Restaurant/ Bar Reviews


As I’ve written before, I love the simple format of the Parisian wine bars that are slowly gaining popularity over here: good wines, available by the glass, served with a simple plate of cheese and charcuterie. When done well, it doesn’t get much better

I was therefore very happy to meet family at the DesVins Café & Wine Bar within St Pancras station in London. The format is simple: a café bar with a fairly extensive list of wines available by the glass, serving a ‘continental menu.’ I also love the way the station has been restored, and DesVins is set within the brick arches on the main concourse.

DesVins Cafe & Wine Bar

Great in theory, but our experience was far from great, right from the start. By the time I arrived, delayed by problems on the tube, my family had been waiting 15 minutes for sparkling water they hadn’t even ordered, but the waiter had insisted he would bring.

The bar prides itself on its ‘state of the art’ Enomatic system and, in fairness the wine list was broad, even if I do have a personal dislike of lists that are divided up – usually arbitrarily – into categories such as ‘Light & Fruity’ or ‘Smooth and Subtle.’ However, I did appreciate the opportunity to sample three or four wines, in 175ml measures, with an average price of about £7 a glass. The list was reasonably ‘safe’ (and strangely didn’t include any vintage information) but I particularly enjoyed the Chapel Down Bacchus (2007 – I think) from Kent, which I’d been meaning to try for a while – a lovely crisp refreshing white with hints of peach on the finish. Perfect for a summer’s evening.

The food, however, was a let down. We should perhaps have noticed that most people seemed to come in for a quick drink and then leave. To start we ordered the ‘Big desVins platter’ (£15.50) to share, which included both cheese and charcuterie. Our mains included lasagne, duck confit (of which they only had one portion left) and lamb shank.

After yet another wait, the waitress appeared with our mains, but no platter. When questioned, she said she was going to bring it with the third main course. I’m fairly certain we’d made it clear we wanted it as a starter, but what wine bar serves its cheese and charcuterie with the main courses?!

When it finally arrived, as a dessert, again the experience was mixed. We all agreed the onion marmalade was a hit, and some of the charcuterie was pretty tasty, but the cheese consisted of three small chunks of (I’m guessing) brie, cheddar and stilton. The addition of pork luncheon meat also seemed a bit unnecessary, and I’m sure would have horrified any passing Frenchman.

Returning to the mains, my duck confit was pleasant, served with a rich, fruity sauce, but it came with only a small spoonful of the ‘signature mashed potato’ and a few lettuce leaves that were dripping in oil, such that they were really quite unpleasant.

So… all in all, DesVins has a long, long way to go if it is to compete with the likes of Terroirs, near Charing Cross station. Perhaps that’s not their aim though. In future, I would definitely skip the food, and maybe consider a quick glass of wine, but only if the Champagne Bar upstairs at St Pancras was unavailable. I have to say we decided to abandon DesVins in favour of there, after dinner, and finished off a very pleasant evening with a couple of glass of Laurent Perrier.

(Pictures taken from DesVins website)

The threatened train strikes just before Easter encouraged us to take to the skies to visit relatives over the bank holiday. I wouldn’t choose to fly too often but, not only was it significantly cheaper than travelling cattle class on the train, the whole experience was much more pleasant.

Husband booked a table at Gordon Ramsey’s Plane Food in Terminal 5 at Heathrow. The restaurant has had mixed reviews, but on the whole our experience was very good and we both agreed that it was a nice start to our long weekend. Although the spectre of the teething troubles at Terminal 5 refuses to go away, on the few times I’ve travelled through there, I’ve found it considerably lighter, brighter and lot less stressful than the other terminals at Heathrow.

The restaurant is at the rear of the terminal, facing a glass wall that fronts onto several flight gates, so the view is perfect if you’re a plane spotter, or – like me – partial to dreaming of jetting off to exotic locations. Consequently, the restaurant space is pleasantly light and airy too. We were seated at the back by the windows because we’d booked, I think, which is worth knowing for the future, as the other tables in the main part of the restaurant were packed in close together. That said, even at 18:30 on Maundy Thursday, it certainly wasn’t busy and we could easily have got a table without booking.

We travelled to the airport separately after work, so I ordered a G&T which I have to say was one of the best I’ve had recently. The service was pleasant, but not particularly speedy – we had to ask several times to order and pay, which was frustrating, especially as they weren’t particularly busy. I was also a bit surprised that we weren’t asked to confirm our flight time, but this wasn’t a huge problem as we had left plenty of time.

Husband and I both ordered off the a la carte, which includes 7-8 main courses. Unlike the rest of Ramsey’s empire, there’s nothing fancy on offer here: just good honest pub classics with a twist. Roasted cod, polenta chips, peas and spicy ketchup (£12.95) or Suffolk pork cutlet, black pudding and an apple compote (£12.50), for example, both of which seem fairly priced, especially given the location.

Dedham Vale Steak

I ordered the Dedham Vale rib-eye steak (£21.50) which was served with red wine shallot butter and onion rings. Sadly the steak wasn’t really warm enough to melt the butter, which I had to smear on the meat, but the onion rings and the accompanying tub of excellent chips (crispy outside, fluffy middle, perfectly seasoned) more than made up for this.

All deserts are priced at £5.50, and we both ordered the Champagne Yorkshire rhubarb fool with short bread. As you can see from the picture, it looked too good to delay eating and tasted just as good. Sometimes the simple things are the best: this was probably the highlight of the meal.

Champagne Rhubarb Fool

The wine list includes a good number of bins available by the glass (175ml), seven whites and seven reds ranging from £4.50 to £8, which is always encouraging to see. Although there are no 250ml glasses on offer, all these wines were also available in a 375ml carafe, an excellent option if – like us – you’re just grabbing a quick meal before a flight and don’t want a whole bottle.

As it happened, we both fancied different things. The Tinpot Hut 2009, Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough accompanied Husband’s salmon perfectly. It had a lovely minerality and herbaceous notes, balanced really well with ripe tropical fruits which I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see at this price point. The “Crozes Hermitage 2006, Jaboulet, France” (no more details given) was rich, silky and dominated by black fruit.

If you’re passing through T5, give it a go.

Part of our day in Paris included a quick trip around L’Église de la Madeleine, the church which has links with so many composers, including Fauré, Chopin and Saint Saëns.

Whilst we were in the area, I couldn’t resist popping into Lavinia, said to be Paris’s largest wine store, and possibly even the biggest in Europe. Spread over three floors, it offers some 3000 French brands and 2000 from further afield.

Lavinia - Paris

The bulk of the wine for sale is in the basement, arranged by region and country, with reds and whites displayed together. Decorated with dark wood-effect panelling, which sets the tone for the shop, the mood is smart and sophisticated – streets apart from most UK retailers. The array of wines on display was incredible and frankly quite bewildering, although I couldn’t find any bottles at less than 12 Euros. This seemed a shame, but as my husband reminded me, buying wine for under 10 Euros in French supermarkets seems to be a hit and miss affair these days.

The premium range of wines, including several first growths and the more fragile natural wines, is stored in a climate controlled, separate area off the main show room. Unfortunately this was locked, and as we couldn’t really justify forking out for a bottle of Petrus 1945 to drink on the train home, we were left pressing our noses to the glass longingly!

Lavinia Paris

The third floor housed a quite incredible selection of spirits, particularly focussing on Armagnac and Cognacs, as well as more unusual liqueurs. There was also a full range of Riedel and Spiegelau glasses on sale, and enough wine gadgets to keep a geek happy for hours.

The wine bar sadly proved to be a bit of a let down, not least because single glasses (175ml) were charged at exactly half the price of a 75cl bottle, which limited our inclination to sample across the list. The service was also terse, even for Paris, and the waiter simply filled our glasses up without even showing us the wine we’d chosen, or inviting us to taste it. However, the wine thankfully didn’t disappoint. Michel Chapoutier, Les Mûres Saint-Joseph, 2007 is a white wine produced from Marsanne grapes, a variety native to the Rhone. Chapoutier’s wines are produced biodynamically, an approach to agriculture that employs organic methods but also timetables vineyard activities according to the phases of the moon. The wine was deeply coloured, with a powerful nose, and a lovely balance of apricots, honeysuckle and minerals on the palate. I’m rather sorry we didn’t have time to buy another bottle to bring back.

Les Mures Saint Joseph

LAVINIA 3, boulevard de la Madeleine, 75001 Paris

We love Paris and seize any opportunity for a trip, however short. When it’s not snowing and the trains are running, the Eurostar now makes it possible to get to Paris in time for coffee on a Saturday, spend the day wandering, and then be back home by bedtime. It’s also chance not only for a little injection of French culture, but also to stock up on ‘essentials’ such as cheese and cassoulet that just aren’t the same in the UK.

Taking my parents yesterday for the day gave us chance to revisit La Crémerie, on the Left Bank, which we first discovered last year following one of Rosa Jackson’s fantastic Paris food itineraries.

La Crémerie, Paris

Situated in the St Germain region, La Crémerie is a tiny natural wine store, which has a few tables for diners, and is perhaps a uniquely Parisian experience. The wine is the main draw though, and owner Serge Mathieu stocks over 2000 bottles of mostly organic wines from small producers.

The food, however, is also well worth the trip. Serge and his wife Helene serve mostly cold food, and we enjoyed a wonderful plate of Iberian hams as well as a duck pate. There is usually one hot dish, which this weekend was a goat’s cheese quiche made with mint – an unusual sounding combination, which actually worked really well. The highlight though for us was the huge bowl of, Burrata di Corato, a mozzarella-type cheese from Puglia in Italy. Spooned from the bowl, this was incredibly rich and creamy, and quite unlike any mozarella you’d buy in the UK. To finish, D and I enjoyed quite a spectacular ‘Baba au Rhum’, which must have been steeping in the rum for a while!

There is a short list of 4 or 5 wines available by the glass, and diners can buy any bottle from the shelves to drink with a 6 Euro corkage fee. We started off with a Sauvignon Blanc (Quartz Domaine Courtois Cailloux du Paradis) from old vines grown in Sologne in the Loire Valley, which had a lovely fresh minerality. Our second wine was a dry Vouvray (Catherine & Pierre Breton Vouvray Le Dilettante Sec). Although I didn’t write tasting notes, this had more fruit flavours, and was our favourite of the two whites.

Quartz Domaine Courtois Cailloux du Paradis

As the name suggests, La Cremerie is housed in an old converted dairy and still has many original features, including the beautiful tiled ceiling. The place is unfortunately also tiny, and only seats 12 so, whilst it’s good to see it getting wider reviews, we just hope it remains off the beaten track for a while!

La Crémerie 9 Rue des Quatre-Vents, 75006 Paris, France 01 43 54 99 30

Bistros à vins are plentiful in Paris: small restaurants, offering unusual, small-production wines, alongside a limited menu of small plates, such as artisan cheeses and charcuterie.

We’ve often bemoaned the fact that this format doesn’t seem to have travelled across the Channel, despite a plethora of Spanish tapas-style restaurants in London. However, Terroirs Wine Bar has changed that.

Located yards from Charing Cross Station, Terroirs opened in 2008 with the philosophy of ‘great food and great wine sourced with an eager eye for provenance.’ The emphasis is on food and wine which is natural and free of additives and about artisan products that taste simply of their origin, or terroir.

Although the bar has recently been extended to offer a more comprehensive restaurant style menu downstairs, the menu upstairs in the main bar remains true to the traditional Parisian format. It includes a selection of charcuterie, several cheeses, other small dishes, and a short list of heartier plats du jour. All are reasonably priced – £5 for a plate of saucisson, £3.50 for a plate of Valençay goats cheese from the Loire – but it’s easy to see how the bill could stack up over an evening.

Baked Vacherin Mont d'Or

Every effort has been made to recreate the Parisian experience, right down to the traditional zinc comptoir, or bar, and a series of quirky French posters and prints on the wall – plenty to discuss if you should find conversation flagging!

The wine list is perhaps the main focus at Terroirs, and includes wines sourced from small growers who work sustainably, organically or biodynamically in the vineyard. So called natural wines are often unfiltered and unfined, making them naturally cloudy, with little or no additives or preservatives added to the wine. The list itself runs to over 40 pages, focussing mainly on French wines, with comprehensive descriptions of both regions and styles. This is obviously not the place for big brands, and it’s great to see so many wines made from unusual grapes – we noted wines made from Roussette de Savoie, Chasselas, and Jasnières grapes, all of which were unfamiliar to us. There is also an interesting selection of champagnes and sparkling wines, again mostly from small producers.

Hungry and keen to try a range of things, we ordered from across the menu, starting off with duck scratchings. These were to die for – salty and succulently fatty – and well worth fighting over. Next came duck rillettes, a shredded meat paste that was perhaps a tad underseasoned, but perfectly accompanied by the most pungent gherkins we’ve tasted in a while.

Husband ordered a baked Vacherin Mont d’Or cheese to share as our main dish. This is a cow’s milk cheese, produced in the Jura region near the French/Swiss border from cattle that roam the Massif Mont D’Or. It was baked in a wooden box, to be eaten like a fondue, and served with new potatoes, gherkins and an excellent herb salad. We also enjoyed the Noir de Bigorre Charcuterie on the side.

The service was typically Gallic and ever so slightly chaotic, but it was good to see the place heaving on a Thursday evening. The tables are packed close together, again in the French style, which makes conversation difficult, but with so much going on, and plates of food constantly going past, this wasn’t a huge problem.

The wine

We were once told in Switzerland that white wine is best served with molten cheese, as it aids digestion. Whilst this may be a myth, we took full advantage of the wine list to test the theory out.

The wine list highlights those wines that are truly natural – unfiltered and unfined, with zero or minimal sulphur – and we opted for one of these to start with.

1) Clos du Tue-Boeuf Touraine Le Brin de Chevre (2004) is produced in the Cheverny region, just south of Blois in the Loire. It is made from the Menu Pineau grape, a traditional Loire variety, related to Chenin Blanc. There is more about the producer online here.

Le Clos du Tue-Boeuf Touraine Le Brin de Chèvre 2004

The wine itself was a golden colour, and cloudy as you would expect. The nose was unusual as it was quite floral, with notes of honeysuckle, but also reminded us of the toastiness of a pinot noir dominated champagne. It was full-bodied, with refreshing acidity and a good length. To taste, the wine was complex with flavours of lime and cooked apple, and again honeysuckle. (13/20)

2) Domaine Guy Allion Sauvignon de Touraine (2008) Another white from the Loire, this time from the Touraine appellation, and produced from Sauvignon Blanc grown in sand-clay soil. A pale lemon coloured wine that was virtually clear. Pear drops and gooseberry on the nose. Good crisp acidity, with medium body. Pear drops dominated the flavours, with hints of gooseberry, apricots and citrus. Refreshing after the heavy cheese and very drinkable. (14/20)

Given the two wines were grown only 15 miles apart, the difference between them illustrates not only the diversity of the Loire, but also the sense of place of origin that Terroirs seeks to highlight.