For wine lovers, London is a dream. Outstanding restaurant wine programs, intriguing wine-by-the-glass selections and accessibility (note, I’m writing this pre-Brexit) to almost any wine grown on the planet provide endless opportunities for the curious novice or serious oenophile.
Drinking great-quality wine in London is easy. At true wine bars like Terroirs and Noble Rot, the food is delicious and well prepared, but the wine sets the stage and plays the starring role. At Terroirs, near Trafalgar Square, the selection of predominantly small plates is perfectly prepared to “compliment your drinking.” And your drinking is centred around “wines that most sympathetically reflect the place from which they originate, the nature of the vintage and the personality of the grower.” All this in a casual, friendly, unpretentious, yet informative manner that is intended to welcome all, not just those in the know, into the real wine world of wine growers versus the manufactured homogeneity that so many in our industry rationalize and give credibility to. Terroirs should be everyone’s neighbourhood wine bar.
Noble Rot, from the owners of the energetic and interesting magazine of the same name, has an adventurous but approachable wine list with a deceptively simple and well-executed menu in a warmly elegant yet vibrant room. What’s not for a wine enthusiast to love?
London is also home to the quintessential wine bar 67 Pall Mall. A private members’ club (full disclosure, I am a member) created “by wine lovers for wine lovers,” the Club offers an extensive wine list of well-priced offerings with a reasonable markup intended to sell wine versus collect the bottles as museum pieces. The high-end is relatively accessible and selections, including more than 800 wines by the glass, are carefully curated by the knowledgeable wine team led by Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn and head sommelier Terry Kandylis, winner of the 2016 UK Sommelier of the Year. Weekly — almost daily — wine tastings, master classes and winemakers’ dinners and the ability for members to store some of their personal wine collection in the Club’s temperature-controlled cellars provide a home for wine lovers that may be unparallelled.
In addition to all the great wine-centric restaurants and wine bars, where London has excelled relative to the rest of the world is with respect to ethnic restaurants with stellar wine programs. These restaurants are further assisting in dispelling the myth, which too many people still hold, that Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Mexican, Middle Eastern and other such cuisines do not lend themselves to the same level of wine programs as those serving what most people traditionally perceive as wine-friendly cuisines (Italian, Spanish, French, Western cuisine, et cetera). Nothing could be further from the truth.
The perception is that the flavours and particularly the spice of Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Middle Eastern and Latino cuisines, for example, don’t lend themselves to accompanying wine. The biggest misconception is that spice is all about heat — most often, though, spice is actually more about flavour and building layers of flavour. And even when there is heat, if it’s utilized well — understanding that everyone has different tolerance levels — the heat should be a slow build and should not overwhelm the flavours in the dish.
At true wine bars, the food is delicious and well prepared, but the wine sets the stage and plays the starring role.
In London, so many ethnic restaurants have elevated the presentation of their food and their service to more of a perceived fine-dining style without compromising the flavours and integrity of the dishes. They are also showing that an Indian, Thai, Chinese, et cetera restaurant can have a great wine list and that there is an abundance of wine styles and varieties that can and will compliment these cuisines beyond just off-dry Riesling.
Kiln has a stripped down, diner feel, serving grilled, seafood and claypot dishes influenced by the regions where Thailand borders Myanmar, Laos and China’s Yunnan province but prepared using British-sourced ingredients. The menu and wine list are relatively small and very well priced. The lamb and cumin skewer, stir-fried greens and soy, fried curried monkfish and claypot-baked glass noodles with Tamworth pork belly and brown crabmeat provided a range of explosive flavours and levels of heat that quite simply left me wanting to try all of the dishes on the menu. The softly textured, lightly fruity and slightly earthy Le Grain de Sénevé Beaujolais was a lovely match across all the dishes.
Bombay Bustle, Indian Accent, Gymkhana and Jamavar all take the notion of wine with Indian cuisine to a level that should erase the doubts of even the most skeptical and conservative food and wine traditionalists. The food at each of these establishments was beyond expectations (and would blow the mind of anyone whose idea of Indian food is a buffet where all the dishes are prepared using the same oil-laden masala).
The masala akuri (spiced scrambled eggs) with shaved black truffle on naan (one of this year’s food highlights for me), trio of mini duck dosa and Goan-spiced fish tikka at Bombay Bustle; the dazzling amuse of blue cheese naan and spiced pumpkin soup, soybean keema with quail’s egg, duck shami kebab with berry chutney and green pea kofta with sweet potato and coconut curry at Indian Accent; the venison keema, Lasooni wild tiger prawns and Gilafi quail seekh kebab at Gymkhana; and the tasting menu at Jamavar all elevate Indian cuisine without compromising the essence of its flavours and traditions.
There was a casual professionalism exhibited by the staff at each of the restaurants. They answered questions and were there when needed, but we never felt watched or rushed. But where these restaurants excel, in my opinion, is with their accompanying wine programs, which show the diversity and versatility of the range of wine varieties and styles that will, and do, compliment the cuisine. They also understand that it’s not about pairing one wine with one dish. Since Indian cuisine (and most Asian cuisines) is served family-style, with multiple dishes on the table at once, pairing is about selecting wines that have the versatility and balance to accompany a wide range of flavours and dishes.
Who would have guessed that a 2006 Sassella Valtellina Superiore (Nebbiolo-based wine from northern Italy) would so well accompany the dishes at Indian Accent? But it worked. As did the Beaujolais, Blaufränkisch, Grüner Veltliner, Albariño, Pinot Blanc, Rossese di Dolceacqua, white Burgundy, red Burgundy, Chenin Blanc, Côtes du Rhône, Nero d’Avola, Cinsault, Friulano, Champagne and English sparkling wines.
Ethnic restaurants have elevated the presentation of their food and their service to more of a perceived fine-dining style without compromising the flavours and integrity of the dishes.
These restaurants are reinforcing that off-dry Riesling is far from being the only match for their cuisine — and is often not the best match.
Just as the aforementioned establishments have elevated the concept of Indian cuisine and wine, numerous restaurants, such as Hunan and Som Saa, have accomplished the same for other Asian and perceived non-wine-friendly cuisines. The Chinese- and Taiwanese-influenced tasting menu at Hunan, for example, with its elegant finesse and bold flavours was accompanied smashingly by a 2016 Philippe Colin Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru les Chaumes and a sublime 2016 Foillard Morgon Côte du Py.
It’s time that we finally put to bed the misperception that wine is limited to only those cuisines that evolved with traditional wine cultures. Tiny oases do exist in other parts of the world, but when you combine ethnic diversity with a critical mass of culinary talent and dining culture in a wine-centric global hub such as London, the exceptions often become the expected. London is doing its part; it’s time to expect more from wine programs at ethnic restaurants throughout the rest of the world.