glass selection. Be sure to rock up early though to secure a table, as it’s forever full. 

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Pommery Champagne bar to open in London

The capital is set to get a new Champagne bar boasting London’s largest collection of Pommery. Named after French writer and philosopher Voltaire, who spent three years in exile in London on the order of King Louis XV after insulting a French nobleman, the bar is housed in a grade II listed building in Blackfriars that once served as a bank.
Developed by interior designer Sue Wheldon, who has previously worked with Champneys and the Kempinski hotel group, the bank’s old stone vaults have been converted into a bar dubbed, The Vaults at Voltaire featuring private alcoves decorated in silks and animal prints, each boasting a private waiter.
Opening on Valentine’s Day, Voltaire also has an outdoor cigar terrace leading off from the Champagne bar, featuring silken awnings and outdoor chandeliers. The bar’s Pommery selection ranges from half bottles to a nine-litre Salmanazar and top blend Cuvée Louise, named after Alexandrine Louise Pommery, who took over the Champagne house in 1858 after the death of her husband.

Voltaire will also sell the Pommery POP range, including the famous Union Jack bottle and a bespoke limited edition Voltaire design sold exclusively at the bar. Wine and the City has been promised a sneak preview of the bottle as soon as an image is available. The entire collection will be displayed in a “Pommery Library”, which will form the focal point of the bar.

Voltaire will also offer a Pommery-based cocktail list, which will include The Volt-X – a sharing cocktail for ten. The bar has also partnered with skincare range Temple Spa to launch a quintet of cocktails made with herbs and fruits found in the Temple Spa range, including the “comforting” Repose and the “vivifying” All Talk. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

2013 food and drink trends

Wine and the City looks into its crystal ball to bring you 13 food and drink trends set to tickle your tastebuds in 2013.

1: Ramen

Already big in New York, ramen will continue its charge, building on the momentum provided by Bone Daddies, Tonkotsu and Ittenbari in Soho and Shoryu Ramen at the Japan Centre on Regent Street, as Londoners devour oodles of noodles in 2013.

2: Korean food

Korean cuisine will blow up in 2013 the way Peruvian did in 2012, capitalising on the hype of Psy's Gangnam Style hit, with the roll out of the fresh food focused Bibigo chain. By the end of the year, Londoners will know their bibimbap from their bulgogi.

3: Doughnuts

Homer Simpson’s favourite snack will be the latest sweet treat to get the gourmet treatment, finally knocking the cupcake off its perch. Top chefs like Yottam Ottolenghi and Fergus Henderson have been fuelling sweet-toothed Londoners with churros and a salted caramel version respectively, while Pizza East sells hot cinnamon rings and the Harwood Arms a lemon curd version. Late night revellers will be able to get their sugar fix at Soho Houses's Electric Donuts, offering the likes of bergamot orange and maple bourbon.

4: Chicken

Chicken will be the meat of 2013 – following on from the trend that started last autumn at places like Tramshed in Shoreditch, Chicken Shop in Kentish Town and Wishbone in Brixton, more chicken focused restaurants will emerge, will all styles, from fried to rotisserie getting Londoners clucking with delight. Move over Nandos…

5: A tipping point for beef

Burger and steak restaurants will reach a tipping point. With MASH and STK opening late last year, and Eva Longoria's female friendly SHe steakhouse due to hit our shores soon, Londoners are likely to lose enthusiasm for this meat heavy approach peddled by a plethora of identikit restaurants. It will become a survival of the fittest scenario, with burger joints like the MeatLiquor chain likely to thrive, while others fade into obscurity as we tire of beef encounters. 

6: Pizza

Pizza will become the next gourmet junk food of choice, with more "by the slice" restaurants emerging. 

7: Tea

For 2013, tea will be the new coffee, and will be taken increasingly seriously, with more tea bars emerging, selling vintage and single tree teas. The Rare Tea Lady will be much in demand for events and tastings. HKK (the latest in the Hakkasan group) has already started the tea trolley trend rolling. 

8: Vintage cocktails

Veteran Italian bartender Salvatore Calabrese kicked off a vintage cocktail trend late last year when he broke the record for the world's most expensive cocktail by using, among other things, Cognac from 1788. The Nightjar in Shoreditch quickly followed suit with a value-led approach, launching a vintage spirits list, including 1863 Rye and El Chico rum from the '30s, at deliberately affordable prices. Expect more rare vintage spirits lists to pop up at trendy bars across town, giving a new meaning to Prohibition cocktails. 

9: "No choice" restaurants

“No choice” will become the restaurants of choice as an increasingly dizzying array of choice in all elements of our daily lives leads us to eateries with refreshingly little on the menu. Burger & Lobster and Tramshed spin-offs will no doubt pop up.

10: Aperitivo hour

Inspired by the Milanese tradition, the aperitivo hour will become mainstream in 2013, with Italian restaurants offering free, freshly prepared small plates of antipasti, cured meats, cheeses, crostini and pizzette to those who buy a cocktail at the bar between 6-8pm. Theo Randall, Apero, Aperitivo at Banca, Il Tempo and Market Quarter are currently spearheading the aperitivo hour trend, with the Negroni and Aperol Spirtz the bitters of choice. 

11: The carafe

The carafe will become the wine measure of choice in 2013 – expanding from hip London wine bars and small plates restaurants to more mainstream venues. Smaller than a bottle but larger than a glass, the carafe is ideally suited to after work drinking with friends, when one glass isn't enough but three is too many. By-the-glass offerings will also become more interesting and plentiful in 2013, championed by the likes of Sir Terence Conran's Lutyens Bar & Bistro on Fleet Street. 

12: Affordable glamour

More "affordable glamour" restaurants like Bob Bob Ricard and Brasserie Zedel will emerge that combine beautiful decor and delicious, refined food with affordable prices. They will be characterised by their friendly service and all-day dining. 

13: The death of the main course

And finally… I see no end to the casual dining/no reservations trend just yet, which will gather pace in 2013 and polarise diners. As small plates take over menus, the main course is in danger of becoming an endangered species. Happy munching in 2013 folks!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Top 10 restaurants of 2012

As we bid farewell to 2012 and usher in 2013, it seems like an apt time to revisit my top 10 meals of last year. It was a spectacular year for food that saw the rise of gourmet junk food through joints like Bubbledogs in Fitzrovia and Wishbone in Brixton. Meanwhile, our obsession with burgers led to two new Burger & Lobster sites and the openings of MeatMarket in Covent Garden, Honest Burgers in Soho and Dirty Burger in Highgate, proving the trend is showing no sign of slowing. Londoners also got ravenous for ramen, with Bone Daddies and Tonkotsu in Soho leading the noodle charge. Finally, Nuno Mendes of Viajante's prediction that Peruvian cuisine would make waves in the capital came true in the form of dynamic duo Lima London and Ceviche, with Pisco Sours and mouth-puckering ceviche taking centre stage.

Rather than focusing on new openings, I've rounded up my top 10 meals of 2012. While the majority are in London, two were enjoyed in Champagne and one in Modena in northern Italy. Each earned their place on the list by offering an all-round experience, from the setting and the ambiance to the food, wine and company. While exemplary cooking can be enjoyed in isolation, it is the unique dining experiences of my top 10 that sets them apart. 

10: Davíd Muñoz at Ibérica Canary Wharf

Mohawk-sporting Spanish chef Davíd Muñoz set London alight for one night only at Ibérica Canary Wharf in October, when the restaurant was closed to showcase the experimental food from the young chef''s 2 Michelin-starred restaurant DiverXO in Madrid to a cherry picked group of food writers. From amuse bouche to petit fours, Muñoz's adventurous menu was filled with outrageous flavour combinations, the majority of which he pulled off with aplomb, from a crispy oxtail sandwich with baby eel and japapeños (pictured), to wild boar "civet" of black cod with parsnip and liquorice. Beg, steal or blag your way to a reservation at DiverXO for a ringside seat to the Muñoz magic

9: Bob Bob Ricard

Owned by immaculately attired Russian, Leonid Shutov, Bob Bob Ricard is a restaurant for suffers of Golden Age syndrome. Ushered in by a black cloaked doorman, a night in its clutches is a transcendent experience. Bob Bob's lavish interiors evoke an Edwardian Orient Express carriage, from the plush midnight blue booths complete with pleated lampshades and velvet curtains, to the smoked Venetian mirrors and brass railings – I could dine out on the interiors alone. 

But what of the food, you cry. Portions are small and perfectly formed, from the signature three cheese soufflé  and textured venison tartare to a bath bomb-like exploding Eton mess and divine salted caramel ice cream. BBR is a one off – a flight of fancy back to an age of elegance. 

8: Salt Yard 
Salt Yard makes up a third of Simon Mullins and Sanja Morris’ Spanish restaurant empire, with Dehesa in Oxford Circus and Opera Tavern in Covent Garden completing the trio. On my visit one drizzly Sunday lunchtime, head chef Andrew Clark – a towering figure with a sailor’s beard, heavily inked arms and a smile that stretches to Gibraltar, whipped up an eight-course menu highlighting Andalusia’s rich culinary history, including numerous hat tips to the Moors.
Highlights of the feast included lip-smackingly fresh sea bream ceviche with a scoop of gazpacho sorbet hovering atop the dish like a frozen egg yolk, and soft shell crab with saffron aioli that danced on its black slate atop squid rings, spindly legs splayed. Perhaps the most Moorish of the octet was chargrilled quail with molasses and pomegranate seeds that glinted like rubies. Like Davíd Muñoz, energetic young Clark is one to watch on the Spanish food circuit.

7: Madame Bollinger's house 
In March, I was lucky enough to be invited to Bollinger to take part in the Champagne house's annual vin clairs tasting. During the visit, a small group of us dined at Madame Bollinger's house, which has been kept the same since her death in 1977, from the wild boar heads on the walls (the forests in Champagne are full of them), to her mint green dining room. The food was exquisitely presented and packed with flavour, from red mullet in a creamy sauce to a tart  raspberry mille feuille, all expertly matched to different wines in the Bollinger range, proving that Champagne can be enjoyed throughout a meal. 
The highlight chez Lily Bollinger were two chunks of vintage Comté from cheese maestro Bernard Anthony, France's Comté king. Rich, grainy, creamy and nutty, it proved a sensational match for Bollinger R.D. 1996, the cheese echoing the intense, nutty power of the wine in perhaps the most inspired food and wine match of the year.

6: Viajante

Two of my top 10 meals of 2012 took place on the same day. Dinner at Viajante, Portuguese-born Nuno Mendes’ Michelin-starred restaurant at the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, is an edible journey taking in a kaleidoscope of colours, textures, temperatures and flavours from the safety of your pale blue chair. The softly spoken, raven haired, generously inked, contagiously passionate Mendes has been christened the Heston of Hoxton due to his fondness for molecular techniques.
Hightlights of this 14-course feast (if you count the amuse bouches) were plentiful, but those that stand out most vividly in the mind include a salty and scandalously moreish godal olive soup served as chilled as a Bond Martini – a triumph of style and substance. Potato with yeast meanwhile, attacked the taste buds with razor-thin fatty folds of intensely porcine Ibérico pancetta wrapped gossamer-like around a small potato, while squid with pear caramel and swooshes of squid ink was reminiscent of both Japanese calligraphy and Spanish Surrealist painter Joan Miró. 

To cap off an unforgettable experience, an ice-cold chunk of vanilla and extra virgin olive oil the size of a toffee was presented to me by the magician himself on a white stone. Told to eat it straight away, despite its sub-zero temperature, in the mouth it rewards with an unctuous texture and rich, creamy flavour perfectly marrying sweet and savoury. I can't wait to see what Mendes does next. 

5: Hibiscus
While he may have caused a storm in a saucepan late last year for laying into food blogger James Isherwood for deigning to criticise his food and giving him a 3 out of 5 rating, there is no denying that tempestuous and exuberant French chef Claude Bosi has talent. The only thing that lets his Mayfair restaurant Hibiscus down is its airport lounge decor - a sea of beige and wood panelling, but this is soon to change as the restaurant is currently closed for a makeover.

Bosi's dishes are daring and unapologetic, from yuzu and miso croquettes so addictive, I'm suspicious they might have been laced with crack, to mackerel tartare with a layer of button mushroom cream prettified with edible flowers amid shards of almond sticking out of the top like shark teeth. When eaten together, the result is a rich, creamy and perfumed mouthful given texture by the almond shards. A pleated ravioli stuffed with spring onion and aromatic Kaffir lime served with a buttery, broad bean and mint purée proved equally intriguing.

4: The Ledbury

In December I spent a heavenly night at two Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury in Notting Hill, run by indefatigable Australian cheff Brett Graham, at a Krug dinner hosted by Olivier Krug and Bordeaux Index. Unoriginal as I might be, I can't praise The Ledbury enough. There is something magical about it. When I walked through the door, the affable manager remembered my name - it's little touches like this that turn great restaurants into outstanding ones.  
And so to the food. As it was a Champagne dinner, a lot of thought had gone into the food and wine matches, from a citric roast scallop dish with pumpkin, clementine and ginger, which matched incredibly well with multi-vintage blend Krug Grand Cuvée, to a meaty hunk of native lobster in a nutty Amontillado sauce and an unapologetically decadent chicken breast with Parmesan and generous shavings of white truffle, which paired perfectly with a glass of dessicated coconut and lemon sherbet-fuelled Krug 1998. It will be interesting to see where The Ledbury lands in this year's World's 50 Best Restaurant list.

3: Les Crayères
In November I was sent into orbit courtesy of Dom Pérignon and its ebullient cellar master, Richard Geoffroy, who invited a select group of wine writers to sprawling 19th century, 5 star château hotel Les Crayeres in Champagne for the night to test the effect of temperature on the flavour profile of DP at the hotel's 2 Michelin-starred restaurant, a magnificent, chandelier-filled room boasting verdant tapestries, swagged curtains and a grand dining table cutting through it.

Over the course of two hours, eight different dishes, from bracing saline oysters in a seawater granita, and a creamy mussel soup, to tea smoked basmati rice with mushroom tobacco, and an almond-flecked lamb tagine, were served to compliment the aroma and flavour differences in Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1996 at eight different temperature stages, starting at 8 degrees and ending at 15/16º

Fascinatingly, there were tangible differences in the wine at each of the eight stages, moving from mineral at 8º, honeyed at 9º, zesty at 10º, buttery at 11º, earthy at 12º, truffly at 13º, smoky at 14º, and nutty at 15-16º. To Geoffroy's delight, I offered that the wine's evolution could be compared to the different stages of seduction, as it moved from being shy and tight to gloriously expressive.

2: A Taste of Noma at Claridge's 
A close contender for the top spot, Rene Redzepi's 10-day stint at Claridge's last summer was met with much fanfare. Under pressure to create a headline-grabbing dish to keep his fans happy and silence his critics, Redzepi didn't disappoint. On arrival, guests were offered a kilner jar filled with cabbage, which, when popped open, revealed an army of ants crawling across the lime green leaves, the odd ant or two getting stuck in globules of creme fraiche. Having mustered the gumption to put one of the critters in my mouth, I'm rewarded with a pleasing taste of lemongrass, as they share a chemical compound.

Meanwhile, a plant pot filled with edible flowers, carrots and radishes indulges the inner child. Told to use our hands, I feel like Peter Rabbit running riot in Mr. McGregor’s garden as I delve into the pot and unearth chunks of edible soil made from hazelnuts, rye, malt, beer and butter. Slow roast celeriac in a dense truffle sauce as black as squid ink, is one of the most delicious things I've ever put in my mouth. The ensemble is comfortingly autumnal, like shoving your nose deep into the forest floor and breathing in a lungful of earthy air. 

The main event: Romney Marsh neck of lamb marinated for 24 hours in pea miso, then cooked for a further 24 – is achingly tender, falling apart at the sight of a knife, and unashamedly rich in flavour, the sweet, fatty meat served with cooling milk curd and crunchy vegetables smoked Noma-style on Claridge’s roof. Technically immaculate, charmingly playful and exquisitely presented, while a trip to Noma remains a distant dream, my taste of Noma lingers sweeetly in the mind.

1: Osteria Francescana
There could only ever be one winner. My number one meal of 2012 was a bizarre and beautiuful expeirence I'll never forget. During a press trip to Modena, I was taken down the rabbit hole at the 3 Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, voted the fifth best restaurant in the world at this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Headed up by the excitable, bespectacled, ever-playful Massimo Bottura, the 11-table, 28-seater restaurant is so tiny, it feels like you’re in Bottura’s front room, having been invited to a surreal dinner party. Though Bottura’s dishes are inspired and informed by Italian produce, with Emilia-Romagna his faithful muse, they’re light years away from the rusticity of an osteria.

Highlights of the magical meal were plentiful, from a gleaming fillet of Po River eel and a hunk of swan-white Alaska black cod with a soot black roof fashioned from vegetable ash swimming in a pool of squid ink broth so opaque it looked like glittering crude oil, to signature dish Five Ages, Textures and Temperatures of Parmigiano Reggiano, an ethereal composition of Parmesan sauce, mousse, foam, crisp and air aged between 18 and 50 months and served at varying temperatures, from stone cold to womb warm. 

Meanwhile, fleshy folds of  soft, supple and sweet five-year-old Culatello ham paired with an amber bottle of 1971 Château Gilette Sauternes fragrant with almond, quince and apricot was divine. Ever the sourcerer, Bottura ended the feast on a savoury note with a hazelnut-coated foie gras lollipop fashioned into a mini Feast. If only Mr Whippy vans served them...