28-50: RESTRICTED LATITUDE
While nearly all restaurant reviewers and bloggers will write about the food they have eaten, very little will be written, if at all, about the wine (or beer) they have drank. It may be that they don’t drink, although I haven’t come across that many tea-total foodies. Sometimes the food doesn’t match that well with wine: Dim Sum only seems right with some Pu’er tea. Much of the time the selection of wine on offer is so limited and the markups so brutal that it’s a case of damage limitation – hence the ever popular second-from-bottom of the wine list strategy.
There’s group of people who regularly visit restaurants but for whom the food is of secondary interest. The wine enthusiast (or blogger) will talk about their meal as if it was constructed around the choice of tipple. The meal will stand or fall by the quality of the wine and not the food, indeed there’s a sense of palpable unease when they try to write about the food at all. Similary for food bloggers who know very little about wine (er, that’ll be me then).
Although I thought this strange at first, in fact it makes perfect sense. I suspect that there’s much more knowable about wine than there is about restaurants which can be very reliant on the right combination of ingredients, cooking, service etc.
Opened by the people behind Texture, Xavier Rousset and Agnar Sverrison, 28-50 Wine Workshop and Kitchen is, as you might expect from the name, a place where the focus is definitely on the wine. As I’m a bit of a naif when it comes to such things I canvassed the opinion of friend and bon viveur Gary Marshall who when I showed him the wine list just said one word: “Volnay”. Good enough for me.
Set in a basement at the Fleet Street end of Fetter Lane 28-50 is an exceptionally pleasant space in which to eat and drink. Bare brick walls, solid wooden tables, a bit of noodly jazz playing unobtrusively and, praise be, decent lighting. Although I assume the latter is for the benfit of the oenophiles.
There’s a shedload of wines to choose from by the taster (75ml), glass (150ml), carafe (250ml) and bottle. However, my eye was drawn towards the Winemaker of the Month selection for a little vertical tasting (hey, I know all the jargon) of three Rieslings from Domaine Trimbach.
To be honest I found the first two, a ‘08 and ‘04 a little lightweight for my palate with very little length. The ’97 (far left glass) was richer, more complex and with greater length than the other two. I know when I’m really enjoying a wine because I’ll keep sniffing and swirling and tasting, looking for more nuances.
The first of my starters was a relative disaappointment. Brandade with Chorizo and Sweet Peppers was a rather messily thrown together dish that looked pretty unappetising. The Brandade seemed to be receding, the toast was too thick and oily and there was a pointless piece of rocket shoved in the middle. Was this really a dish of the ex-sous chef of RHR? The fish and meat were actually of decent quality so it tasted a lot better than it looked.
A second starter, a Ballotine was a big leap in quality. Salty, porky Ham Hock and rich smooth Black Pudding had been rolled together and slices of it lightly fried. It was punchy yet still showed a great deal of refinement. Potato Salad used the the correct variety of tuber which provided a little bite. They had been dressed with a mixture of mayonnaise and finely chopped capers and cornichons to lend acidity and balance to the meat. Impressive stuff, if a little stingy on the portion size. Still better that than a big plateful of mediocre.
During a little self-enforced lull in proceedings I started on the Volnay. Gary does like his Burgundies but even to this untutored palate his recommendation was spot on. I was told that the ’97 Burgundies are drinking very well at the moment and for one moment I thought it was my swirling technique that was being admired.
Tastewise, there wasn’t a huge amount of fruit evident and it was quite dry. There was also an intriguing hint of, er, manure. Yes, definitely something of the farmyard but in a good, intriguing way. There was also a balance about the wine that was refreshing after having encountered far too many alcoholic fruit bombs. Yet again I found myself wanting to continue tasting to discover more. Wine is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?
I was so wrapped up in slurping and slooshing the wine that my main course was a bit of an unwanted intrusion, unecessarily distracting. Not so far from the truth as it turned out. If I wanted to know how the owners compensated for ungreedy markups on the wine I only had to look at the thickness of my Rib Eye steak.
Apart from the odd minute variety I’ve had this was easily the thinnest steak I’ve ever eaten. Its lack of thickness and decent ageing made it a very dull steak indeed. It was cooked perfectly of course but that hardly seemed the point - I just expected a bit more from an £18 Steak. Oh, and a small bowl of chips were an extra £2.95. I sort of understood the trade-offs at work here but it just took a little getting used to.
You wait an age for a Baba Au Rhum and then all of a sudden two come along. The one at 28-50 was possibly even more enjoyable than the one I’d had at Brasserie Joel. In this one the Chantilly was already an integral part of the sponge and you also got a little jug of rum on the side to pour over the pud. Only the accompanying strawberries didn’t work – not ripe enough – surprisingly, given what I’d had before, this was a case of less being more.
Despite my misgivings about the food, most of which I understand now - although I still don’t know why a good chef is here to put stuff on toast - I had a good time at 28-50: comfortable room, pleasant efficient staff, enjoyable wines. And if you can get past the fact that the food is actually the supporting act to the wine then I think you’ll have a good time too.