Eating out: Liquid lunch

Cantina Vinopolis 1 Bankside, London SE1, 0171 940 8333. The Brasserie is open for lunch Mon-Sat noon-3pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6.30-10.30pm. Three- course dinner pounds 25. Service added at 12.5 per cent. Credit cards accepted, except Diners
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IMAGINE IF history had been a little different, and everything had turned out upside-down. In a world, for example, where contact lenses had been around for hundreds of years, and the man who suddenly invented spectacles ("no cleaning regimens or discomfort, simply stick them on the end of your nose when you want to see") would have been hailed as a genius.

And in this wibbly-wobbly world (somewhere between Alice Through The Looking Glass and Mr Topsy-Turvy) imagine what the restaurants might be like. There would be dozens of sommeliers milling around who sat you when you arrived, gave you a menu which contained only the names of wines, and asked if you wanted something to eat first, or whether would you like to see the food list immediately.

You would order three or four glasses of wine: a starter, main, a pudding, maybe one on the side. "Enjoy your meal," the sommelier would say. "Can I send the food waiter over?"

Not knowing much about food, as you never had it with your wine at home, and only rarely drank out, you would ask the waiter for his help. Informed that you were starting with a glass of the Alexis Lichine Viognier he would recommend a cheeky little plate of tomato risotto fritters with wild rocket and Parmesan which were eating very well at the moment. Your wife would choose the gravadlax to go with her Romanian Chardonnay and the waiter would agree that this was an excellent choice, but might he point out the serrano ham with celeriac remoulade that had surprised everyone at a recent tasting.

Well, I have seen that world, dear reader, and, like Lemuel Gulliver, am returned to tell you. "Absurd!" you cry. "Drag this loon away and have him horse-whipped in the town square". OK it is only a city, Vinopolis - City of Wine, to be precise, but it's a start.

The restaurant here is secondary to the main event, which is a tour of Wineland - complete with virtual scooter rides through vineyards, tasting room and outsized wine shop. It ain't DisneyWorld, but it's more exciting than your local offie.

The giant, flag-stoned dining-room feels at once medieval, cellar-like and barrel-shaped, an impression reinforced by the use of barrel staves in the benches - making them, when you lean back, ascetically comfortable.

Purists will quibble that the wine list, which runs to hundreds of options by the glass, is not a list but a catalogue. It has no intrinsic rationale, and is self-selected according to the wines available to taste and buy. But it is huge enough to contain several good lists, and the staff is well informed. Asked to provide surprises to accompany each dish, they'll choose wisely enough.

As for the food: fine. I half expected the food waiter to tell me that the rump of lamb was woody at the front with notes of forsythia and a definite tang of barnyard. She didn't. She did ask if I wanted bread though. It didn't occur to me to say no. But then it appeared on the bill. A pound a head. Is that legal? Hard to know, but it is absolutely unforgivable.

The rest of the food is gastro-pub fare, well executed and immaculately presented. You know the menu without looking: lamb rump, free range chicken breast, roast cod, seared tuna, pasta option, bit of salmon. Side orders: chips with aioli, buttered eceteras, rocket and blah. Oh, and bread, pounds 1 apiece.

The gazpacho was excellent: smooth but textured by finely diced cucumber, with very good olive oil drizzled over it. Squid with "wasabi slaw" was fun, too. The squid was soft and milky, none of your grommet-tough calamari fritti, and the wasabi slaw was worthwhile. I've only eaten coleslaw at Kentucky Fried Chicken so I don't know how this one measures up to the great slaws of 18th-century Languedoc, but the name alone is enough. It sounds like a half-Japanese, half-Texan wrestler who has made the step over from Sumo to WWF: "Oooh, that is a huge forearm smash from Wasabi Slaw".

The lamb was a very good piece of meat with a strong juice and soft haricots. Englishmen will be disappointed by the absence of tatties. If you need carbohydrates with your main dish, though, you can always have bread. For pounds 1.

The only disappointment was the seared blue fin tuna (don't all deep- sea fish have blue fins?). It wasn't seared. This is a problem wherever you go. They always warn you that it is going to be very rare, then they cook it for four hours in a wood-burning pizza oven. The waitress suggested a fat brown Shiraz to go with it, which would have been perfect with seared tuna. Cooked through as it was, a widdly little Sauvignon would have sufficed.

Perched by Southwark Bridge, this is an easy lunchtime run from the City, and a better-than-average option for South Bank post-theatre eating. It is unpompous, sound and fun. And it is very reasonably priced, as long as you don't go mad on the wine. Or the bread.

WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST

Richard Ehrlich's selection

This weird list was "selected" by the producers, who paid to be in the Vinopolis tasting hall and are therefore in the restaurant as well. Coherence? Coverage? Forget it. And the tasting notes are odd: who cares that a wine "will improve with two or three years ageing". But with 200-odd bottles, all available by the glass, there is no shortage of things to drink. NB: future Vinopolis restaurants will select their wine lists by more conventional means.

Kimmeridgien Chardonnay 1997, pounds 4.70 per large glass

An unoaked Chardonnay, Chablis-like in style, from an excellent producer. A good wine for just about any fish dish

Taylor's 10 Year Old Tawny Port, pounds 4.90 per glass

Tawny port makes a good aperitif as well as a good dessert wine, and Taylor's youngest is always one of the best

Bach Merlot 1997, pounds 4.05 per large glass

This interesting Penedes house has been diversifying its production. I'd be happy to inspect their efforts with this ultra-fashionable grape

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