Thursday, 26 November 2009

Texture: London's top restaurant for wine lovers?

Our entire experience of Texture was a pleasure. Even booking the table was met with a helpful, welcoming attitude. Perhaps it's a sign of the (economically challenged) times that I was asked what time I wanted, rather than it being the other way round and being allocated a slot and made to feel grateful for being admitted at all. In recent years too many top London restaurants have made you feel as though they were doing you a favour by granting you the privilege of allowing you through their doors to spend large amounts of money. What a welcome change.

This was our wedding anniversary, so we were looking for something a bit special. Texture appealed as the emphasis seemed to be as much on wine as food, co-owned by chef Agnar Sverrisson and award-winning sommelier, Xavier Rousset, who met while working for Raymond Blanc at the Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. Furthermore, pictures I'd seen made the bar and restaurant look gorgeous in an understated, contemporary way: cool white décor showing off intricate Georgian period features. It has a grown-up Nordic feel – no surprise, really, as the chef is Icelandic.

On arriving we decided to relax with a drink and peruse the menu in the bar before going to our table. Not only was the bar achingly glamorous, but the selection of Champagnes exemplary. We settled on glasses of Jacquesson Cuvée 732 and a tasty selection of nibbles followed immediately: wafers made from bread, potato and parmesan, with barley yoghurt and wasabi dips, popcorn, and some deep-fried cod skin (sensational with the wasabi). We ordered, keeping things simple by indulgently selecting the tasting menu with accompanying wines. The staff were helpful and unexpectedly warm and friendly, remaining so throughout the evening.

Once we were installed at our table, we were offered some much too tempting breads. A stylish trio of light, whipped tapenade, fruity olive oil and sea salted butter were left on the table. A glance around the room quickly revealed how much Texture glamorises wine: towards the front of the room was a glorious line up of empty Château Lafite bottles and the back of the room featured a stylish back-lit wine display.

A few minutes later an appetiser of pumpkin, blue cheese and walnut soup was served. It set the tone for the rest of the meal: seasonal ingredients, pure flavours and interesting textures. The chef's light touch and confidence were clear from the outset. The mouthwatering acidity and lush grapefruit aromas of our first wine, Wittman Scheurebe Trocken 2008 (Rheinhessen), complemented the fresh, yet gently complex flavours of the food.

The first course of autumn vegetables with pickled celeriac infusion and hazelnuts continued to demonstrate that you don't need to use deluxe ingredients to impress (and NOT seeing the usual expensive suspects on a menu made this seem much more interesting and exciting). Served in a bowl, this wasn't so far removed from a stylish, refined vichyssoise and, although creamy, it was delicately balanced and well textured (yes, that word again). With this dish the Scheurebe helped underscore the fresh earthiness and poise of the dish.

The second course of boned English quail (chargrilled with sweetcorn, bacon popcorn and red wine essence) was quite a dainty dish with a range of complex flavours and textures, but with nothing overwhelming or dominant. This subtle treatment of food allows great wines to articulate themselves and integrate, rather than stand alone as an almost separate experience. The ripe, supple, slightly earthy Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir 2007 (Willamette) was an elegant foil to the dish.

The third course of Cornish monkfish with Jerusalem artichoke textures followed. Domaine Ostertag Heissenberg Riesling 2006 and Niepoort Redoma 2007 (Douro) were both poured with this dish and the sommelier explained how much they wanted to hear our views on the two choices and this led to an interesting chat once we'd tasted them. We felt the white Douro had a more restrained style with nicely lifted acidity that worked better with the earthy flavours of the dish and had a fresh, seasoning effect on the meaty fish. The Riesling, despite being a magnificent wine, had too big a presence (dry, yet rich and deeply yellow in colour – generous botrytis?) and was a touch cloying.

The main course of beef rib eye, chargrilled and served with ox cheek, horseradish and olive oil béarnaise was a fabulous dish for meat lovers. Here were two contrasting cuts and cooking techniques – both were equally complex tasting and melted in the mouth. Again, you are impressed by the skill of the chef who allows all the key components, as well as the wine, to sing out in equal measure. It is cooking of the highest order. The Domaine Richeaume Cuvée Traditionelle 2007 (Côtes de Provence), a Cabernet-Syrah blend, was excellent alongside it, with gently spicy fruit, supple balance and enough tannic grip to cope with the meat. The wine's Mediterranean ripeness picked up the olive oil in the sauce, but there was still enough earthiness to balance the heat of the horseradish.

After a palate-cleansing sorbet, spectacularly served over bowls of dry ice, our dinner reached its conclusion with mango and pineapple soup with lemongrass, basil and olive oil. We also detected a strong presence of lime (Opal Fruits-strength) which, unfortunately, did unbalance the flavours of the dish. The final thoughtfully selected wine was Clos Lapeyre La Magendia 2005 (Jurançon) with complex mineral fruit, fresh acidity and just enough sweetness to match, rather than smother the mango and pineapple.

Even the petits fours were impressive and memorable and, in case you needed a pick-me-up at the end of the meal, included a fun sinus-clearing little meringue flavoured with Fisherman's Friend.

We left Texture completely bowled over and fantasising about our next visit (funds permitting).

34 Portman Street
London W1H 7BY
Tel 020 7224 0028

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Polpo and a glimpse (and taste) of real Venice

Venice isn't particularly renowned for its food and it certainly isn't what draws people to the city (although everyone should visit the Rialto market – see pictures). Visitors might have enjoyable memories of the local fizz, Prosecco and, of course, Bellinis but they probably have less favourable experiences in many of the city's overpriced and unremarkable restaurants. BUT (and this is a very big but) scratch the surface of Venice and you will come across café/winebars called bacari. Traditionally, Venetians visit them for a quick glass of wine or a coffee and to snack on a few cicheti (a sort of Italian tapas), often leaving after several minutes to go on to the next bacari. They are a godsend to visitors as, not only do they offer a rare glimpse of authentic Venice but, unlike so much here, you don't leave feeling completely fleeced.

Bacari have been the inspiration for the recently opened Polpo in London's Soho. The premises have been home to many restaurants over the years and I had a sense of déjà vu when I recently met up with a friend to try it out. She was slightly delayed and I was very comfortable sitting, waiting for her with a newspaper, bread and olive oil and some refreshing Trebbiano-Garganega from their selection of mainly northern Italian wines. About half the wines are also available in quarter-litre and half-litre carafes to allow for some experimentation.

Once my friend arrived we homed in on the tasty selection of crostini and cicheti before sharing a couple of main courses and some vegetable dishes. These were all very tasty, but the melt-in-the-mouth octopus salad really stood out (as it should, given the name of the place). Even with a couple of puddings and more wine, our bill came to about £30 per head. There were a couple of problems: the noise level is high, particularly as they have unnecessary background music. There was also too much thickly sliced toasted ciabatta bread. They helpfully found me something more delicate to accompany my pear and gorgonzola, as my gums had started to get quite sore by the end of the meal. Gripes aside, Polpo is well worth a visit for a great value, buzzy evening in the heart of London. Perfect pre- or post-theatre as long as you don't have to wait too long as bookings aren't taken.

Back to Venice – good examples of the real thing can be found in little backstreets behind the Rialto market in the San Polo district and near the Ca' d'Oro (Cannaregio). Al Bottegon (Dorsoduro), with its pretty location overlooking the San Trovaso canal, stands out in my mind as it doubles as a wine shop. Happy memories.

41 Beak Street
London W1F 9SB