An Interview with Olivier Magny, Wine’s Leading ‘Terroirist’

Best-selling author Olivier Magny's newly released "Into Wine" has something for everyone who's "into wine"

Best-selling author Olivier Magny’s newly released “Into Wine” has something for everyone who’s “into wine”

Paris native Olivier Magny is a true entrepreneur. And, as a sommelier, wine educator and TV host with his own Parisian wine bar, he’s got quite an impressive wine résumé. But somehow I don’t think that’s what he really wants you to focus on. I believe his true aim is to pass on his boundless enthusiasm for the richly diverse world of wine to anyone who wants to listen, and to make sure they enjoy themselves along the way.

Hence his newly released book, entitled Into Wine. It serves as a wonderful gateway into the often confusing and complex world of wine. And I recommend anyone with even a passing interest in wine to read it, and take its contents seriously. For although the book comes across as simple, there’s quite a bit of thought hiding behind its playful diction. Even so-called ‘wine experts’ are sure to find some useful information within its pages (take note particularly of the detailed appendices).

Into Wine is written in a colloquial style and broken into tasting-size pours — with interesting, and often provocative, statistical and anecdotal call-outs sprinkled throughout. The book brims with energy, enthusiasm, an unmistakable joie de vivre and a somewhat boyish sense of humor. You could say it pulsates with life. And that’s just what Olivier believes that soil should do … because this is what leads to complex, unique, interesting wines that reflect their local cultures.

Yes, you see, Olivier is a self-proclaimed Terroirist. Now terroir is one of those French words that don’t translate well into other languages. But if you had to approximate it concisely, you could say it means “a sense of place.” And many people believe that certain methods of farming and winemaking can lead to wines that actually express the “place” they come from in your glass.

The starting point for someone looking to craft such a wine (well, actually, any wine at all) is the vineyard. Today, there are strongly held beliefs and feelings on both sides of the fence about organic and biodynamic farming, and the so-called ‘natural’ wines that such methods often help to produce. No matter what side you tend to gravitate towards — and especially if you’ve never thought or heard about any of these things in the first place — the best policy is to let everyone have his or her own say. And that’s exactly why I asked Oliver to do via the below questions.

So I invite you to listen. And if you have comments, please use the comment function below on this post or contact Olivier via his own website.

Chin-Chin!

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Q: Why did you decide to write Into Wine and who is your intended reader?

Anyone with an appetite for wine and an open mind should enjoy Into Wine. The idea behind it is not only to share knowledge and insights, but also to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what wine teaches us, far beyond wine.

Q: Your book comes across as refreshingly direct and down-to-earth, and is injected with enthusiasm and humor. Indeed, this seems to be the point: to write a wine book that doesn’t talk down to the reader or use unnecessarily flowery terminology. How do you strike the delicate balance between (a) retaining this attitude at all times, while (b) conveying what is often necessarily a lot of complex information that people will need to learn about the subject(s) at hand?

Thank you very much. I’ve perfected this art for ten years at O Château. Every day, I have people in front of me that come from all walks of the wine life. Your wine pro will be sitting next to a complete novice, and my job is to make sure both have a great time and learn a lot. My daily challenge for ten years has been to strike that delicate balance between informative and fun, for everyone. Keeping things factual and genuinely helpful is as much of a requirement for me as keeping them light-hearted! The fact that both seasoned sippers and complete rookies have been raving about Into Wine tells me that I didn’t mess up completely!

Olivier … with his hands full

Olivier … with his hands full

Q: You place huge emphasis on the notion of terroir, and the importance of becoming a ‘Terroirist’ — not just with respect to wine, but also in terms of one’s whole approach towards living. How would define the concept of terroir in its simplest form. And, if you were to distill its importance for you into five points, what would they be?

To me, terroir is this: a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘here’ should be different from a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘there’. That is what makes life not only delicious but also interesting. Terroir is absolutely essential and if I were to give you five reasons, I’d say:

  • Our world destroys differences at an incredible pace: the logic of terroir is first and foremost a logic of cultural resistance that fosters genuine diversity.
  • Our world destroys our soil at an incredible pace: we need to re-think the way we farm and terroir is the most reasonable angle to tackle this fundamental issue.
  • We are a very unhealthy crowd: exponential expansion of certain diseases and afflictions is closely linked to the way we eat and drink. Terroir helps fix that problem.
  • Terroir gives us deliciousness — which is rather significant in my book!
  • Terroir is about caring: for the soil, for the food, for the wine, for the ones we love. I think this whole world would be better off with a bit more TLC. 

Q: A significant part of the book is spent discussing “living” soil versus “dead” soil. How does this manifest in a wine (or in food that’s grown on the soil)?

Wine or food made from dead soil is somewhat similar to what zombies are to humans: they’re there, but good lord are they dirty and soul-less!

Q: Speaking of soil, there has been a lot of debate in wine circles recently regarding whether you can actually taste the minerals present in the soil that surrounds the vines in the final, bottled wine. What is your take, and how does this (or doesn’t this) relate to terroir?

On these subject matters, I try to stay clear from all the ‘blah-blah’ and look only for the hard science. And well, current science is not conclusive on this point. What I believe in (and what science does corroborate) is that the complexity of a wine vastly mirrors the life of the soil. Does it follow that a chalky soil gives us a chalky tasting wine? Honestly, I don’t really care! What I want is for that chalky soil to be alive and well, and for the wine made from it to be delicious!

Q: Let’s forget bout “minerality” for a moment. Can you describe why you see organic and biodynamic farming — not just for wine, but also for all produce — as such an important thing for the world? And can this really, as you suggest, help solve our environmental and cultural woes as well?

Well, what’s for sure, and I explain why in the book, is that the status quo would lead to more famines, devastations, hurricanes and wars. So we need a new model. And I believe the best model is simply one based on common sense and empiricism. Many pioneers have been showing the way, proving to us that another model was not only possible, but also eminently viable — from an environmental, financial and cultural standpoint. The more people realize this, the closer we’ll get to getting our governments to stop rooting for toxic and destructive corporations, and to start rooting for us instead.

Q: Even if the mass market of global consumers eventually decided that this was the way to go, there is the troubling issue of the economics of it all. At the moment, even middle-class people might have a difficult affording organically or biodynamically grown foods and wines (unless you think this is just an issue of priorities?). So how can this be a realistic goal for the population at large, and can this type of farming ever become less expensive than the techniques employed by ‘Big Ag’ today (i.e. GMOs and so-called ‘industrial’ farming)?

When you go all the way to the ownership structure, you realize that ‘Big Ag’ is owned by the same crooks that own ‘Big Pharma’, ‘Big Banks’ and ‘Big’ whatever. We say corporations, but at the end of the day, the singular should almost apply. So what you’re looking at is a tremendously profitable business model: feeding people to make them sick while keeping them ignorant and making money every step of the way. But it’s also, and more importantly, a sickening project, if you take the time to think about it. The fact that any menu at any fast food restaurant is cheaper than two pounds of regular (i.e. organic) tomatoes is not chance; it is because one side of the system is subsidized while the other is penalized. So ‘the market’ gives us a price, and we’ve been conditioned to accept it as the reflection of a form of truth, or at least of an acceptable order of things. But then again, if we confront that with a hint of common sense, we quickly realize that ‘the market’ is full of crap. Literally. 

I explain in the book that so-called ‘conventional’ farming is not cheap at all and that it does not even have high yields. It simply means that each farmer will produce a lot. The fact that this one farmer is crippled with debt (often leading him to suicide), the fact that he produces toxic food (leading to exponential cancer rates in the general population), or the fact that he kills his soil (thus making future generations even more dependent on ‘Big Ag’) never seems to trouble anyone.

Resistance is of course in order, and education is Step 1. Step 2 is changing what and where we buy. And if enough of us do this, then we’ll have something good going on, for the powers that be will see something that they care about: a market! And when the market is big enough: things will change for everyone.

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy's leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy’s leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

Q: There has been a lot of talk about the decline of French cuisine (with recent books such as Au Revoir to All That, etc.). You add to this general sentiment, and touch on the fact that France’s wine culture is headed seriously in the wrong direction (and fast). Why is this, and how do you think it can be reversed?

France is in the eye of the tiger of the globalist project. Cultural destruction in France over the past 40 years has been absolutely mind-boggling. The loss of the wine culture is just one tiny aspect of this cultural tsunami. But I’m hopeful: some young French people are starting to get interested in wine again — though not because they love the French culture; rather instead to imitate New Yorkers! Plus French wines are going through such a phase of Renaissance right now that the French won’t be able to ignore it too long even if they tried.

Q: As a Frenchman, and self-proclaimed lover of French wine, do you think the iconic wines of Bordeaux (i.e. the Grands Cru Classeés) will eventually become more terroir-driven and/or farmed organically or even biodynamically? Is this important at all?

The results of biodynamic farming are obvious and the word is spreading fast throughout the world. When they refer to Bordeaux, most people actually think of the 61 Grands Crus Classés. There are thousands of wineries in Bordeaux that do not have the luxury of having the wealthiest people on earth buy their wine no matter what. In Bordeaux, change will come from below. And it will slowly but surely force the iconic châteaux to come to it. When you see the tremendous progress of Château Pontet-Canet since they adopted biodynamic farming, you can only imagine how amazing Latour would taste if they went down that road!

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

Q: What is your stance on how wine is labeled? Some brave pioneers like Ridge Vineyards, for instance, are beginning to label everything that goes into their wine. Is this the way forward?

I have a general uneasiness with our current reverence for transparency. If everybody does their job properly (the winery, and also the wine store), such extremes are not needed. Decency and professionalism go a long way!

Q: A lot of newcomers to wine might not know how loose the rules are in US wine regions. For instance, the fact that 15% (or more) of the wine may not be the variety, vintage or region stated on the label. French AOC rules (and similar systems in other European countries) tend to be stricter. But there has also been criticism and disenchantment over the AOC system as of late. Are you a supporter of the AOC system and what do you see as its key advantages and/or failings? 

I think the AOC system is terrific. It fosters expression of local differences and deliciousness, while doing something we rarely do these days: recognizing the importance of our local heritage. Now clearly, out of mere coherence, the agency that regulates it needs to ban usage of many terroir-killing pesticides, and I believe it will down the road. But overall, wine producers and wine drinkers alike all much better off with the AOC system than without it.

Q: For people that are just after a reasonably wine that tastes delicious, and don’t want to engage intellectually in the process of learning more about wine, what do you recommend? Do you believe that progressively drinking better wine over time inevitably leads to increased curiosity in wine drinkers, and does this really matter in the end?

I’d say stop buying wines from a supermarket and start buying from a wine store instead. Then let them guide you! It’s that simple … and then, well, some people will end up becoming more well-off or more interested and will go for better wines, and some won’t. And you know what? Both are just fine!

Q: Are some wines simply better than others, or is beauty (and deliciousness) in the mouth of the beholder?

Both — fully.

Q: Where can people find the best values in terroir-driven French wines? How about outside of France?

In France I’d say the Loire Valley, Alsace and the Languedoc. Outside of France: New Zealand, Italy and Portugal would be my destinations of choice. But we live in a formidable period where the culture of terroir is starting to spread everywhere. It’s a very exciting time to be a wine lover!

Q: You talk about how important it is for people to get out and visit actual wineries and winemakers. If someone from the US has never been on wine-centric vacation, what is the first region they should the visit — one at home and one abroad?

In the US, well, I’d recommend exploring the wine regions of Oregon or Washington state. It is easier to talk to the people in charge than in California, which makes learning more fun and easier. The general vibe is a bit more rural and a bit less commercial. Abroad, well, I think Alsace is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets (especially if you like whites).

Q: I’ve personally never experienced it, but many people say that certain wines give them headaches. Can you discuss the relationship between such headaches and SO2 (also the differences between volcanic S02 and SO2 that is a by-product of petroleum)? Is this what is causing these headaches?

The truth is, the hard scientific knowledge regarding wine and headaches is lacking. Excess is a common cause! Now, sulfites are a common scapegoat. But you look you at it in detail, you learn that the problem doesn’t lie in sulfites, but on the one part on their origin (that should ideally be volcanic) and in their dosage. Both for the wine and for the consumer, the problem is an excess of sulfites, not sulfites per se. As a general rule, do not settle for wines that give you a headache, as headaches from wine usually stem from sloppy grape growing or winemaking (or both). I have put together a list of wineries I recommend in the appendix of the book. Readers should find that to be a very helpful resource.

Q: What is the one thing you want people to take away from Into Wine?

That resistance has never been so necessary, and so delicious!

Q: You tell us quite about yourself in the book — but what is something that we may not know?

I am madly in love with my wife! 🙂

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If you want to get the book, there is a great deal if you purchase Into Wine through this link.

Please note: I have no personal relationship with Mr. Magny, and in fact have never met him or been to his wine bar.

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L’Absinthe – That’s the Spirit

L’Absinthe
40 Chalcot Road
London NW1 8LS
Website
Map
Reservations: +44 (0)20 7483 4848

  • Starters from £5-9, Mains from £9-16, Desserts £5-6, plus at lunchtime from Tuesday-Friday, 2 courses are £9.50 and 3 courses are £12.50
  • For the full set of photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal; you can also click on any of the images below for high-resolution versions of the images

L’Absinthe is a pleasant little bistrot on a lovely street in Primrose Hill. The simple food is executed well and is very reasonably priced. Their wine, which they also sell on a retail basis, is only marked up £10 when you order it during your meal, and they have a short but interesting selection to choose from. But the main thing about L’Absinthe is that their passion and joie de vivre shine through, and they have made it into the type of neighborhood restaurant you wished you had just around the corner from your home. I will certainly be returning.

Paris in Primrose

I am not sure why I’ve suddenly decided to review a pair of places in Primrose Hill – but alliteration aside, they are both worth it. My last review of Lanka, the cafe serving French pâtisserie with a Japanese twist, is about a five minute walk away from L’Absinthe, which is just off Regents Park Road (which functions as the High Street of the neighborhood).

L’Absinthe’s pleasant corner position on the street

Located on an attractive, wide intersection on Chalcot Road, L’Absinthe is a French bistrot-style restaurant and retail wine shop. It was set up in November 2007 by a group of Frenchmen, all with impressive backgrounds.

Some amusing shots of the bosses

The proprietor is Chef Jean-Christophe Slowik, and he worked in the front-of-house under Marco Pierre White for roughly 20 years at many of his well-known ventures. When Slowik decided to go solo, he enlisted help in the form of well-respected chef Christophe Favre, who has worked with Michel Rostang in France and also at the Bleeding Hart in London. At the Bleeding Hart, Christophe met Jean-Marc Charre, who was recruited to L’Absinthe’s front-of-house, along with Jena-Marc’s colleague Laurent Valentino. Laurent was running the floor on our visit, and he is one of the most pleasant hosts I’ve come across in London.

Upstairs dining space

The restaurant has both upstairs and downstairs dining rooms. Upstairs is light and airy, with a motif of green – presumably a reference to its namesake. There are a total of 30 covers, with one long rectangular communal table as you enter, a few shelves of wine, and then a number of simple wood tables on a slightly raised level, with a little window to the kitchen at the back. There is also terrace seating available outside – I believe about five tables – when the weather is nice enough to warrant it.

Downstairs dining space

The downstairs room was not open when we were there for our Saturday lunch, but seemed perfectly pleasant and houses another 34 covers. The bar also resides below, and there is direct access from the kitchen as well.

Making a meal of it

We had walked past the place earlier in the week, when it was unfortunately closed, and I recalled some foodie friends of mine going here about a year ago and saying it was good, so I made a mental note to keep it in mind next time we were in the area. That just happened to be a few days later, so we took another look at the menu posted outside and decided that the bistrot fare looked appetizing and reasonably priced, plus it looked like everyone there was having a good time.

Freshly Toasted Bread & Homemade Butter

Upon being seated, some bread was brought to our table to keep us occupied. It was of the basic sliced variety (which seemed store-bought, but I didn’t ask) and was freshly toasted for each table, a nice touch. The butter was particularly good, and it is homemade on the premises according to one of the waitresses.

Champagne Thiénot Brut NV

As I perused the wine list, I noticed that they seem to have a strong relationship with (or affinity for) the champagne house Thiénot, as the brand features on the cover of their wine list and also on the awning of the restaurant. Alain Thiénot is quite a well-regarded figure in the Champagne region, and also runs a number of other brands besides the one bearing his name, including Canard-Duchêne.

Check out that sparkling action & the branded crystal

I decided to sample a glass of the Thiénot Brut NV, which is the house champagne (£6.95), and thought it was very nice. It had a good citrus kick to it, without being overly harsh, and also displayed a pleasant creaminess and fairly elegant mousse. The bubbles did not seem particularly fine, but I thought it functioned well as a house champagne and was not overly expensive.

A funny and charming touch was that Laurent left the rest of the bottle on the table once he had poured my glass, and said nonchalantly that I could have the rest of it if I wanted (the bottle was more than half full). I think he was sort of serious and it was this warm and slightly cheeky attitude that helped to make it an enjoyable afternoon – it was as if we were already very old and loyal customers, when he’d only met us in the last ten minutes.

Hareng Mariné, Salade de Trevise aux Herbs

Mrs. LF opted to have two starters for her lunch. First up was the marinated herring (£4.95), which was certainly a generous portion and attractively presented. The marinade was good and not overly sweet or strong (we asked if it was marinated on the premises, and the waitress said it wasn’t), and the texture of the herring was pleasantly soft and firm enough. It worked very well with the slightly sour radicchio and herb salad, and was a very satisfying starter. 7/10.

Salade de Tomates & Onions de Printemps

The second half of Mrs. LF’s meal was a simple salad of tomatoes and spring onions (£5.25), which also came very prettily presented. The tomatoes were nice and sweet and the spring onions were very mild. What made the dish, and tied it all together, was the very good vinaigrette, which Mrs. LF said reminded her of France – in a good way. 7/10.

Chèvre Chaud, Salad Melangée, Vinaigrette au Miel

I ordered the goats cheese on toast with a honey dressing (£6.25) and really enjoyed it. I suppose it doesn’t get much simpler than this, but it was well executed and the produce itself was good. The ever-so-slight sourness and saltiness of the cheese was lifted by the light sweetness of the honey dressing and the vinaigrette added a nice streak of acidity, so everything was well balanced. I would order it again if I was in the mood for this kind of dish. 8/10.

Côte de Porc, Pommes Purée, Sauce aux Pruneaux

My pork chop with prune sauce (£10.95) was also plated up nicely. We noticed almost immediately that the crackling looked very crisp (always a good sign) and inferred that it was probably slow-cooked. The pork chop itself was well cooked, retaining enough moisture and having a nice clean flavor (it wasn’t overly ‘porky’ – even in the crackling, which can sometimes have too harsh of a taste for me). The prune sauce was a natural flavor combination, and this was very nicely carried out, with bits of the macerated prunes strewn throughout the purée, providing good texture.

Côte de Porc, Pommes Purée, Sauce aux Pruneaux (Crackling Side Facing)

As we had anticipated, the crackling was indeed very crispy (so much so I couldn’t cut it with my normal knife), and I really enjoyed it, as well as the dish as a whole. The only let-down on the plate was the mash, which tasted okay but was too dry and grainy – we expected more from the French kitchen as, when we dine in France, the mash tends to be more rich and creamy. I’m not saying I expect Robuchon standards everywhere. Well, yes I suppose I do actually – after all, it’s only potatoes, butter, milk/cream and seasoning whisked up to be very light and airy, and a French bistrot should be able to pull that off well. 7/10 (it would have been an 8/10 if a bit more effort had gone into the potatoes).

2006 Les Grimaudes, Vallée du Rhône

Laurent had recommended a glass of the 2006 Les Grimaudes (£4.95), a biodynamic wine from the Vallée du Rhône (Costières de Nîmes to be exact) to go with my pork chop. It is a blend of Grenache, Carrignan and Cinsault grapes and has a very small production of some 26,000 bottles per year. I thought was a lovely little table wine. It was less heavy than I expected it might be, and I thought the Grenache provided a nice fragrance and lightness to wine. It was just fruity enough, very fresh and had ripe and fairly supple tannins. Laurent also poured way more than a normal-size glass without a second thought – I was beginning to like this guy.

Also of note, and as I briefly mentioned earlier, is the fact that L’Absinthe has a dual function as a retail wine shop. They sell all of the wines on offer at retail price and simply charge a £10 corkage fee on all of the wines when you order them at the restaurant. There is a very interesting if short selection. It is French-focused, though there are offerings from elsewhere in the world – from Chile to Italy. It is a list made up of interesting producers, many of which I was not familiar with, which is always fun.

After the savory business was out of the way, we decided we still had a bit more room left for dessert, especially as we had spied one that we definitely liked the look of at another table.

Mousse au Chocolat Noir & Café

Mrs. LF’s chocolate and coffee mousse (£4.95) was very good, with the coffee flavor coming through just enough. It was rich as a result of the dark chocolate base, but this is the type of mousse I prefer as I often find chocolate mousses to be too lightweight to my taste. The shortbread served on the side was nice, and I enjoyed dunking it into the mousse, although Mrs. LF would never contaminate her mousse with foreign particles of any kind ;-). 7/10.

Crème Brûlée à l'Absinthe

I loved my dessert, which was the house crème brûlée (£5.50). The little spin here is that the custard is actually infused with a bit of the lethal absinthe spirit. I thought it was a stroke of genius as it had been injected very subtly but consistently throughout so that you detected just a little hint of anise in the background. It also created a gentle heat in the middle of the mouth, alluding to the power of this spirit, which Van Gogh and his drinking buddy Gaugin knew all too well. It was a highly satisfying and delicious dessert. Given the quite large portion, I am pleased to say I didn’t get bored of it either – often, I get sick of something which has the same consistency, texture and flavor throughout when there’s a lot of it – and enjoyed every last bite. (Oh, the carmelized crust was perfectly crispy as well). 9/10.

Espresso

I decided to finish off our lingering affair with a single espresso, courtesy of Musetti beans, which was very good.

Chocolate-covered Espresso Beans

A nice little touch was the fact that they served some chocolate-covered coffee beans (also Musetti) alongside the coffee. I always enjoy these, and even if it seems rather Italian to me (rather than French), it was appreciated.

Green with envy yet?

The bill, presented in that now-familiar green shade, came to a reasonable £58.05 including wine, service and VAT.

I’m glad we didn’t dine the night before!

As we exited, I was glad that we had decided to come for lunch and not for dinner the previous night (just check out that chalkboard)! 🙂

This could become a habit

We had a really enjoyable long lunch at L’Absinthe. The food was simple and tasty throughout (with a few memorable dishes and no sour notes), but what made it such a memorable afternoon was the atmosphere, service and spirit of the place. They clearly have passion and seem adept at the art of customer interaction – and it’s nice that this hasn’t been lost after being in business for well over two years now.

As we sat inside the little corner restaurant, it almost really felt like we weren’t in England anymore and had been transported to France. It had the same acoustics as a good bistrot and the feeling of a place to which you’d want to return. Mrs. LF said she was sure that this is the kind of place where regulars would be welcomed, recognized and rewarded by the staff, and I am sure if I lived in Primrose Hill, I would certainly be one of them. Luckily, we don’t live too far away, so I may still become one anyway.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10 (it was a particularly busy lunch period so things dragged a bit towards the end when we wanted to get the bill and go)

Food: 7/10

Wine: as mentioned previously, L’Absinthe has a dual function as a retail wine shop. They sell all of the wines on offer at retail price and simply charge a £10 corkage fee on all of the wines when you order them at the restaurant. There is a very interesting if rather short selection. It is French-focused, though there are offerings from elsewhere in the world – from Chile to Italy. It is a list made up of interesting producers, many of which I was not familiar with, which is always fun.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at L’Absinthe once, and it was for Saturday lunch.*

L'Absinthe on Urbanspoon

Gauthier Soho – Alexis Goes to Town

Gauthier Soho
21 Romilly Street
London W1D 5AF
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Three, four & five-course menus at £27, £36 & £45 per person, or 12-course tasting menu (with a completely vegetarian option) for £70 per person
  • The full set of higher-resolution photos can be found on my Flickr account

Alexis Gauthier, the 1 Michelin star French chef, has moved from Roussillon in Pimlico to a townhouse in the heart of Soho. From a preview meal I had during the restaurant's soft opening, it appears that he may have found a winning formula. The menu format is clever and good value, the environs are cosy and inviting. And the food continues to be precisely cooked with subtle and delicate flavors, while at the same time carrying the chef’s particular flair. Gauthier Soho looks set to become a welcome addition to the growing cadre of enjoyable restaurants that have graced Soho over the last couple of years.

Trading places

There was a rumor circulating earlier this year that French chef Alexis Gauthier, then chef and proprietor of Roussillon, a 1 Michelin star restaurant in London’s Pimlico, was looking to do something different. Having broken ground by creating one of the capital’s first purely vegetarian tasting menus – that actually held interest and tasted great throughout – and then keeping standards consistently high for a number of years, possibly he felt it was time for a new challenge, to take the road less travelled. Having had the pleasure of dining at Roussillon on a few occasions, I was generally impressed – everything from the service, to the subtly prepared food, through to the elegant little dining room demonstrated that Gauthier wanted his customers to come away having had a wonderful overall experience. And I think most people did.

It turns out the rumors were true, and although Gauthier still retains a small shareholding in Roussillon, he has now taken over the townhouse at 21 Romilly Street in Soho, which was home to Irish chef Richard Corrigan’s Lindsay House before he moved on himself to open Corrigan’s Mayfair. I was lucky enough to dine at the new restaurant, which is matter-of-factly called Gauthier Soho, this week during the ‘soft opening’, and it opens for business on Monday the 17th of May. As such, the meal was complimentary and diners were asked to leave any token amount of money they felt like leaving as well as filling out detailed comment cards.

Making a house a home

I was dining with a foodie friend, and we both arrived promptly for our early dinner. The ebony and ivory facade looked subtle and classy, and we were glad to see that the design of the interior rooms had also been well thought out, especially given the constraints that an old townhouse could potentially create for a restaurant attempting to inhabit it.

Gauthier Soho’s Exterior

The four-story townhouse that the restaurant occupies is made up of a ground floor dining room with about 18 covers, a first floor dining room with approximately 24 covers, a third floor with two private rooms (one caters for up to 16, the other for up to six), and a fourth floor which houses the administrative offices. The kitchen resides in the basement and there is a temperature-controlled open wine cellar just behind the ground floor dining room (more on that later).

The Ground Floor Dining Room

The downstairs dining room is pleasantly formal and has a calming effect. In fact, you’d barely know you were in bustling Soho as inside the cool colors and soft lighting put you at ease straight away. There are lovely original features such as the fireplace and also beautiful arrangements of fresh flowers. We felt as if we were sitting in someone’s very posh residential dining room, so although it was formal, it was not at all too stiff.

Modern Rose Bath & Lantern Table Arrangement

The tables themselves are well spaced, allowing for private conversation, and nearly all of the two-person tables were arranged in the 10 o’clock / 2 o’clock format (which I much prefer), with only two tables having chairs positioned directly facing each other. The other thing I liked about the dining room was that there was no music. This is a pet peeve as I usually find the background music in restaurants either pointless or just plain grating. The tables themselves also had some nice modern details, with a red rose bathing in a spherical bowl and a cone-shaped translucent glass lantern.

A delicate & subtle hand

The menus were delivered and well explained to us. On the main menu, diners have the choice of three, four or five courses, and each course has four different options (with a few more possibilities thrown in at dessert time). These are priced at £27, £36 and £45 respectively and all include an amuse bouche, a pre-dessert and bottomless purified still and sparkling water. One interesting feature is that you can mix and match any of the dishes to form your desired three, four or five course meal (i.e. you could have two of the first plates, one of the third and a cheese plate while other members of your party could do something completely different). There is also a 12-course tasting menu priced at £70, which is also available in pure vegetarian format. Gauthier has always been a big proponent of utilizing the best British produce that is in season, and if you haven’t tried his vegetarian degustation menu before, it is really worth doing so. I think the menu is priced sensibly given the caliber of Gauthier’s cooking and the setting of the restaurant, and I love the fact that they have included the water free of charge as this can often be a not insignificant cost over the course of a meal in a fine dining restaurant.

Some of the staff have been brought with him from Roussillon, including the excellent sommelier Roberto della Pietra, who provided very good suggestions for the wine that accompanied our meal. Our waiter was pleasantly animated and professional, and once he realized I had eaten at Roussillon a few times, he went down to the kitchen and came back with a few suggestions from the chef that were not on the menu – so of course we weren’t going to say no.

Amuse Bouche: Chickpea Beignet with Whole Grain Mustard Dipping Sauce & Langoustine and Basil Toast

With our courses ordered, some amuse bouches were brought to the table. The chickpea beignets have been carried over from Roussillon. They are sinfully good, especially with a touch of the mustard dipping sauce, which is quite spicy, so don’t have too much. The little langoustine and basil numbers were pleasant enough, although a tad dry for me, with the langoustine not quite coming through strongly enough.

Assorted Freshly Baked Breads & Butter from Normandy

After the amuse bouches, a very attractive tray of freshly baked breads were brought out for us to choose from. The assortment included traditional French baguettes and a range of rolls, including black olive, tomato, bacon and wild garlic with a parmesan infused crust. We tried four of them and they were all excellent and constantly replenished, always arriving slightly warm and just out of the oven. The butters, one of which was slightly salted and the other unsalted, are both sourced from Normandy and were also of the highest quality.

Premier Plat A: Poached Duck Egg, Green Pea Velouté

My dining companion’s first course had stunning fresh pea flavor (very sweet) and a lovely runny duck’s egg in the center. I thought it was delicious, based on the one spoonful I was able to steal from her. 🙂

Premier Plat B: Lobster & Pigeon de Bresse

My first course was not on the menu as Alexis suggested something ‘special’ for us to taste from the kitchen. It was made up of slightly cooled lobster (which was feather soft and deliciously sweet), Pigeon de Bresse (which was perfectly pink and full of flavor), two types of salad leaves (one buttery soft and one crunchy) and a lovely little red sauce which was excellent when eaten in tandem with the pigeon. This posh ‘surf and turf’ was a great start to the meal.

Mousseron Mushrooms from Northern France

Our waiter also said that instead of having the risotto that was on the menu, Alexis would like to put a little twist on it by adding some mousseron mushrooms to the dish. I had never heard of them before, so the waiter brought out a silver bowl full of the little fungi to show to us.

Deuxième Plat: Wild Garlic Risotto, Chicken Jus Reduction, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parmesan Tuille

Alexis’ risottos were always a big strength at Roussillon, and this was no exception. The petit mousseron mushrooms worked well; they had quite a fleshy texture and were sort of like a really juicy piece of meat. The risotto itself was textbook – perfectly creamy, with the rice having just the right amount of bite left in it. The reduced chicken jus had a deep and rich flavor, which held the interest on the palate, and the razor-thin parmesan tuille added a nice contrast of sharpness and crunchiness. A really lovely dish.

Troisième Plat A: Smoked Salted Wild Sea Bass, White Asparagus, Melba Toast & Cèpes Mushrooms

My dining companion raved about this dish and thoroughly enjoyed every bite. I got a tiny taster, and also thought it was excellent. The fish had been handled with the utmost care and emerged on the plate with skin still glistening from the oven. It was delicious when taken with a small piece of the white asparagus which had been wrapped in the melba toast, which added a bit of crunch and saltiness. It was a really accomplished little fish dish.

Troisième Plat B: Red Mullet & Baby Squids, Fennel & Confit Tomatoes

My own fish course was less successful. The red mullet itself had also been cooked faultlessly and was presented beautifully. The squid was also nicely treated, being soft and not at all rubbery. My first reaction was that it tasted sort of like a ‘deconstructed bouillabaisse‘, not a bad thing in and of itself, but it somehow wasn’t the same without the rest of the stew. I then figured out when you ate everything together (including the celery, which still had a bit of crunch left in it, and the confit tomato), it then ‘worked’. But if you just had the fish with the squid and/or sauce it wasn’t quite as complete. I enjoyed it overall but not as much as the seabass.

2009 Borgo Sasso, Sicilia Bianco

The white wine that Roberto recommended (2009 Borgo Sasso, Sicilia Bianco) was perfect for our first three courses. It was particularly fragrant, but was neutral enough to go with the various dishes. It grew on me throughout the evening. It had a very good structure and a nice soft mouthfeel. It was fruity enough, with a touch of spice, and did evolve quite a bit as it sat in the glass – very enjoyable overall.

Quatrième Plat A: Angus Beef & Black Olives, Bone Marrow, Shallots & Swiss Chard (Plus a Side of Morels)

My friend’s Angus beef dish was excellent. The meat had been cooked superbly and was just a smidgen more than rare. The flavor and texture of the beef was spectacular, and surprisingly (to me at least) the sharp and salty olive flavor actually worked with the beef, when taken in small doses. The kitchen had suggested a side of morels to go with the beef, but my friend and I both agreed that they were too rich and didn’t really suit the dish, which was better off as it came originally, though we did appreciate tasting the delicious mushrooms in any case.

Bone Marrow Anyone?

The side of bone marrow was served open-faced and still in the bone on a gold-edged little plate and rested in a bed of sea salt (my heart fluttered for an instant as I thought back to St John’s benchmark version). It tasted good, although I wasn’t exactly sure how you were supposed to combine it with the dish as it was also very rich and another mushy texture. I just ate a bit of it on its own and also spread a bit on my baguette. It may have had a tad too much salt sprinkled on top for me.

Quatrième Plat B: Sweetbreads & Morels, Lettuce & Veal Jus

My meat course was also well executed. It was a very rich dish – but hey, what did I expect? The sweetbreads were cooked beautifully, balanced perfectly between being still just moist while at the same time having a firm enough texture. The veal jus was very rich, and complemented the sweetbreads well. I am a lover of morels and these didn’t disappoint. Everything worked together in concert here, although I was finally starting to get full at this point. 🙂

2008 Cuvée des Drilles, Domaine d'Escausses

The red wine recommend by Roberto to go with my main course of sweetbreads was the 2008 Cuvée des Drilles, Domaine d’Escausses. It hails from the Southwest of France and is made up of 3 grapes: Duras (80%), Iron Servadou (10%) and Gamay (10%). There was a lot going on in this wine, especially on the nose, with the Gamay lending a particular fragrance, despite being such a small part of the overall mix. It had a nice gentle spice and some good red fruit, and to my surprise it went really well with the rich sweetbreads dish (I should have trusted Mr. della Pietra!).

The Dessert Menu – Ooh La La

Whereas the first four courses had been printed on the main menu, the dessert options were listed on a separate little menu and included a range of sweets and a selection of cheeses. We had a difficult time making our minds up, but our deliberation turned out to pay dividends.

Pre-Dessert Palate Cleanser: Strawberries & Basil Granita

Before the main desserts arrived, we were presented with a dainty little palate cleanser. Sure, strawberry and basil is a classic combination, but it was carried out very successfully here. Sweet strawberry mixed with crushed, basil-infused ice. ‘Nuff said. 🙂

Cinquième Plat A: Raspberry Millefeuille, Red Fruits Sorbet

My friend loved her dessert. I had a bite too (of course…) and thought that the pastry was nice and light and that the raspberries were perfectly sweet and tart. The sorbet was good, but not amazing. We both thought it was a very pretty and satisfying dessert.

Cinquième Plat B: Golden Louis XV, Dark Chocolate & Pralin

This is another Gauthier classic which has been transported from Roussillon to Gauthier Soho, and thank goodness – it’s divine. It begins with a base of chewy hazelnut meringue, then there is a layer of what I believe is white chocolate and hazelnut croquante, then there is a rich chocolate mousse and then some exceedingly good plain chocolate is melted around the outer layer, providing a luscious consistency. Finally, this regal dessert is crowned with edible gold leaf. It is a downright naughty dessert, and I enjoyed every bite!

Petit Fours: Shortbread, Chocolate Truffles, Financier

Even though we elected not to have tea or coffee, we were still provided with petit fours. All of them were very good. The financier was one of the better I’ve had and the homemade shortbread was first-class, as were the rich and not overly buttery or overly sweet truffles.

The last laugh

My friend and I decided to have a look around the rest of the townhouse and spent a bit of time in the cellar with Roberto. Just as at Roussillon, the wine list is at Gauthier Soho is excellent, with over two-thirds sourced from France and about one-third emanating from the Southwest, Roussillon, Languedoc, Jura and Savoie regions – the list is full of unusual wines from interesting producers and tends to complement Gauthier’s style of cooking. He explained that all of the wines available on the restaurant’s wine list were also available for retail sale directly from the cellar (sans the mark-up), which has all of Gauthier Soho’s wines on display. This is a great innovation, and one which I have seen at only a few higher-end restaurants, as if a customer tastes a wine that they love, they don’t have to go through the hassle of trying to source it but can instead just pick up a bottle, a half-case or a case from the restaurant directly at a competitive price. Roberto also said that they will be able to arrange delivery, and can also create mixed half-cases and cases by special arrangement.

As we returned to our table, everyone in the dining room seemed a bit more jolly and animated than before. They informed me that I had left my camera on the chair and should be more careful in looking after it in the future. Then one gentleman proceeded to ask me if I was a restaurant critic and we got on the subject of blogging, which they seemed to find interesting. It was only after my friend and I arrived at our next destination (we went to Milk & Honey’s Red Room for a nightcap), that we saw what the other diners had done.

The Other Guests Certainly Enjoyed Themselves!

Yes, they had taken funny photos of themselves with my camera – we nearly spit out our drinks with laughter when we saw these hilarious photos.

A promising start

We had a very enjoyable meal at Gauthier Soho, and it’s almost hard to believe that they had only been open for four days when we dined there. Things ran remarkably smoothly all things considered. The only niggles were that a few of the newly recruited staff members were still finding their feet and a few appeared slightly nervous (but I suppose this is to be expected), and we had a rather long wait between our third and fourth courses as the restaurant was then fully booked. I recall saying to my dining companion that although the menu format is somewhat of a triumph for the diner, it must be an absolute nightmare for the kitchen as you are free to order any combination of the three, four or five courses that you wish.

As the above commentary suggests, the food was on the whole very enjoyable and precisely executed. To me, Gauthier’s strength is his delicate handling of primary ingredients (i.e. fish and meat are nearly always cooked flawlessly, and he is a master of presenting vegetables in a new light) and his subtle and sometimes unusual flavor combinations, which often lend a certain Mediterranean streak to what is otherwise quite traditional Southern French cuisine. Strangely enough, we only had one course which was totally vegetarian on this occasion (the green pea velouté), but there were lots of veggie options on offer throughout the main menu. Gauthier Soho seems to have created a very pleasant backdrop to showcase Alexis’ refined cuisine, and from what I could tell on this preview visit, he might look to experiment a little more in this new venue, both in terms of the format of the menu and the composition of his dishes – but the cooking and experience remains much the same as it was at Roussillon.

His decision to move house to Soho is a telling one, as for me, this is where a lot of the most exciting, fun and enjoyable new openings have sprung up in the last few years. I truly hope he also finds Soho to be a good home for his kitchen and his team, and the opening of Gauthier Soho is certainly another welcome addition to the growing stable of diverse and desirable dining destinations in the neighbourhood.

*Note: I have dined at Gauthier Soho once and, as it was for dinner during their ‘soft opening’, the meal was complementary.*

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