Tuesday, 7 August 2012
Even as the paint was drying at MeatMarket, the second outpost of MeatLiquor, I saw someone on Twitter describe them as a "chain". How running just two restaurants in the same city, with different menus, makes them the next McDonald's I'm not sure, but it got me thinking about what exactly does constitute a chain. "Lots of identical restaurants all serving exactly the same food" seems a straightforward place to start, and there are no shortage of examples that fit this description, although even McDonald's tailor and tweak their menu to local tastes, and the interiors of any Nando's I've ever been inside (not that many, since you ask) have been commendably diverse.
The word "chain", then, isn't so much a category of restaurant as an insult thrown at anywhere that looks like it's sacrificed individuality and care for corporate consistency and shareholder returns. The ETM Group, for instance, despite running ten sites across London, avoids the "chain" label because each of its pubs has a proper chef and a unique menu, whereas the Real Greek, which I'm reliably informed was once one of the tiny number of places you could get good Greek food in London, has long since expanded, sold out and is now a "chain". The Polpo restaurants aren't a chain, Carluccio's is. The Galvin restaurants aren't a chain, but Café Rouge is. It's all in the attitude.
Vinoteca, then, isn't a chain, even though there are three in London now - the original in Farringdon which is always rammed (no mean feat when you've got St John as a neighbour), one in Marylebone and this, the latest, just a couple of doors down from Polpo and right opposite Bob Bob Ricard. Perhaps they like to choose their locations based on the quality of the competition; I expect the fourth will be in Cartmel or Bray.
Sorry about the appalling photos; it was quite dark in our little corner of the room and they turned out badly even by the desperately low standards of this blog. Suffice to say that these three chorizo croquettas did not look like beached sea cucumbers in real life, and tasted pretty good despite the overly thick, greasy crust and not quite enough béchamel inside.
House bread did a good enough job, and a bowl of salty "Catalan" almonds (not sure whether they were Catalan by origin or cooking style) from the 'snack' menu were just about worth £3, but the first bit of proper cooking was a grilled mackerel fillet in watermelon sauce, a great charred skin and moist flesh demonstrating that someone in the Vinoteca kitchens knows how to cook fish.
Unfortunately, though, the same care and attention hadn't been shown to this artichoke, which was overcooked and seems to have lost most of its tender internal leaves, perhaps an over-zealous effort to remove the hairs from the top of the heart. The dipping sauce was OK but I've certainly had better artichokes.
Best of the mains was my rose veal and girolles, a generous portion of tender veal and silky mushrooms in a garlic butter sauce. At £18 it was at the upper end of what you might want to pay for this kind of thing, but you did get plenty on the plate for your money.
Baked tomato, ricotta & swiss chard "tart" was bizarre though - a square of pastry topped with tomato and chard, looking like a square pizza, and a huge mound of completely tasteless curd on top. The combination of everything in one mouthful wasn't unpleasant, but it's still quite far off what you might expect from something called a "tart" and I got the distinct impression this was just one of those token vegetarian options, the chef's heart not really in it.
So, serviceable food and for not a huge amount of money but not really anything to get the pulse racing. However, Vinoteca has a trick up its sleeve in the form of a huge and carefully built wine list, and I imagine it's for this that many will choose to visit. I am not a wine buff, and will always be more interested in what's on my plate than in my glass, but I know plenty of people who tend to match food to wine than vice versa, and as nice-but-not-exceptional, the food at Vinoteca is perhaps deliberately pitched to play second fiddle to the wine and provide those who appreciate such things a different way of enjoying an evening out.
And it's for that reason I can't be too down on Vinoteca. It's far too easy, in any blog post, to point out mistakes with the food than just say that, actually, none of it was disastrous and the atmosphere and service in this attractive building in the heart of Soho still meant that we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Service was attentive and friendly even before my cover was blown (I was invited to review but managed to slink in and find a table without giving my name) and judging by the happy crowd that had found their way into the centre of town as Olympics Mania raged all around them, it has its fans. Like those that came before in Farringdon and Marylebone, it's sure to do well.
I was invited to review Vinoteca