Lanka – The Perfect Little Place in Primrose Hill

Lanka
71 Regents Park Road
London NW1 8UY
Website
Map
Note: Lanka is a small cafe with stool seating and three small tables; reservations are not taken

  • Pâtisserie & cakes from £3-4 (eating in) coffees & teas from £2-3 (eating in or taking out), plus a small daily menu of savory dishes from £5-10

I always enjoy paying a visit to Lanka. Their cakes are delicious & technically well made, with new flavors constantly being introduced (often bringing an infusion of Japanese flavors to French classics); their coffees are well made; there is a wealth of tea options; and the growing offering of savory dishes are cooked & presented with the same passion and care as everything else. Lanka is a breath of fresh air and breaks the mold of the High Street pâtisserie chains, bringing a lovely charm and individuality to the already pleasant High Street of Primrose Hill.

A fusion that works

In late February, Mrs. LF and I went for a stroll in Primrose Hill. I noticed that there was a new shop that hadn’t been there last time we were walking in the neighborhood, and my spidey-senses began tingling.

Lanka's muted gray facade, accented with little dots of pink

The place was called Lanka. It had a muted gray facade, and some beautiful pink potted plants neatly placed outside its shop front, immediately setting it apart. I peered in through the window and noticed that it the staff all seemed to be Japanese, but that the main thing on offer seemed to be some very French-looking pâtisserie and cakes. It looked very appetizing and inviting. Intrigued, we decided to step inside to see what this was all about.

The pretty, petite & spotless interior of Lanka

It turned out that Lanka is indeed owned and run by a Japanese man. The proprietor, Chef Masayuki Hara, is originally from Japan and since moving to the UK has worked in some very prestigious kitchens, including the two Michelin starred Le Gavroche. He has worked with a number of chefs over the years as well, such as Antony Worrall Thompson and Richard Corrigan, to name a few. In the early part of the new millennia, he moved into private catering, working for an exclusive company catering to City executives, and has now set up his own high-end catering company. Besides the cafe, Chef Hara offers cookery classes, bespoke private dining, party catering and a range of made-to-order cakes and pâtisserie.

The cafe is very cute, always immaculately clean and the service is good once you can gain the staff members’ attention, as they always seem to be busy helping someone, preparing something, or washing up. Chef Hara has been there himself on each of our visits, and I believe it is always a good sign when the owner is present, especially in such an intimate neighborhood place.

As we guessed from looking at the display from outside, Lanka does indeed specialize in French-style pâtisserie and cakes, many of which have a little twist, often with a Japanese infusion. Since first opening, they have gradually expanded their offering, and now have a small daily menu of savory dishes which are perfect for brunch, lunch or a mid-afternoon snack, as well as having expanded their drink range to include a range of iced tea cocktails (non-alcoholic and alcoholic). They use Monmouth Coffee beans and have an exclusive range of high-end teas (they are apparently the only ones to sell Expolanka Teas in the UK).

It is an inviting, fun and relaxing place to grab a quick bite, whether sweet or savory, and Chef Hara is a perfectionist, which is visible in everything they do. When you eat-in, your chosen slice of sweetness is presented beautifully, with a little dab of syrup or sauce, a side of their rich vanilla ice cream, and a few other tidbits, making for a very pretty plate every time (each sweet is dressed slightly differently, from what I’ve been able to make out). The coffees are made well and their hot chocolate is also good (even the infamous hot chocolate fiend @mathildecuisine gave it the thumbs up!). Their savory offerings are prepared with the same care and lovely presentation, and we really enjoyed our recent brunch there.

I have included some photos and brief descriptions of the different things we’ve had at Lanka over our many visits to give you a better idea of what they serve.

Chocolate Green Tea Gâteau

The green color certainly got our attention and we were curious to taste this interesting looking cake. The texture was very nice although the green tea flavor was fairly muted. The ever-finicky Mrs. LF said that she loves the flavor of green tea and wished it would have been more pronounced in this cake. I agreed with her and thought that while it was nice, it didn’t deliver on the flavor that the color hinted it might have.

Lemon Tart

The classic lemon tart was also very nice and well made, though not earth-shattering. It’s not a lemon tart with a difference, like the little Ottolenghi lemon and mascarpone tarts (probably the best ones I’ve ever had) or the fantastic classic lemon tarts from Clarke’s, but it does the job if that’s what you fancy.

Green Tea Bread & Butter Pudding

This was a Japanese spin on the traditional bread & butter pudding and tasted very good. Having said that, on our most recent visit, Chef Hara had us taste another version of the bread & butter pudding, which had a lovely tartness to it provided by some sultanas and berries, and we both preferred that version – it was really special. It’s this kind of interaction and passion that makes the place worth coming back to – there’s always something different on offer.

Pear Charlotte

The traditional pear charlotte was really excellent and full of the flavor of fresh pears. The consistency was also spot-on, and this one worked particularly well with the side of vanilla ice cream and a dab of acidity from the raspberry sauce.

Paris-Brest

Mrs. LF said that their Paris-Brest was “the real thing,” although the cream itself is traditionally more of a praline-brown color and she prefers hers with slightly more hazelnut flavor. That said, she noted that the homemade puff pastry was very light and excellent. Although it is served with a blob of chocolate on the side (probably simply for decoration), she said she would never deflower her Paris-Brest with an alien ingredient – such a traditionalist, our Mrs LF!

Passion Fruit Bavarois

I really enjoyed this passion fruit dessert and, in fact, preferred it to their lemon tart (which is usually one of my favorite desserts).

Mont-Blanc

On our most recent visit, Mrs. LF sampled the Mont-Blanc, which we had looked at many times in the past but for some reason never ordered. It is a chestnut-based dessert and was fabulous, with the delicate flavor of chestnut being infused well throughout, which is not necessarily easy to achieve as chestnut is not a strong flavor and often doesn’t come through well enough. At its summit was placed a whole chestnut, which is reminiscent marron glacé (a popular confection eaten in France around Christmas time), and there was a second one concealed within. This lent a very nice authenticity to the dessert, which we both really enjoyed.

Rum Baba

The last time I was at Lanka, I sampled their rum baba, which is one of the best I’ve had – even Mrs. LF agreed. Everything was in perfect balance. It was just moist enough, but not too much; the flavor of the rum was noticeable, but not overly so; and the ratio of cream to soft cake was just as it should be. I really enjoyed Chef Hara’s version of this classic dessert, after having been let down many a time in the past with inferior versions in restaurants of all sorts. As Mrs. LF pointed out, even if you don’t particularly like rum baba, it just looks so d*mn good, it’s quite difficult not to want to try some!

Scrambled Eggs, Smoked Salmon, Salad

Mrs. LF really enjoyed her recent brunch. The eggs were nice and creamy and dotted with chopped chives, the smoked salmon had been dressed with capers, and the salad leaves were particularly fresh – something to note given it was a Bank Holiday Monday (when we’ve often had issues with fresh salad leaves in restaurants). As you can see, the portion was also very generous, and it was served with some freshly baked bread on the side.

Cheese Omelette, Baguette, Salad

My cheese omelette was also very nice, presented in a classic style. The homemade baguette was particularly good (especially the crust) and I also enjoyed the little side salad, which had been just coated with dressing and well seasoned.

Macchiato

Double Espresso

Hibiscus Tea

Hot Chocolate

As noted above, the hot chocolate is particularly good, very rich and almost all chocolate with not too much milk. I will direct you to Mathilde Cuisine for any further enquiries, as she is the undisputed master in this arena.

The preparation table

Another thing I like about Lanka is that there is always something baking or being newly prepared, and Chef Hara is constantly experimenting with new flavor combinations. He often lets you sample things he is making to get your feedback, which is a lot of fun.

Even your dog will like it at Lanka 🙂

Abstaining from the dog biscuits, we instead took home some of their macarons one day & many of the flavors were very nice

Personality goes a long way

Lanka is definitely a great addition to Primrose hill. The word ‘Lanka’ means ‘island’, which I think is fitting in this case as it represents its own little island of cuteness, deliciousness and individuality in this shabby-chic high street. Places like this, which are infused with not only the flavors of the owner’s homeland but also their personality, are a dying breed and I love eateries like Lanka which break the monotony of higher-end chains such as Paul or Patisserie Valerie.

Although you may not feel like trekking all the way across town if you live on the opposite side of London, if you do happen reside in the general vicinity or are ever passing through, definitely stop by this delightful island of loveliness.

PS – Chef Hara has his own blog, which you may want to check out.

*Note: I have been to Lanka four times since it opened, mostly for sweets and coffee, but once for brunch.*

Lanka on Urbanspoon

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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.*

Gauthier Soho on Urbanspoon

A Bit More Wining – Saturday at Vinopolis with Oz Clarke + Some Chefs, Critics & Tapas

oz clarke five wines for tasting

We spent a long and enjoyable Saturday at Vinopolis, first enjoying a wine tasting with noted wine expert Oz Clarke, then a self-guided tour of Vinopolis, then popping out for some satisfying tapas at Tapas Brindisa in nearby Borough Market, and finally a front-row seat at a Chef vs. Critics quiz show which included some of the UK’s best known food personalities

The Wine Wizard, Oz

For better or for worse, twitter seems to be my best friend as of late in terms providing access to some great food and wine experiences, and often for free!

As readers of the blog will already be aware, it was through an early leak of the booking line number from fellow tweeter @richardvines that I was able to secure a table at Pierre Koffmann’s pop-up restaurant on top of Selfridges.

More recently, I also scored two free tickets to a wine tasting with well-known wine personality Oz Clarke held at Vinopolis through a competition organized by none other than @vinopolislondon. I was very excited to meet Oz after seeing the first two series of his program with James May, where they first visited France and then California in order to educate the lager-loving petrol head about the merits of fermented grape juice. Oz’s down-to-earth attitude and no-nonsense (and, for that matter, no-pretence) approach to wine is refreshing and, in my view, well suited to today’s average wine consumer, who can easily be put off and alienated by wine experts preaching from upon high.

So Mrs. LF and I headed down to Borough Market for our 3pm date with Oz and five of his top wines for 2010. The event took place within the cavernous vaults at Vinopolis, which are used for their own events and I presume would also make an excellent venue for corporate events and other private shindigs as well. The vaults originally stretched from Vinopolis’ location (just a few steps Northwest of Borough Market) Eastward down the river all the way to the end of Tooley Street and were the center of the British wine trade in Victorian times up through the beginning of the second world war.

As you can see below, it is quite a cool space, and so it was that…

...the stage was set...

...the stage was set...

...then was filled.

...then was filled.

The audience was ready...

The audience was ready...

...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.

...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.

I wasn’t exactly sure of the format of the session, but it ended up being a lot of Oz doing what he does best: storytelling. In fact, he is a master storyteller, which makes sense given his earlier career in theatre with such troops as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre and The Old Vic, amongst others.

While we did taste each of the five wines he had selected – usually with him nonchalantly asking the audience “Shall we have a swig of this one?” or something similar – and while he did offer some brief and insightful thoughts on how he thought the wine tasted, what I remember most are the accompanying stories he used to bring the countries and wineries that these wines came from to life. It was brilliant entertainment that was educational at the same time, and everyone seemed to be having a good time, Oz included. Although I did wonder if it would be a bit boring for him doing two further sessions of a similar nature that same afternoon, complete with book signings at each. But, alas, I guess these are the trappings of success, eh?

Oz’s storytelling reaches its peak as he recounts the gales he experienced while at a vineyard in Northern Chile

Oz’s storytelling reaches its peak as he recounts the gales he experienced while at a vineyard in Northern Chile

You can find my brief notes about the wines we sampled below, some of which were pretty outstanding for their respective price brackets.

  • Roederer Estate Quartet, Brut Sparkling Wine NV (Anderson Valley, California)
    • Notes: Very fruity (notably pear) with beautiful miniscule bubbles, a tad of toastiness and serious depth. Interesting to note that, according to Oz, there are about 7 million bubbles in each glass of champagne (to be fair, though, he didn’t know which poor sod had been sad enough to do that research). Fair value at £19.99 in my view, as it is comparable to decent entry-level champagnes, if not a fair bit nicer than some of them.
  • 2008 Villa Maria Cellar Selection, Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand)
    • Notes: I have tried the 2007 ‘normal’ version and thought it was a great, classic Kiwi Sauvignon. This wine had a light and bright appearance, a nose of apple, lime and fresh grass, and on the palate it was dominated by greens as well (green apples, grass, nettles, even green pepper). The bottle has a screwcap, which Oz rather likes as he believes it is better for fresh, young white wines and obviously far more consistent than cork. A fine Sauvignon for £10.19.
  • 2005 Kooyong Estate, Chardonnay (Mornington Peninsula, Australia)
    • Notes: For me, this was the clear winner out of the five. It was a marvellous chardonnay, with a golden, rich straw color in the glass, a slightly citrusy and floral nose (plus some butter), and a little streak of refreshing acidity along with some fruitiness to balance what I thought was mostly a creamy, buttery, smoky and nutty depth. It had excellent length. Not inexpensive at £18.95, but it was one of the better chardonnays I’ve tasted recently, and certainly compares strongly with white Burgundies in the same price range. I wasn’t all that shocked to see that it was Oz’s #1 wine for 2010 in his new book when I opened it up after getting home.
  • 2006 Vina Falernia, Syrah Reserva (Elqui Valley, Chile)
    • Notes: A lovely deep, dark red in the glass, with a lot of smoke on the nose. On the palate it was again smoky, with notes of cigar tobacco and also some blackberry fruit. It was a very intense wine, and I agree with Oz in that it does have a very Northern Rhône feel about it. Cracking value at £10.95 in my opinion.
  • 2006 Yalumba ‘The Scribbler’, Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah (Barossa Valley, Australia)
    • Notes: To be honest, I forgot to write anything down about this wine as I was a bit caught up on one of Oz’s stories. Oz says it “has a fascinating initial flavor of blackcurrant and mint, scented with a few drops of eucalyptus oil and a scrape of lemon zest. There’s some decent rasping tannin too and the whole experience is hugged by plump, chocolaty Shiraz.” Literally couldn’t have said it better myself! £14.99 a pop.
Oz and Laissez’s Big Wine Photo

Oz and Laissez’s Big Wine Photo

After the session, we purchased a copy of his pocket-sized 2010 wine guide and I had a brief conversation with the big man himself while he signed our book. I have used his 2009 guide quite a bit this year, and found his recommended wines to be very good for the price in general, with the exception of one or two which didn’t suit my taste. So I am much looking forward to taking advantage of his 2010 guide, which seems to be composed of much different wines than last year’s collection of 250 recommendations, although some of the same producers do feature heavily in both (i.e. Tim Adams, Primo Estate and Villa Maria).

Wine guide authors & publishers: how can you can make your readers’ lives easier?

Wine guide authors & publishers: how can you can make your readers’ lives easier?

One thing I would suggest, both for Oz, and for other authors (and publishers) of such annual guides, is to make their recommendations more usable for readers. For example, while they do list which suppliers carry each wine at the end of the description, there is no way for you to easily find which bottles out of the hundreds in the book are available at, say, Waitrose or Tesco when you walk in.

At the beginning of the year, I actually created my own spreadsheet, which is broken down by supermarket/wine shop (the ones I tend to visit the most), and what wines are available at each place that I have found interesting from all of the different wine magazines, guides and books I have read as of late. It is a fairly simple thing to do, but it is extremely time consuming and labor intensive for the consumer (and only geeks like me will take the time to do so).

So, my suggestion to publishers and authors is simple: include an index in the back of your book that is organized by store. It should just be a simple list with the largest national supermarkets and wine merchant chains in bold and all of the wines in your book that are sold at each store underneath (organized by white, rosé, red, sweet), along with the page number that the detailed review can be found on. There is no need to include all of the smaller/independent wine shops in this index if there are tons of them mentioned in your book/guide, but it would be great if the next time we walk into a supermarket or major wine merchant, we can be armed with a list of wines we might be interested in buying without having to commit the information to memory or create Excel workbooks :).

…In any case, the tasting session and chat with Oz were great, and Mrs. LF and I both enjoyed our time very much. But it turned out that our day at Vinopolis wasn’t over just yet. The kind people there had given us complimentary tickets for a tour around Vinopolis itself (which I had done before and enjoyed doing again), and also some more free tickets to attend the ‘Starter for Ten’ quiz show, which was one of the London Restaurant Festival events, that happened to be held at Vinopolis in another of their many private function rooms. With the prospect of seeing such chefs as Richard Corrigan and Rowley Leigh fight it out with critics including Giles Coren and Matthew Norman, we would have been stupid to pass the opportunity up.

So, after winding our way through the Vinopolis tour, we headed to Borough Market to get a spot of early dinner before the quiz began.

Briskly to Brindisa

Unfortunately, the market had pretty much wound down by the time we headed out, but fortunately Tapas Brindisa was open, and somehow they had a table for two. Perfect! I had always wanted to eat here given how popular it seems to be amongst foodies, but this was the first time I’d actually tried, so I was excited.

After perusing the menu for a while, we decided on a few dishes and they came out very quickly, with the exception of my sardines, which I checked on twice, and after assuring me they had been ordered (twice) finally appeared about 10 minutes after all of the other dishes had been polished off (?!).

Spanish Potato Omelette (£4.50); Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Allioli & Fresh Mint Sauce (£8.75); Onion & Rocket Salad with Pear, Quince & Kokos Vinaigrette (£3.20)

Spanish Potato Omelette (£4.50); Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Allioli & Fresh Mint Sauce (£8.75); Onion & Rocket Salad with Pear, Quince & Kokos Vinaigrette (£3.20)

First to arrive were the omelette, lamb chops and salad.

The potato omelette was surprisingly good for being such a plain dish. I thought it was seasoned well and it had a very good texture of half egg, half soft potato. Mrs. LF agreed, and enjoyed it mucha. 7/10.

The lamb chops were also well seasoned and nice and moist, though they had spent maybe a minute too long on the heat for my liking and were just barely pink in the middle. While there was a fairly spicy allioli to accompany them, I didn’t particularly like it and ate them solo for the most part. They were fine, but didn’t have that extra flavor hit to make them stand out and be memorable. 6/10.

The salad was the disappointment of the bunch. It was really a salad of red onions, with not much rocket and the pears being almost nonexistent. But the thing we both noticed (and still remember) was that it had a very strange taste permeating throughout. At first, we thought it must have come from the quince, but then again quince is a fruit, and that didn’t make any sense. I thought it tasted like corn nuts, but slightly sour ones. Maybe it was the ‘Kokos’, but I don’t know what it/they are. In any case, neither of us liked this distinct flavor. 3/10.

Pan Fried Padrón Peppers (£5.00)

Pan Fried Padrón Peppers (£5.00)

Despite at first glance all looking alike, there were a couple different types of peppers on the plate, some of which had a wicked little kick (Mrs. LF’s nose began to run), and some of which were very mild. They all had a rich, sweet taste and a nice sour acidity to boot. We only ordered them because the huge and rambunctious table next to us had a plate of them and they looked too good to pass up. Plus Mrs. LF fancied eating them with her omelette, which did turn out to be a good combination. We really enjoyed these green little guys. 7/10.

Pan Fried Sardines with Red Onion Salad & Chilli (£6.50)

Pan Fried Sardines with Red Onion Salad & Chilli (£6.50)

The sardines finally arrived and they were alright too (they certainly were very nicely presented). The fish was soft and meaty and had a nice flavor to it, and I enjoyed the hints of chilli. The skin was pretty soggy though, and seemed to be intentionally so (don’t know if it’s supposed to be for fried sardines?), which didn’t make it all that pleasurable to eat. All in all, another solid but uninspiring dish. 6/10.

I have to say that I did rather like the place overall. I enjoyed the buzzy atmosphere, the quick turnover of tables, and it seemed like everyone there was genuinely having a good time. It is certainly a good place to come with friends and spend a leisurely weekend afternoon. They also have some decent Spanish and Portuguese wines available, both by the glass and bottle. We didn’t order that much, but what we did have was generally cooked well, although from the dishes we chose, I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. When in the area again, I would definitely go back to try sample more of the food.

Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon

Chefs vs. Critics & One Confused Host

After the tapas, we headed back to Vinopolis to watch the quiz show that pitted four famous critics against four well-known chefs. In true University Challenge style, the event was hosted by none other than Bamber Gascoigne, the original host of University Challenge before Paxman began residing over proceedings in 1994.

Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms

Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms

Richard Corrigan (Corrigan’s Mayfair & Bentley’s) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places

Rowley Leigh (Le Café Anglais) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places

The questions had been designed by Fay Maschler, one of the two key organizers of the London Restaurant Festival, and were actually quite difficult, with a number of them baffling the chefs, the critics and audience alike. There were some obscure music-related questions (one where the contestants had to name the composer of songs that ostensibly had something to do with food) and also a few image-based questions (one where they had to name what restaurant was being pictured).

Confound this newfangled technology, thinks Bamber

Confound this newfangled technology, thinks Bamber

The most amusing part of the whole evening was the fact that the very posh and measured Gascoigne could not for the life of him figure out how to change the contestants’ scores correctly. He kept giving points to the wrong side and detracting them from the right one. The audience kept heckling him, but he just didn’t seem to understand how the heck to work the controls. The tech guy from the back of the room had to interject a number of times, coming up to the stage and changing the scores for him. Gascoigne did seem to keep correct scores by writing them down on a piece of paper (old school indeed :)), and one of the organizers in the back of the room was paying attention to every detail and seemed to have the same score as Bamber. I’m not so sure they had it right, but it made for a lot of laughter and fun for the audience.

Giles Coren was licking his lips at something...however there was no food to be seen

Giles Coren was licking his lips at something...however there was no food to be seen & can't we have a smile Toby?

The chefs got off to a bad start, but it was neck-to-neck at the finish – at least they had a good time

The chefs got off to a bad start, but it was neck-to-neck at the finish – at least they had a good time (can't remember what Thomasina was laughing about)

Rowley Leigh (Le Café Anglais) seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan only seemed to know the answers to questions he wasn’t allowed to answer, continuously ringing his buzzer during the other side’s bonus questions, which was also quite comical

Rowley Leigh seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan (of Corrigan's Mayfair and Bentley's) only seemed to know the answers to questions he wasn’t allowed to answer, continuously ringing his buzzer during the other side’s bonus questions, which was also quite comical

In the end, the hour-long quiz was extended by about another half-hour or so and was quite enjoyable for all, especially the audience. We were glad to have been able to see these two often hostile factions let down their hair and have a good time in the spirit of friendly competition.

After a very long day out, mostly spent within various parts of Vinopolis, and with probably a bit too much wine involved (we had complementary cocktails before the quiz show too :)), we headed back towards London Bridge station to get some z’s.