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)

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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.