We had a little trouble getting going in the morning and so had to rush a bit. That meant no sit down to savor a nice cup of coffee. Instead, we stopped on our way to the Underground at the very busy Ozone Coffee Roasters and got take-out. It’s a big place and a nice place with plenty of seats and their own in-house roasting facility. It would have been nice to linger, but I took my nicely made double espresso and downed it.
The truth is, we should have lingered as our destination turned out to leave a little to be desired. In addition to enjoying much of the best food and drink London has to offer, we were also there as tourists. Our first destination was a true tourist spot – The London Bridge Experience. Ostensibly a tour through the history of the famed crossing(s) – there have been a few London Bridges built over the centuries – it amounted to a relatively weak carnival fun house. It wasn’t all bad, however. In fact, it’s hokey nature made it somewhat fun. Since we had London Passes, it didn’t actually cost us anything extra. In another location or with more time at our disposal, I wouldn’t have regretted it, but with limited time and soooo much else to do in London, this wasn’t our best choice of the week. That it was our worst choice, however, meant that we made many other really excellent choices.
One of those excellent choices was our lunch spot. Gymkhana is a classic northern Indian restaurant, considered by many to be one of the finest in London. Located in the Mayfair district, it is somewhat tony and relatively formal, dressed out in dark wood and banquettes.
A Quinine Sour was a nice start featuring the very agreeable flavor of curry leaf. It is such a distinct and wonderful flavor and it worked beautifully within the context of the gin based sour.
Starting with an Alloo Tikka Chaat, the food was nicely presented and classic. Chaats are typically too sweet for my preference and this one with plenty of tamarind was sweet, but well balanced.
We focused on the tandoor, starting with some Lasooni Wild Tiger Prawns with red pepper chutney. These had been skewered and roasted in the oven and had a spice level that challenged, but didn’t overwhelm. They were quite tasty and went down very easily.
The lamb chops had been marinated and while they carried plenty of flavor and were soft and tender, they suffered in comparison to the spectacular examples we had at Gunpowder the day before. Had we not had that comparison, I would have been happier with these, but instead, I found myself dreaming of the ones from Gunpowder. The Wild Boar Vindaloo had nice heat and good flavor not obscured by the heat. The Dal Maharani satisfied.
Dessert based around a chocolate samosa appealed and didn’t disappoint.
From Gymkhana, I traveled by Underground out to the west of London for an appointment to visit the Sipsmith Distillery. Makers of premium London Dry Gins, I first learned of them in Barcelona and when I tasted their gin, visiting the distillery became a personal priority on this trip. I was surprised to discover the distillery located in what appears to be a predominantly residential neighborhood. In fact, the actual distillery is set back through a passage well off the street-side access. The entrance is within the driveway on the lower right of the photo above.
The distillery is small, but impressive with a series of beautiful copper stills, each with a name and a purpose.
I was there to meet Jared Brown, Sipsmith’s Master Distiller, who happens to be a Yank, originally from Ithaca, NY. Jared has been involved with gin since the early ’90’s while still in the US, well before its global resurgence. In addition to being a marvelous maker of a variety of gins and even vodka, Jared is a master storyteller, bartender and a dead ringer for “The Dude” the character played by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski.
He regaled me with his personal history, how Sipsmiths began and the stories behind his products, most notably those relating to his House of Commons Gin, which is now the official gin of Britain’s actual Parliamentary House of Commons, and a gin developed for the Raffles Hotel chain to commemorate and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Sling! I plan to feature this fascinating man in an interview to be posted here in the not too distant future.
Brown makes a mean GinTonic as well as a great London Cup (his proprietary version of a Pimm’s Cup), but the most notable cocktail he made for me was his version of the Negroni. In addition to the classic gin, Campari and vermouth in equal proportions, he added his Sloe Gin as a fourth equal component. That would have been interesting enough, but his technique for mixing the cocktail was not just a simple stir, nor was it a vigorous shake. No, he has adopted the Cuban pour technique that is reminiscent of an Asturian sidra pour. The pour starts from one stirring glass (created from Sipsmith bottles), to another close one, while using a julep strainer, then gradually increases in length as he extends his catching arm while focused on the pour. This is repeated several times, resulting in an aerated, but smooth, viscous and not frothy final cocktail. I can’t recall ever having had a better Negroni than that!
Noble Rot is a British wine magazine that was first launched in 2013 and now has 11 issues under its belt. The writing and the topics are good, making it a first-rate product. Curiously though, while available around the world via subscription, the part of the United States where it appears to be easiest to secure a copy by purchasing one in a store is in Cincinnati, Ohio! Go figure.
I do like the magazine, but the Noble Rot that garnered my special interest on this trip was the Wine Bar & Restaurant located on the affably named Lamb’s Conduit Street in London. A relatively new restaurant that only just opened at the end of 2015, it’s raison d’etre is to be a really top-notch wine bar. That it proved to be, but that too was not my principle reason for getting there. No, that was for the restaurant, of which I had been hearing many good things. That my friend, Paul Weaver, who trained at The Sportsman in Whitstable and St. John’s Bread & Wine in London, also happened to be the chef, certainly heightened my interest. When he actually was able to dine with us, the experience became that much more special.
Wine is clearly a critical element for a good wine bar. The wines must be interesting with a good variety and of high quality, while still representing a good value if a wine bar is to be successful. Though some of the wines on the by-the-glass specials board were quite pricey, many of them had serious age and pedigree. There were a number of other interesting and affordable wines available by the glass on the regular wine menu from small to large glass pours to bottles.
Noble Rot hit on all cylinders, starting with a divine NV Champagne from Pierre Peters, a small producer from Le Mesnil.
The food of a wine bar has a very definite purpose and shouldn’t be too “out there.” That purpose is to provide the culinary basis for synergy with great wines. It needs to be of good quality, but approachable without being a wine assassin. The best wine bar restaurants and based on this meal, Noble Rot does this as well as any I’ve ever had the pleasure of dining and drinking at, don’t sacrifice making food that is both interesting and beautiful just to kowtow to the wine. The food at Noble Rot worked spectacularly with the wines that we drank, but would have been superb even without wine. While the dishes are relatively straightforward, they must begin with outstanding product. In this case, that began with some paleta Ibérico de Bellota (shoulder ham – not pictured), Spanish anchovies in oil and superb bread and butter. The 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc Champagne was crisp with bone-dry minerality and exquisite bubble structure. In short, it was a perfect starter.
Next up were some fabulously plump and briny English oysters from Colchester. Not only were these oysters superb with just a squeeze of lemon (Tabasco never touches my oysters), they were, I found out, also guaranteed to be norovirus free, meaning that the likelihood of getting ill from eating them was miniscule.
The oysters and subsequent dishes were accompanied by a luscious white from the Jura region of France. The biologique Savagnin from Jean-Francois Ganevat, aged two years in tronconic demi-muids, was complex, non-oxidated with rich minerality and delicious fruit. This was a fine match for the oysters and for a number of dishes to come, illustrating the dynamic interplay between food and wine at a wine-oriented restaurant, that may be more difficult to orchestrate at a more food-centric establishment. It was a pleasure to explore the nuances of this wine over several dishes, all of which complemented it superbly.
Through this point, we had been exposed to excellent product, but no actual cooking, but that was soon to change and in dramatic fashion. Three dishes were brought to the table to share. Continuing the Spanish theme, the first was a Cecina with beetroot and horseradish. Though fire had only been applied to a small portion of this dish, the “cooking” was reflected in the composition of the ingredients and the lovely presentation. Cecina, or cured Spanish beef “ham” is, in my opinion, a much under-appreciated delicacy. It might well have been served by itself and that would have been delightful too, but here, its deep flavor and silky texture played beautifully with the sweet, smoky beet and the mild zing of the horseradish, all balanced like the soaring acme of a Catalan Casteller.
Burrata has become a popular menu item in London as well as New York and pretty much everywhere in the western world and why not? It is creamy, cool and delicious. Few recent dishes containing it, however, have brought me more pleasure than the Italo-Catalan variation that mixed the cheese with a fine Romesco and grilled Grelot onions, which were reminiscent of calçots. This was a dish that was comfortingly familiar, yet still novel.
Perhaps the most novel of the Spanish influenced starters as well as the most surprisingly delicious was the Gazpacho with smoked eel and lovage. This wasn’t a gazpacho in the traditional sense of the term, but it did incorporate Gazpacho ingredients. The light smokiness of the delicate eel accented the sweetness of the mid-summer tomatoes, the spritely acidity of the vinegar and the vegetal notes from the brightly flavored lovage. Like the other three dishes, this was full-flavored, yet still attuned to pairing with wine. Somehow, all three held up well to the Savagnin or vice versa.
The eel started a cavalcade of seafood, which when of the quality of what followed, is never a bad thing in my book. A gorgeous piece of skinned slip sole was cooked in smoked butter and pimentón. The flavors and the texture were exquisite – a perfect piece of fish with enough smoke and pimentón to provide depth, but with enough restraint to avoid overwhelming the delicate fish.
The remains attest to Chef Weaver’s deftness in taking the fish from the bones.Even the few little bits apparent in this photo above were ultimately devoured before the plate was returned for cleaning.
Cornish mackerel was roasted whole and served with a melange of summer vegetables some roasted and others raw. The served to lighten the full-flavored fish.
Samphire and gooseberries augmented the roast Scottish cod. It was a large piece of fish that benefitted from the relationship between it and the sea vegetable and land fruit. The cooking was spot on.
Monkfish was abetted by Roscoff onions and jamón giving it deep flavor as well as a strong mar y montaña aspect.
The piscine cavalcade continued with John Dory roasted whole and served with a classic sauce of butter, capers, lemon and parsley. It was special.
Special too was the turbot with pistou, summer vegetables and “jersey royal” potatoes, a special d.o. potato from Jersey.While the turbot was not quite as voluptuous as the one I enjoyed at Kaia Kaipe in Getaria, few are, yet it was still pretty damned incredible.
By this time, we had finished the Savignan and moved into a German Reisling to take us through the rest of the savory portion of the meal. Crisp with beautiful acidity and a slate-filled minerality, this was an excellent and versatile food wine as good Rieslings tend to be.
The savory portion of the meal finished with an outstanding preparation of Guinea Fowl with a lovely Vin Jaune sauce, beautiful, gently cooked girolles (chanterelles) from Scotland and a bit of corn and greens. The Riesling and the fowl sung in beautiful harmony.
I segued into dessert with a trio of lovely cheeses including a chevre, a sheep’s milk cheese and a beautiful blue. Alas, I didn’t catch their names as the wine was starting to catch up with me.
Desserts were no afterthought, starting with a nice Raspberry and Almond Tart. As with everything else, we all shared each plate and here, all I did was taste. I could easily have gone for more, but a single taste was all I could afford, especially with two other desserts placed in front of us.
The Chamomile Panna Cotta with strawberries and lime was an even bigger temptation for me with its light, airy notes of citrus and tea. Again, I restrained myself to a single taste.
The warm Chocolate Mousse was simply too much, however, and so I had two, maybe three generous spoonfuls and adjusted my insulin accordingly. It was worth it given its rich, deep chocolate flavor packaged in an angel-wing-feather-light mousse.
This was a special meal put together by a special team. The food was extremely well conceived and crafted and the wines beautiful food wines with each component enhancing the other. The cellar housed a considerable collection at optimal subterranean temperature.
This is the kind of restaurant that I would happily frequent if it were near where I live. Alas, that hasn’t existed since the glory days of the old Friends Lake Inn under Greg and Sharon Taylor. There, too, wine and food existed in blissful harmony. Without restaurants like those near me, I’ve tended to move away from the style, which, as this experience at Noble Rot proves, is a real pity. Restaurants like this should never go out of style when done as well as this one is.
This was the end of an excellent day, but we had a big one coming up next including a visit to a restaurant that had been around the top of my “Wish List” for about a decade. Stay tuned!