Wednesday, 31 August 2011
Tuesday, 23 August 2011
Supine on a striped sofa in the appropriately titled “Petting Room” of Quo Vadis in Soho, I’m surrounded by leather, lingerie and literature. Resplendent in his signature Burgundy suit and immaculately clipped beard, the dashing, debonair and dangerous Wine Chap, formally known as Tom Harrow, is holding court, explaining to his captive audience that smell is the most powerful, underrated and sensuous of the senses. “We’re drawn to potential mates by their smell – Napoleon went wild for the smell of Josephine’s unwashed body,” he asserts, “and I have it on good authority that I smell great. A dab of Grappa behind each ear and I’m good to go.” Exuding an almost Neanderthal sexual energy, Harrow cuts a swaggering figure in the room. His sidekick, Cecelia, a full-lipped Swede in a raspberry beret and scarlet velvet plus fours, is here to showcase her wares from erotic emporium Bordello, affectionately known as the “nipple of Shoreditch.”
The small square room is accessorised with candy stripe carpets, regal red curtains, art strewn walls and a bookshelf heaving with oddities. The low-slung wooden table in front of me is well seasoned with erotic paraphernalia, from a leather whip fastened with a pair of fur balls that look like they’ve been pilfered from a well-endowed squirrel, to a pastel pink copy of A Compendium of Kisses – an insightful guide to the art of locking lips.
A sprinkling of kinky couples and curious singletons populate the room. Raven haired proprietor Sam Hart perches impishly on the window ledge in the far corner as if hoping to dissolve into the surroundings. We are gathered for Harrow’s Wines of Rapture event, billed as “an inner striptease” celebrating the divine union of Bacchus and Venus. Urging us to use wine – faithful friend of poets and lovers, as a seduction tool, the tasting begins in the land of love (Italy) with Dal Bello Rocca d’Asolo Prosecco, its tongue tingling effervescence compared to the breath of a lover caressing your neck. Light, elegant and delicate, it’s the romantic equivalent of a peck on the cheek.
Foreplay begins in earnest with an unctuous white Burgundy – Domaine Emilian Gillet Vire-Clesse Quintaine 2007, representing, according to Harrow, a “thickening of the juices”. Rich, waxy, honeyed and seductive, there are few things less sublime than the first sip of a creamy white Burgundy. Having lost its primary fruit, brioche and cooked apple notes have made their way to the fore in the liquid embodiment of a lingering kiss. Glancing round the room, I sense the impending urgency of the situation. Lascivious looks are being exchanged and metaphorical clothes are flying off in all directions.
Moving on to the meat of the matter, we tackle Meerlust’s lusty Rubicon 2005, named after Julius Cesar’s historical crossing of the Italian river in 49 BC, and neatly symbolising the point of no return. Weighing in at a hefty 14%, the savage red, full of deep, dark fruit is brooding and sexy; it’s a full-throated roar of a wine, or, as Tom so elegantly puts it, “a man ripping his clothes off and leaping onto his maiden.” Now well oiled, the once timid crowd is engaged in animated banter. The chap opposite me picks up a wooden paddle and spanks his paramour with it, while the couple beside me, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary, appear to be seriously considering the squirrel whip.
Divine intervention follows in the form of Domaine Giraud Châteauneuf-du-Pape; the preferred wine of Pope Clement V. With a nose of lit match, meat, polished leather and musty church pews, it reeks of ecclesiastical vice. “If Bordeaux is your wife and Burgundy your mistress, then Châteauneuf-du-Pape is your dirty weekend,” Harrow quips. Virulently alcoholic and imbued with sweet fruit, the rugged red, with its masculine thrust, smacks of Oliver Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Visibly hot under the collar, and delighting in the debauchery, Harrow launches into an anecdote about the irreverent Italian nobleman Cesare Borgia, who one night swapped partners with his mistress’s 15-year-old daughter mid-stroke. He goes on to explain how a lady’s favourite wine determines how she will be in the bedroom, citing from personal experience that Pinot Grigio girls are pedestrian and predictable, while Barolo quaffers are sexual deviants.
We move swiftly on to the climax – La Giaretta Amarone 2007. Seductively speaking, we’re in the final throws of passion. At 15.5%, this is a beast of a wine. Hedonistic, powerful and concentrated, the lusty liquid brings us to the tipping point, where we dissolve into the mystic bliss of what the French so quaintly call “le petite mort”. At the moment of sweet release, having expended our life force, we transcend the terrestrial and connect with the divine, as our ecstasy takes on a spiritual purity. Post-explosion, we luxuriate in the glorious afterglow with liquid gold provided by delicate dessert wine Château Laurette Saint Croix du Mont 2006. Like the sweet fruit of the gods, the unctuous golden elixir is laced with honeysuckle and almond. This is the cigarette moment – the end of the affair. I’m spent.
For more information about upcoming WineChap events, visit the website
Tuesday, 16 August 2011
I’m nestled in a low-slung black leather booth opposite Jonesy, who, much to his dissatisfaction, is spotlit. Above us hang curious light fixtures that resemble hovering hot pink lipsticks. There are no windows in the basement room, and the restaurant is naked save for a quartet of ladies to my left.
Tucked away far from the madding crowds of Oxford Street in Portland House, Degó, an amalgamation of “degustazione” (tasting) and “osteria” (tavern), boasts walls covered with black and red mosaic tiles seemingly engaged in a frantic game of Tetris. Decked out like a sushi-serving Japanese-themed nightclub, it’s the strangest of surroundings for an Italian restaurant. Running with the osteria theme, they missed a trick by not playing to its strengths and going big on rustic charm.
Split between two floors, at street level a degustation bar serves a selection of wines by the glass, hand picked by Venetian head sommelier Massimo Mioli, and a mixture of charcuterie and antipasti from the Veneto’s throbbing heart. Nearly all the wines on the list are imported from Italy and stored in a humidity-controlled cellar. Downstairs, Dario Schiavo serves up an ambitious selection of dishes.
Having placed our order, Jonesy and I take lingering sips from our Italian-themed cocktails. My Aviation is exemplary: light, lemony and deliciously thirst quenching, it’s like showering in citrus. While waiting for our antipasti, the strangest dish I’ve ever encountered arrives at our booth, consisting of a piece of white bread cut into an isosceles triangle, resting on six small, halved tomatoes. Flummoxed as to its significance, we chomp on it dutifully.
Our ebullient, Italian sommelier Alexandra suggests we might like to try their specialty – a Franciacorta Cuvette Brut 2005. My first experience of the sparkler, made in the same way as Champagne, it glints gold in the generous glass and tastes deceivingly like the French fizz, sharing the same brioche notes. Noticing our delight, Alexandra beams and proclaims bubbles to be Degó’s point of difference.
Charmed by both the sommelier and the wine, I sit back, relaxed, and enjoy the theatre unfolding in front of me. My beef tartare is being prepared by our waitress on an archaic device involving a meat grinder. In it she flings capers, anchovies, onions, garlic, and anything else within arms length, then proudly presents the raw red medallion on a black slate. Soft as an earlobe, it tastes sensationally fresh, almost sashimi-like, and is enhanced by drops of fiery Tabasco. Jonesy’s poppy seed-flecked cod coins are less of a hit, erring on the rubbery side.
Fortunately, greater culinary discoveries are to follow. My primi piatti of homemade fettuccine with morel mushrooms arrives covered in a black blanket of summer truffles. So generous has the chef been, I can hardly see the pasta beneath the razor-thin shavings. The combination of the summer truffles and morels is hedonistic, the buttery pasta mixing seamlessly with the earthy mushrooms into a decadent whole. In another expert pairing from Alexandra, my Montenidoli Fiore Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2008 cuts confidently through the unctuous pasta. Meanwhile, Jonesy’s meat-filled tortellini with butter and sage is hailed a success, with both pasta dishes disappearing off our plates faster than a Ferrari in a high speed chase.
Gripped by existential musings and Jonesy’s tales of taming wild beasts in the South African outback, I barely notice our mains arrive. Mine, a confit of duck leg on a pea green duvet of rocket, avocado and pistachio, his, boned rabbit with veal and prune stuffing. Dressed in rose petals, my dish takes me back to Morocco, where they like to douse everything in rose water. While I appreciate the romanticism of the dish, nay, I can almost hear the Azan call to prayer resounding from the plate, it would have triumphed without the rose. The duck itself is tender and juicy, but rubbed with rose, it tastes like a wedding bouquet.
Dessert however, is an exiting affair. I opt for an ice cream trio comprising salted caramel, hazelnut and basil. The triptych arrives in three separate dishes. All are delightful, and help assuage the memory of munching on a rose garden. Alexandra completes a hat-trick with her final flourish – a 1980 Marsalsa, bottled before I was born. With a nose of roasted hazelnuts and a caramel palate balanced by lively acidity, it sings of Oloroso. Despite the dodgy décor, Degó is worth the detour for the wines alone. Served by knowledgeable staff with unbridled enthusiasm, each glass is a liquid history lesson.
Dego 4 Great Portland Street, London W1W 8QJ; Tel: +44(0)20 7636 2207
Tuesday, 9 August 2011
Perched on stilts over ice blue Caribbean shallows and overseen by the infectiously charming Basil Charles, Basil’s Beach bar in Mustique – island of choice for royals and reprobates, alongside Harry’s Bar in Venice, is arguably one of the most famous bars in the world. On inviting Basil’s legendary founder to London, Goring Hotel head honcho Jeremy Goring got his hammer out and built Basil a beach bar in the hotel’s garden to honour the visit.
Having weathered many an unseasonal storm, Basil’s Bar has sadly popped down for what remains of the summer. But fear not – head barman Brian is still serving up many a Mustique Mule in the main bar, which can be enjoyed in a plethora of pods dotted around the garden.
After a long wait, Galoupet has finally opened its pristine white doors in Knightsbridge’s über cool Beauchamp Place. Set over two storeys of a handsome Georgian terrace, wishbone chairs by Danish designer Hans J Wegner grace the swan white space, where angled mirrors perch poised for customer preening. The sleek new venture from the owners of Château du Galoupet in Côtes de Provence is the first venue in London to trial The Flute – an Enomatic machine designed specifically for Champagne. The restaurant-cum-wine shop offers an impressive 36 wines by the glass, which change frequently according to the menu.
“We chose to take on The Flute because it fits with what we’re all about – seasonal produce, and fresh, clean, ingredients,” Shaan Mahrotri, Galoupet’s operations director tells me over a glass of pink fizz, his brown eyes glinting through neon orange specs. “Most places offer average Champagne by the glass – the Flûte gives us more scope. People are adventurous now, and they want to try new things, especially in London. Ten days preservation gives us the chance to experiment.”
Mahroti plans to offer more than just Champagne on the Flûte. “We’ll have a well-known vintage Champagne, our own Château du Galoupet sparkler, a quaffable non-vintage like Ayala, and perhaps a Prosecco. We’ll pull things in and out and see what works,” he says. “Others will follow suit. I’ve heard that most people who have taken on Enomatics will be taking the Flûte too – we just got there first.”
On my visit, the much-hyped Flute had yet to be delivered from Italy, so I didn’t get to sample its liquid pleasure by the measure, but Mahroti plans to send out tweets to all his followers when he puts a special bottle on, so it sells itself. “It’s a good way to create a buzz,” he says, excitedly. Food meanwhile, draws on Mediterranean and Asian influences, with Chris Golding of Zuma, Nobu Berkeley and The Square fame behind the chopping board.
A quirky addition to London’s already throbbing bar scene is VOC in King’s Cross, a stone’s throw away from adorable Sherry bar Pepito in Varnishers Yard. Billed as London’s first 17th century cocktail bar, VOC is the brainchild of Fluid Movement – the mixologists behind Marylebone’s Purl and the Whistling Shop in Shoreditch. Taking its name from the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) – the world’s first multinational corporation capitalising on Asian trade goods in the 17th century, VOC specialises in house-blended spiced rum and bespoke, barrel-aged cocktails matured in wax-sealed apothecary bottles, each individually labelled with the date of creation and priced accordingly.
Decked out like Phileas Fogg's drawing room, complete with swashbuckling Moorish busts, telescopes and humidors, shelves are stacked with Dutch genevers, arracks, bourbons and rums from the Americas. The exposed brickwork walls are adorned with apothecary bottles and barrels suspended precariously from the ceiling. At night, flickering light from giant church candles casts atmospheric shadows. In the seventeenth century, punches were one of the earliest examples of a mixed drink, and were traditionally made with five ingredients including a spirit – either Dutch gin or arrack made with coconut palm.
VOC’s punches run a gamut of styles. The Dog's Nose unites Tanqueray Rangpur with fresh horseradish, Meantime porter, fresh citrus, spices and honey. For a theatrical serve, try one of the flips, which are warmed with an old poker heated by a flame on the bar. Outside, a covered courtyard offers an al fresco space to indulge in the bar’s cigar selection, which has been dutifully matched to the cocktail list. Dust off your hiking boots, locate your walking stick and make the pilgrimage to VOC – the Zoltar-like bust in the entrance merits the exploration alone.
Wednesday, 3 August 2011
She may or may not have uttered, “let them eat cake” to her impoverished subjects on the eve of the French Revolution – or “let them eat brioche” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have it, but Marie Antoinette certainly left an indelible mark on history. Known for her flamboyant dresses, elaborate hairstyles and love of gambling, Champagne, shoes and choux pastry, the decadent French Queen was immortalised in Sophia Coppola’s 2006 film starring Kirsten Dunst, who spends a good portion of the movie luxuriating either in bed or on a chaise longue surrounded by shoes and pastel-coloured macaroons.
Taking Marie Antoinette as her inspiration, my mum recently held a lavish birthday party in which she turned a modest Surrey country house into a mini version of Versailles, complete with flourishing flower arches, ice sculptures, a sensational spread of crustaceans, including langoustine, lobsters, crabs and crayfish, petit poussin, quails eggs, and, of course, mountains of cake. Below is a glimpse of how she bought Versailles to life.
Crustacean sensations: langoustines cling for dear life