Friday, 22 July 2011

Restaurant review: The Fox and Grapes, Wimbledon

The Fox and Grapes at Wimbledon is a strange, oddly old-fashioned gastropub.

It used to be a straightforward boozer, doing classic roast beef and all the trimmings Sunday lunches for the Labrador-and-striped shirt set. Then it was taken over by Claude Bosi, who started at Overton Grange near Ludlow and has two Michelin stars at Hibiscus, and now it’s a gastropub. The clientele is still a particular type of overfed man in bright striped shirt, with that kind of swept-back longish hair only the upper classes have. Rather jowly and solidly satisfied, with a thin harassed-looking wife, probably very nice, if orange. There were also lots of dogs around.

So it’s still self-consciously a pub. There’s a bar with taps, and a bloke behind it polishing glasses, but when you go up to the bar someone comes out from a side door and asks if he can help.

The furniture is higgledy-piggledy pub-like, no table cloths, and our table had the authentic greasy-sticky feel, not nice, but probably deliberate, my friend said.

I digress. This is a restaurant run by a garlanded chef, in a prime, the prime, position in some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Greasy tables and dogs notwithstanding, it had better be bloody good.

The wine list is short, unpretentious, imaginative, full of goodies, with prices so reasonable I thought I was still on the by-the-glass page. We had a very workable Pinot Grigio to start, the Bacaro, and the Domaine Isle St Pierre Rhone white, also very decent. Then a bottle of Musar Jeune 2007, a lovely fresh crunchy summer wine, and at under £30 I call that handsome.

I’m so pleased by wine list that I’m not going to complain about the way it was presented (this is where the pub/Michelin’d chef/Wimbledon stripey shirt thing gets itself all in a tizzy), the waitress showing me the bottle with full ceremony, then a sample, then the thumbs up and then she absolutely sloshes it into the glass, practically to the brim, as if she’s the landlord’s daughter in some zinc-topped bar in rural Aragon.

While the wine list is just unpretentious , the menu is studiedly unpretentious. ‘Ploughman’s Platter’,’Patrick’s burger’, ‘English Brown Ale Battered Scottish Hake and Chips, Mushy Peas.’ This is so carefully, almost arrogantly, a homage to every over-rated gastro-makeover in every corner of the country that again you think (fingering the tactile table), this had better be jolly good.

And actually it is. Apart from one of the starters, the Jersey Royal and Summer Nettle Soup with Rabbit Rilette Baguette, which looked like pondwater, and was over-salted, spuds overcooked, nettles giving nothing at all apart from the sludge-green pondiness, and presented on one of those really annoying faux-rustic wooden "platters" that must be a waiter's nightmare, the food was memorable.
My steak (cooked in the very of the moment super-hot Josper oven, as announced) was almost perfect (perfection being a ribeye my younger brother did for me on a barbecue in about 1998, in his back garden in Bath), perfectly rare, just resistant enough to the knife and teeth, lovely flamed flavour. And it sat on a bed of French beans that were so beautifully a point, so absolutely the right temperature, that there and then I relaxed. Anyone can bung a steak in a Josper oven and twiddle about with garnish, but only a Master can cook beans  like that.
 My friend’s Salad of Crispy Pork Belly and Black Pudding was tender, easily forked off the crackling, which itself was poised between crunchy and succulent, the black pudding pungent, dark and agreeably carnal.
Now hands up all those who have been disappointed by summer pudding? If I had to nominate a dish which sums up the early English summer in all its sharp,  tangy-sweet, juicy pregnant ripeness it would be summer pudding. But how often do you order it and find a soggy oversweet mess, or a criminal pallid dry thing with bits of white bread showing through the juice?
Write this down: if there is one reason for making a pilgrimage to the Fox and Grapes, London, SW, between late May and early August, it’s the summer pudding.
I could tell from the start it was a good one. Firm, the white bread soaked in juice but retaining its integrity, just the right size (about as big as an upturned yoghurt pot), the centre packed with fruit, sugared to just the right side of sharpness, not  running with juice but with a lovely dense moistness. Superb. It was like the scene in Ratatouille when the terrifying critic takes his first mouthful and is transported back to his childhood kitchen. This took me back to 1976, Clarks sandals and Aertex shirts.
And it knocked the Eton Mess into a cocked hat, and that wasn’t bad at all.
The coffee was good and hot. The bill? £127 for two. What do you expect from Wimbledon?

foxandgrapeswimbledon.co.uk

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Bordeaux 2010 report: Fatigue, readjustment, and a missed opportunity

As the Bordeaux 2010 en primeur campaign draws to an end, merchants around the world are emerging into the daylight, dusting themselves down - and finding they have had a more successful 2010 than they had expected.

They are pleasantly surprised. 2010 was quietly – almost sheepishly – hyped as a vintage to rival 2009, and merchants were always doubtful how it would play with clients who had filled their cellars last year.

But they are also frustrated. Traditional customers have baulked at the high prices of the top wines, even as they realise, after two huge vintages, that properties they have bought for years are now permanently beyond their reach.

Some merchants – like Gary Boom at Bordeaux Index – say customers who have been loyal for years ‘are now deserting us in droves’, but others took solace in the fact that 2010 has still been the second-most successful vintage of all time, 2009 being the record-breaking best, 2005 in third place.

Stephen Browett at Farr Vintners, for example, said sales are just above £30m – compared to around £45m this time last year. Most merchants sold about half the volume of compared to 2009, and a bit more than half the value. 

For Farr, it’s not a question of desertion, but readjustment. ‘People are buying the best value wines. We’ve sold loads of Haut Batailley and Grand Puy Lacoste. It’s a simple trade down: those who used to buy first growths are now buying super seconds, those who used to buy Leoville Barton are now buying Grand Puy Lacoste, and so on.’

Most big merchants agree, although William Gardener at Midlands merchant Nickolls and Perks in Stafford, told Decanter.com it was the opposite: it was the lower growths that were ‘thinning out’.

‘We’ve sold a lot more of the key wines and there’s been less uptake at the lower end.’
The reason, Gardener said, was simple. ‘2009 was the vintage of the century so people bought far more than they wanted to. I have clients who normally spend £100,000 who haven’t bought a single case this year.’

In the United States it’s the same story: reduced demand and buyer fatigue.

‘There is a noticeable decrease in demand for 2010s. Maybe it’s hard to believe in another great vintage right after 2009,’ Devin Warner of the Chicago Wine Company said.

But that lack of demand is highly selective. As another Chicago merchant, Ben Nelson of Hart Davis Hart said, ‘we lost out on some sales because we ran out of stock.’

Allocations on the top wines have been tiny. The first growths held back two-thirds of their stock in their first tranches, and Latour was reported to have released between 1,500 and 3000 cases, out of production of around 10,000.

So while merchants have had far less wine to play with – Berry Brothers was allocated 400 cases of Chateau Margaux compared to 1000 of the 2009 – the top wines were easy to sell.
‘I was amazed that we sold 1500 six-bottle cases of Mouton in the first 24 hours,’ Simon Staples at Berrys said. ‘Haut Brion sold far better than I expected.’

The most significant effect of 2010 has been to finally draw a line between the premier league and other wines – and while most properties have judged nicely which division they belong to, others have not.

Highly-regarded properties like St Emilion first growth Cheval Blanc, its near-neighbour Figeac, Rauzan-Segla in Margaux, and Smith-Haut-Lafitte in the Graves caused controversy with their prices.

‘Woeful – lovely wine but it just won’t sell’, was Staples’ verdict on Figeac. Gary Boom said he wasn’t even offering it. 

There is much head-shaking at properties that did not realise that joining the premier league is not simply a case of sticking a €1000 price tag on your wine – ‘you have to take the market with you. It will take years for the market go get used to Smith-Haut-Lafitte at that price,' Staples said.

LVMH-owned Cheval Blanc provoked a veritable storm on Twitter and amongst merchants. One – anonymously – told Decanter.com he thought Cheval’s pricing policy was aimed directly at the Chinese market, ‘and they may well see that they are being fleeced and lose face and turn a very cold shoulder towards Bordeaux.’

Prophetic words indeed. Some days later, Aussino, a major retailer, announced it would not to promote the Medoc Cru Class├ęs on the basis their prices were ‘too dangerous’.

For some merchants, however, it was not prices that slowed things in China this year (although Cheval has done badly), but the allocations.

The first growths, Cos d'Estournel, Lynch Bages, Pontet Canet et al were snapped up. But it could have been a good deal better, if prices had come out quicker and allocations had been bigger.


The campaign was indeed slow, with negociants complaining at the end of May that 100 fewer wines had been released than at the same time the year before. Selling did not start in earnest until 7 June, when Gruaud Larose released, then there were long, dry periods followed by avalanches of releases, in which some properties inevitably got forgotten.

‘It was a missed opportunity,’ Don St Pierre of Shanghai-based importers ASC Fine Wines said. ‘The fact the campaign dragged on so long, the negative publicity about prices, gave some people doubts. Then allocations were small. If we had had decent quantities it had the potential to be a big improvement.’

In the end, Chinese importers are satisfied: the top wines (what merchants call ‘the usual suspects’) the first growths, Lynch Bages, Pontet Canet, Beychevelle, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Grand-Puy-Lacoste did well, the overpriced and the less well-known were stagnant.

‘Far too many wines priced themselves out the game,’ Adam Bilbey at Berry Brothers in Hong Kong told Decanter.com. ‘To name but a few: Lascombes, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Figeac. There were a lot of wines left in the middle ground that priced themselves too high, thinking they could get away with it like the key chateaux. No-one bought them here.’

The picture that emerges from the three great markets – Europe, the US and China - is one of merchants looking relieved, but slightly peeved. They could have sold more if the prices had been more moderate.

But, as Sylvie Cazes, managing director of Pichon Lalande and president of the Union des Grands Crus said, ‘If they respond to the market, and they sell, then they are the right price.’

Perhaps the last word should go to Will Gardener. ‘Overall we’re pleased. The profits margins are low, but we have sold everything we had. There’s no doubt it’s a great vintage, but it’s bloody hard work.’


This article first appeared on Decanter.com



Friday, 8 July 2011

I nearly searched the Spice Girls' bins among other misdemeanours

In the mid-90s I was working for a news agency that specialised in celebrity gossip which we sold to the red tops - the Sun, NoW, Daily Sport, Daily Star, Matthew Wright at the Mirror and so on. There were about seven full-time staff operating out of a smoke-filled office in the back end of King's Cross. It wasn't salubrious but it was a sizeable, successful operation run by sharp and interesting characters. Paparazzi photography was in its infancy - before digital became widespread, rolls of film would be biked to Snappy Snaps in King's Cross to be developed and the pics would then be couriered on to the papers' picture desks. This was at the height of britpop mania, Noel Gallagher in Downing St, Jarvis Cocker mooning Michael Jackson, many drugs (our office reeked permanently of hash), the egregious Alan McGee at Creation records...

We had a news conference every morning when those who had not produced a minimum seven stories the previous day would be made to feel very small. If you persistently underperformed, your job would be on the line. We would make stories out of nothing. You'd meet someone at a party who'd tell you he knew someone who knew Roland Gift, say, of the Fine Young Cannibals (silent by then for years), who was living in Bath and planning a new album. You'd call that someone who would say next to nothing substantive. The next morning it would be an item at the bottom of The Sun's Bizarre column.

I remember half a dozen of us examining a picture of Justine Frischmann of Elastica (she and Damon Albarn were a couple then), snapped outside a restaurant she was just leaving, with her parents. She was in profile, full length. Was she pregnant? The women in the office were consulted and the pic was duly sent off to the Star. She wasn't pregnant, as it happened, but who cared?

Another time, we heard Tom Cruise had been seen in a supermarket in north London, and one of the lads was dispatched to get a comment. His story quoted one of the checkout girls ('He was lovely, so polite...') and detailed what he'd bought. The owner of the agency happened to visit that supermarket a few days later. He said it was a superstore, with dozens of checkouts. 'There's absolutely no way Paul could have found the one girl who'd served Tom Cruise,' he said. The fact that we'd put out a story that was 99% made up didn't worry him. Quite the opposite - he was full of admiration. 'That boy will go far,' he said.

One morning we had a serious discussion about how to go about purloining the Spice Girls' binbags (we knew their addresses, of course), bringing them back to the office and photographing the contents. There would have been a ready market for it. We'd get a van, do it in the middle of the night. I can't remember why we never carried out the plan, but it wasn't through squeamishness, legal or otherwise.
 
On one of my first days there the editor, a clever, intuitive hack, handed me the telephone number of Richey Edwards' parents and told me to give them a call. Richey was the unstable but brilliant Manic Street Preacher who had disappeared exactly a year before, his car found abandoned by the Severn Bridge. I was told the parents were 'cool' and would be happy to give me a comment on the disappearance of their son.

So I got on the phone. 'Ah. Mrs Edwards? Adam Lechmere here at XXX. I was just wondering, as it's the anniversary of Richey's disappearance, if you had any comment?'

There are a couple of reasons why I didn't stop - even for a second - to think about the enormity of what I was doing. These were the parents of a young man who been missing for a year, presumed dead, but with no solid proof either way. How would they be feeling a year on? Why not give them a bell and ask?

The first reason is that it was my first week in a new job, and I didn't want to rock the boat at that early stage by refusing to do something. One did what one's editor asked. But actually it never occurred to me not to pick up the phone. I did it because I could.

Richey was a celebrity and therefore fair game (just like the Spice Girls and their bins), and by extension, so were his parents, never mind that they were a decent and ordinary couple coping with the grief of losing a child. The anniversary of Richey's disappearance must have been a very difficult time, to say the least. I was a journalist locked in the eternal game of poacher/gamekeeper, hunter/prey. The story was paramount. We used to refer to those not in the game as 'civilians'. Richey's parents would have been unfortunate victims of war. It was not very real.

Not very real, that is, until I had Richey's mother on the end of the phone, quiet, surprised, it wasn't something she wanted to talk about, and what was the name of my organisation again?

This was before universal mobile phones. If it had been a few years later, and one of the many spiv-like characters who hung around the office had turned up with a transcript of Richey Edwards' phone records, I can say without doubt we would have bought them. Ditto any one of a thousand celebs we hounded daily.

What's that quote about stepping over a line, and, once done, you can tread back and forth but you can never unmake that first step?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Palmer, Leoville Barton, Cos and Mouton in three vintages, Roberson Wine, June 30th 2011


Last night we tasted a vertizontal (or hortical?), of Palmer, Leoville Barton, Cos and Mouton from 88, 89 and 90, at the best private wine club in town, Roberson Wine in High St Kensington. Mark Andrew’s tastings are celebrated and attract a classy clientele –you generally meet Jancis Robinson (all the way from NW3), Neal Martin, Julia Harding, Michael Broadbent, and of course Roberson customers, who are terrifyingly well-informed. A great couple of hours, the better for there only being 15 or so people.

The 1988s were disappointing, made more so by the wonderful noses the wines carry. The first sniff of the Palmer makes you think, ‘I’m in for a treat’, but that heady aroma just doesn’t pull through to the palate. As Roberson’s notes say, 1988, with a wet May and June, bringing mildew and rot, then unnaturally dry August, was a difficult year.  With Cabernet ripeness stalling in October, ‘it was never going to be a vintage that yielded rich or concentrated fruit.’ Bobbins, as Andrew put it: ‘That means rubbish, by the way.’ Drink up

The 1989s are cut from different cloth. Dense and deep, long and luscious. Leoville Barton a bit of a disappointment but only in comparison with the seductive rest of the flight. There’s something about Leoville B… in each of the years it seemed to be more classic, restrained, simply more old-fashioned than the rest. You can see why the English (and I mean the English) love it so much. A bit fogeyish, the lovable uncle in tweeds with a watch-chain, and a twinkle in his eye, can be peppery at times but charming. Now who does that remind me of?

The 1990 flight was mixed. Leoville Barton again slightly in the shadow of its neighbours, at this tasting, on this night. But how could it have any presence in the looming shadow of the Cos? Palmer lovely, Mouton disappointing. Here of course you have to say that the Mouton is simply resting, as great wines may, like a grand dame after luncheon, and that it will come back refreshed. I don’t know – there didn’t seem enough fruit, anywhere, for that.

Wine of the evening? Cos 90
Vintage of the evening? 1989

1988

Chateau Palmer, Margaux
12% alc
£205 bottle
Really lovely  deep chocolatey nose with pencil lead and dark plum fruit. Deep refreshing palate with less fruit than expected. Slightly hollow – tannins soft and chalky. Dry on the finish. not long

Chateau Leoville Barton, St Julien
13% alc
£899.95 case
More refined than Palmer on the nose, conversely sweet palate with cherry and darkish fruit. Again falls off toward the end. No length

Chateau Cos d’Estournel, St Estephe
12%  alc
£125 bottle
More perfume hints on the nose. Much stronger tannins making themselves felt early on – but astringent and not massive. Falls off toward the end but more length than the others

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
12.5% alc
£455 bottle
Much deeper colour and superb nose with pencil lead and minerality. Lovely sweet fruit and dry tannins. Slightly astringent again. Length dry and falling off

1989

Chateau Palmer, Margaux
12% alc
£310 bottle
Superb nose with mint and minerality, raspberry and bright fruits – lots going on on the nose. Full bright palate – loaded with fruit sitting on lovely ripe acids.Delicious and very long. Goes on forever.

Chateau Leoville Barton, St Julien
12.5% alc
£120 bottle
Very delicate nose with raspberry and mint. Palate lean and strong with developed tannins, bright and acidic with powerful end. Fruit needs time but long and powerful and fine. No idea if this will come through or will it always be like this? Jancis: ‘it cries out for food’. Indeed! Imagine it with rack of lamb

Chateau Cos d’Estournel, St Estephe
13% alc
£125 bottle
Dense dark nose with raisin and plum and herbaceous and licorice hints. Exotic – sweet with almost pear drop intensity. Superb palate with power and finesse. Long, intense, not massive but delicately powerful. Lovely delicate fruit – perfume, ripeness, bright plum and dark cherry. Lovely

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
12.5% alc
£455 bottle
The finest and most seductive nose so far. Deep and dark with wonderful minty blackcurrant and blackberry. Palate opulent, fresh, bright, tannins developing late on the palate. Fruit is dense and almost brooding, tannins dry at the end but that will calm. Superb wine. Couldn’t decide between this and the Cos 90 for my wine of the evening.

1990

Chateau Palmer, Margaux
12% alc
£245 bottle
Classic nose with bright berry fruit. Mouthwatering palate – lovely opulent, bright, sweet quite dense fruit. Really lovely wine until the very end when it falls off with a certain dryness. But again, it cries out for food. Lamb again

Chateau Leoville Barton, St Julien
12.5% alc
£185 bottle
Splendid exotic bright sweet nose with hints of pear drops, even, and luscious cooked fruit. Palate has earthy tannins, still somewhat dry towards the finish. Not long. Doesn’t live up to the promise of the nose

Chateau Cos d’Estournel, St Estephe
13% alc
£210 bottle
Massive, brooding dense dark fruit nose with forest floor and truffle. Bright mouthwatering very refreshingly acidic palate, with spicy dark cherry, blackcurrant, truffle, some mint. Dryish on the finish but  supported by this lovely integrated acid. A fantastic wine, the best of the evening (as everyone else thought as well – by popular vote).

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac
12.5% alc
£460 bottle
The palate is lovely and delicate at first with nice mellow acids and a hint of rainy forest floor but then nothing else seems to happen. It’s fresh and bright but the fruit just doesn’t come out, and the tannins too shy . Disappointing