Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Tom Aikens

Two of the greatest cricket writers ever to grace the page, Neville Cardus and John Arlott, could never agree who had the better job: Cardus, who ascribed his good fortune in becoming both the cricket and the music correspondent of the Manchester Guardian to 'no less than an act of providence', or Arlott, whose writings on wine are held in inestimable esteem by perhaps the best known of contemporary wine writers, Jancis Robinson. Cardus, perhaps apocryphally, settled the argument by telling Arlott of his dalliances with attractive violinistes, before asking if Arlott had experienced any similar success with winemakers.

The combination of music and cricket, and cricket and wine, seems a natural fit. All three are pursuits in which dedication - to the point of obsessiveness - is crucial, and where an attention to the finest detail lies at the heart of the difference between success and mediocrity. The same is true of restaurants: in cooking, as in music, cricket and wine, the gulf between mere competency and genuine excellence is unbridgeable by all but the most talented. A amateur performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto, a county cricketer's cover drive, or a Cru Classé Bordeaux may all be described in glowing terms and may satisfy our hopes and expectations, but each is blown out of the water by du Pré, Vaughan or Mitjavile.

Just as my cricketing hopes are dashed every time I watch Michael Vaughan crack another boundary between two despairing fielders, so my culinary ambitions take a knock every time I visit Tom Aikens. His eponymous Chelsea restaurant, now the flagship to a burgeoning empire that encompasses the full range of styles from Michelin-starred 'Modern European', through no frills British cooking at Tom's Kitchen, to good old fish 'n chips at Tom's Place, is quite the finest demonstration of the gap - in ambition, talent and skill - between good home cooking and the kind of whizz-bang perfection that seduces the Michelin inspectors.

I've now eaten there three times: the first eighteen months ago, on a winter's day just before Christmas, with a friend destined to become the kind of Yummy Mummy - with four children and as many labradors - at whom Tom's Kitchen is perfectly targeted; again last Valentine's Day with the Blonde; and again last week with the Teuton, who despite his ice-cool exterior becomes passionately animated on his twin favourite subjects of fine food and finer wine.

Our lunch - always lunch - began with an amuse-bouche of tomato jelly, tomato foam, basil oil and lobster. As an opening gambit, it was the Michelin equivalent of a sharp bouncer in the first over, delivered not so much to close the deal as to show exactly what its progenitor is capable of. The remarkable aspect of the dish - aside from its improbability - was the intensity of the flavours: the tomato foam began with the sweetness of vine-ripened cherry tomatoes before giving way to the greener stalkiness of the vine itself; the basil oil gave a pure, breathy hit of basil that lingered throughout, and the lobster appeared at the bottom of the glass like a forgotten pearl. As culinary theatre, the amuse bouche is unsurpassed: it doesn't have to fit any concepts of what constitutes a dish, it doesn't have to be 'substantial' or 'filling', and it certainly doesn't have to make sense. What it does is to exhibit the skill of the kitchen in microcosm: like Tiger on a pitch-and-putt. or Pinter on a postcard, talent is squeezed into the smallest of formats as if to boast that supreme skill can flourish on any canvas, and is perhaps at its best, like a Fabergé egg, in miniature. Such was the pyrotechnical perfection of the very first dish, the bar was set mightily high, and I feared - as William Boyd would have it - that my sky-high expectations might ruin my (because one cannot, before lunch, lunch) lunch.

I needn't have feared: each course of the Aikens lunch menu (of which we tasted all six dishes) matched the standard that had been set so high. Our starters played perfectly to the gallery: a terrine of foie gras, with celeriac rémoulade, parsley, chopped truffle and honey truffle emulsion, once again demonstrated the technical skill of the kitchen, although - if I were to be picky - the terrine (somewhat like a foie gras Carambar) somewhat diminished the sheer richness that is rather the point. It was matched superbly well by our sommelier with a Scharzhofberger Spätlese Riesling, Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer 2002, which provided the clean acidity to cut through the foie gras whilst giving a delicious hint of sweetness.

The Teuton's starter was Crab meat with lemon purée, avocado dice, pasta sheet and lemongrass foam. At the risk of being too prescriptive, I issued instructions across the table to take the tiniest fleck of foam, awaiting the wide-eyed appreciation at such an expanse of flavour being contained in so little: the appreciation duly came, beginning with a twitch of the corners of the mouth and ended in a full-throated exclamation of approval, and from then on we knew we would not be disappointed. After lengthy perusal of the extensive wine list, we had settled on a glass of Rully 'Maizières', Domaine Vincent Dureuil-Janthial 2005 to accompany the crab. The selection of white Burgundy explored the alternative food matching strategy to that of the foie gras/Riesling combination (in which the flavours, through conflicting, boost one another) by providing a clean yet richly textured base on which the delicacy of the crab could shine.

Our main courses sustained the standard, with a dish simply dubbed 'Turbot', which had been poached in pea soup, and arrived accompanied by truffle mash, crushed peas and pea purée, and one called 'Pigeon', a roasted pigeon breast with confit leg, onion Lyonnaise, onion purée and spring onion. We further indulged our Burgundy fixation with a half bottle of Morey-Saint-Denis Domaine Arlaud 2004. The Blonde and I had tasted the 2002 vintage on Valentine's Day last year, sparking a year-long Morey hunt, and whilst I found the 2004 - somewhat typically of the vintage - to be slightly reticent and acidic, the producer's class was evident in a difficult year and it proved an excellent accompaniment.

The lunch menu's dessert du jour was a roasted apricot with caramelised almond, pistachio mousse, apricot sorbet and vanilla honey glaze, which was at once a piece of showmanship and a delightfully intricate dessert. I ignored desserts in favour of one of the most magnificent cheese trolleys I have ever seen: I remember few details about the cheeses themselves, except to say that the waiter who served them was comprehensive in his knowledge and spot-on in his advice. After his patient yet schoolmasterly insistence that 'Vacherin is out of season', he delivered a superb selection which began with two goat's cheeses, moved on through a smoked cheddar and a soft, Brie-like creamy cheese and finished with a teaspoon (presumably it would have taken a blow-torch to remove it) of a cheese so strong that Customs would close the ports.

We considered opening the Port to accompany our cheese, but it being lunchtime and there being a Twenty20 match at the Oval not to fall asleep in front of, we asked the sommelier for advice on a lighter alternative that would complement our cheese and finish our lunch on the right note. His suggestion of a Apostoles Palo Cortado Muy Viejo was perfect: until he suggested it, I hadn't realised that it was exactly what I wanted; when he did, I knew. Its dry, raisined nuttiness was the ideal conclusion to an excellent lunch.

Next time I decide to pull out all the stops, I can only dream that I would sound a note so sweet as Aikens: his is a kitchen on top form. If Aiken's brigade were a cricket team, they'd be the Australians of Steve Waugh's sixteen victories, modern and inventive yet ruthlessly, efficiently supreme: if Cardus and Arlott were to venture down Elystan Street for one last celestial lunch before finally ascending to the Long Room in the sky, perhaps they'd discover the inspiration to add yet another string to their bow.

Tom Aikens
43 Elystan Street, London, SW3 3NT
020 7584 2003

Food: 10
Drink: 9
Service: 9 (one point docked for topping up our water glasses every 3 minutes)
Atmosphere: 8
Total: 36

Wednesday, 18 June 2008


A north-easterner of my acquaintance (think the lovechild of Malcolm Glazer and Shane Warne, fostered by Alan Shearer and David Starkey) recounted to me yesterday his 'welcome to the south of England' moment, when a friend referred to 'your bog-standard tapas bar'.

We Brits are uniquely good at adopting other people's ideas and rendering them unspeakably mediocre, and so it is with tapas: formerly the leitmotif of an entire nation, expressing at one stroke traditions of relaxed dining, nighttime grazing and long evenings with the sand between your toes, to a generation of Brits 'tapas' now represents small scraps of toenail scrapings consumed by the kind of people who take their own lunch to work, when they wish to show off their going-out shirt and impress with their worldliness their latest attempt to foist their genes upon the world.

And Ortega does not help.

Ortega is quite simply the worst 'restaurant' I have had the misfortune to visit since I made the egregious error of visiting Morocco during Ramadan. We should have read the signs (admittedly not actually a sign in the window with the instruction 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here', although by law one should be installed in foot-high neon lettering), when on a Friday evening in central London, after abortive attempts to eat in real restaurants, Ortega was empty and practically begging for our custom. The evening started in standard fashion, with little to warn of the horrors to come: a bottle of Cava, consumed in the bar, dulled our senses somewhat before our descent into Hell, but if Ortega wish to follow this line they should invest in Rohypnol. And chain people to their tables.

So, after downing a bottle of Cava and bagging an excellent corner table - it's a great room, wasted on such incompetent idiots - we were feeling primed for the full-on, sand-between-the-toes experience. It was certainly an experience.

Our first warning sign came when the desired bottle of Albarino (a tapas staple, if ever there was one) was unavailable - a fact only discovered after ten minutes' rootling around behind a bar well stocked with tetra-pak Sangria - and requests to replace it with the house white were dismissed with nary an explanation. We settled, somewhat against better judgement - or, indeed, any sort of judgement - on a Macabeo.

There's often a moment, whether it's during a meal, a cricket match, an interview or a date, when you know things are not going to turn out well. Steve Harmison's Ashes assault on second slip springs to mind: if Ortega were Steve Harmison, at this point they'd have delivered the ball directly to the back of midwicket's head.

Our waiter, bringing our distinctly warm Macabeo, decided that to leave any in the bottle would be to waste the capacity of the glasses in which they'd invested: he proceeded, despite the presence of four full glasses of Cava already on the table, to empty our entire bottle of wine in our glasses, making a great show of extinguishing the last drop and suggesting to me, holding the bottle aloft like the spoils of battle, that I might like another. I didn't. And I won't.

I object, in the first place, to the constant topping-up of wine glasses: I wish not only to pace my own drinking (fast, usually, but not as fast as accountants, and apparently waiters, would like), but also to allow my wine to develop in the glass without the constant interference of another slug from the bottle. I object to being pressured to buy another bottle, and I certainly object to wine - already warm - being poured before we'd finished our drinks. This wasn't so much wine breathing as dying: not waving, but drowning.

I was in such a foul mood by this point - before any food had arrived - that Tom Aikens could have turned up with a portable stove and cooked his entire tasting menu for me to share with Michael Vaughan and I would still have gone home disappointed. Tom Aikens was apparently busy, however - perhaps rescuing London's reputation from the abyss into which Ortega seems intent on dragging it - so, unfortunately, Ortega's own 'chefs' send forth their best efforts.

It's difficult to write anything about the food itself. It wasn't bad. It certainly wasn't good. Its only saving grace was that the portions were so small.

55 Charterhouse Street, London, EC3V 6HA

Food: 5
Drink: 2 (decent Cava salvages 2 points)
Service: 0
Atmosphere: 3
Total: 10

Tuesday, 17 June 2008


"Btw, Vinoteca is my favouritist place in the whole world". As a morning-after assessment from the Recanted Vegetarian, one of my most fastidious foodie friends, it's an invitingly simple recommendation that should be stencilled on the window in five-foot high letters. Such a succinct verdict captures the charm of Vinoteca so perfectly that the City firms who specialise in charging vast sums of money for telling people what they already know should be clamouring for his services.

Vinoteca inspires such a child-like, wide-eyed admiration that the sheer simplicity of the concept almost goes unnoticed. Simplicity is the name of the game here: a small room, simply furnished, with brasserie-style oak furniture and a short, classic but ever-inventive menu. As I'm often moved to complain after yet another disappointing gastropub meal, if you're going to do simple, you've got to do perfect, and Vinoteca does. The room is always immaculate (faint praise, perhaps, but I'm constantly astonished by the number of restaurants and bars littered with cardboard boxes and yesterday's coffee cups), the staff are bright, relaxed and impeccably-informed, and the food is creative, hearty and perfectly judged.

The central pillar of Vinoteca's success, though, is the lengthy, lovingly-compiled, awe-inducing wine list. If, like me, you ignore the menu in favour of the wine list for at least the first twenty minutes of any meal, you'll find yourself being swept up at midnight having not even glanced at the food on offer: even the most perfunctory scan down the list will draw nods of recognition, exclamations of surprise and gasps of I-thought-I-was-the-only-one-who-knew.

Two recent visits demonstrate the versatility of Vinoteca's concept: one on a dull Monday in the office, when a walk to Smithfield and a lengthy lunch seemed the only respite from the long minutes of corporate slump, and the other late on a Friday evening with the Recanted Vegetarian, seeking solace after an extraordinarily incompetent meal at Ortega (about which more Whining later).

Our evening visit, after a meal of such appalling hopelessness that anger subsided in favour of pitying disbelief, was the perfect tonic to the rough end of London's abscess of restaurant mediocrity. The Recanted Vegetarian and I almost exhausted our thirsty friends' patience in our increasingly excitable perusals of the wine racks, before settling on a mind-bogglingly good bottle of 'Hilltops' Shiraz from Clonakilla. The bar staff, including one with the most encyclopaedic knowledge of the Canberra District I've ever encountered, coped admirably with my requests for an ice bucket, a decanter, and, later, an ice bucket for the decanter, and struck the balance between satisfying our anorak pretensions and allowing our friends to believe that we might one day remove our noses from the glass and speak to them. Our faith in humankind restored by one of the deepest, most fragrant bottles of Australian Shiraz I've ever tasted, we finished with a chilled half-bottle of Quinta do Infantado Tawny Port and wandered (read: ran headlong for the last Tube) into the night.

At lunchtime the following Monday, Vinoteca was the perfect hideaway, with owner Brett Woonton (he of the Refreshers-tube shirts and Media glasses, formerly of Enotria and the superb Liberty Wines) manning the bar and a restaurant full of work-shy twenty-somethings. My companion - a Diesel-wearing, Aviator-sporting, Vespa-riding management consultant, achingly cool despite living with his parents in Richmond - had a chargrilled Bavette steak (medium-rare, as instructed on the menu: that's a gratifyingly ballsy chef) with the menu-paired glass of Dolcetto, whilst I came over all vegetarian and had an excellent asparagus tart, always a tricky one to match, with an honest, crisp, citrussy Vin de Pays du Gers. We finished with espressos (i?) and homemade chocolate truffles, before rolling back to the office in a considerably finer mood.

Simplicity is an admirable aim. When food is well-sourced and a menu well constructed, when a wine list is carefully selected, when the room is simply furnished, and when the staff are pleasant and knowledgeable, the perfect restaurant needs little more. Too often, the search for simplicity ends up falling short of even the most conservative expectations, but Vinoteca leaves even the harshest critic reaching for his dusty adjectives of acclamation: it is, quite simply, the finest wine bar in London, and, indeed, a strong contender to be my favouritist place in the whole world.

Vinoteca, 7 St John St, Smithfield, London, EC1M 4AA
020 7253 8786

Food: 7
Drink: 10
Service: 7
Atmosphere: 9
Total: 33