Food & Drink: Eating Out: Drink the world

Weave your way through the wine list at Cantina Vinopolis - there's a staggering 213 wines to try by the glass
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The Independent Culture
When Vinopolis - City of Wine opened last month on London's South Bank, it was billed as the world's first wine theme park. This multi- million pound infotainment centre, launched by the marketing genius who brought us Wash & Go shampoo, has been 12 years in the planning, while wine has steadily overtaken beer as top home tipple for Britons.

Doubts have been raised about whether this enthusiasm will translate into the 1,000-plus visitors a day that Vinopolis needs if it is to make a profit. But critical response to the centre's exhibits and tastings has been favourable, despite quibbles about over-eager audio commentaries and the bid to demystify grape varieties by giving them cartoon names like Maxine Merlot.

Vinopolis is housed in a series of Victorian railway arches, a cork's pop from the Globe Theatre and Borough Market, a run-down area tipped as "the new Clerkenwell". The nature of its atmosphere is best conveyed by the fact that it provided locations for the gangster film Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Amid the warehouses and lock-ups, Vinopolis looms like a plate-glass submarine. The exhibitions and on-site branch of Majestic had already closed for the night when I visited, but I was there for the Vinopolis Cantina - two restaurants offering wine-compatible menus, plus a bar for those who just want to Quaff & Go.

Carved out of a series of vaults, the Cantina is an impressive, almost cathedral-like space. Scrubbed brick walls ascend into high ceilings, tables and chairs are of chunky wood, and various vinous design details have been incorporated, such as the barrel staves fronting the bar.

My guests spanned what I imagine to be Vinopolis's target clientele:

wine-lover Tony had already made a voluntary pilgrimage, while Sharon thought Vinopolis was a Greek restaurant, and was temporarily confused by the big photo of Jancis Robinson beaming down over reception. The Brasserie was still being prepared for its imminent opening, but we were happy to settle for the Refectory, more austerely furnished, and offering a similar, but simpler menu.

As you would expect in an oenological showcase, it has a hell of a wine list - more than 200 wines, the vast majority under pounds 30 a bottle, and available by the glass. Each wine has a short, evocative summary - "toasted oak" or "yeasty with red cherry and onion flavours" and some, we are told, "will age well" - which does not bode well for the speed of service.

Tony disapproved of the way the list was arranged by grape rather than country of origin, but for me, it made things simpler; it is possible to compare like with like without getting confusingly terroir-ised. Announcing that "Riesling is the new chardonnay", Tony ordered us glasses of Dinehard D No 1 - "juicy and fruity with good length" - while we studied the menu. Unsurprisingly, it reflects the cuisine of the major wine-producing areas, being summery and Mediterranean, with Californian flourishes.

None of the dishes is particularly innovative; indeed, with the presence of favourites like wood-roasted vegetables and Caesar salad, it verges on the orthodox. So we were surprised and delighted by the quality of our starters. Sharon began with sardine escabeche and tapenade, two of the biggest tastes on the planet, yet they did not overpower her Dinehard, obviously the Bruce Willis of rieslings.

My summer minestrone soup was the kind of thing you imagine Ruth Rogers effortlessly knocks up for a family lunch, but which is so often disappointing in restaurants. The Vinopolis version was superb, containing rugged chunks of al dente veg topped with bright green pesto and ciabatta croutons. Tony's cured Serrano ham ("I should have had a Bergerac with it") was moist and translucent, though points were lost for a square of focaccia toast as tough as a dog biscuit.

The limitations of the shortish menu became apparent with the main courses, which featured return appearances from several previously sampled ingredients. I had carelessly ordered a spaghetti dish containing the same basil pesto as my soup, but it was so good I didn't really care. The spaghetti was home-made and concealed smoky explosions of mozzarella, roasted tomatoes and peppers. Sharon's thick slab of roasted salmon fillet was precision- cooked and served on a bed of piperade and wilted rocket, while Tony's lightly-grilled chicken was exotically accessorised with sweet chilli jam, avocado and creme fraiche. Side-dishes included chips with a garlicky aioli, so good they'd almost merit a visit on their own.

Service could not have been speedier or more helpful. Tables were niftily rearranged to accommodate new arrivals, mainly youngish groups and couples, obviously smug at having discovered such a gem ahead of the pack. Many of our fellow diners were exploring the range of wines by the glass in a convivial pantomime of swirling and swilling. Surprisingly, there is no special area set aside for smokers, and we were forced to pit our fledgling palates against plumes drifting over from the surrounding tables.

Of the puddings we sampled, both the chocolate and hazelnut brownie and the late summer fruit turnover tasted home-made in the best sense of the word, although by this stage, our research trip through the wine-list had started to tell. Tony was raving about the "multi-dimensional subtlety" of his Hess Collection Chardonnay (at pounds 9.50 a glass, the most expensive white on offer) while Sharon was blurrily enthusing about her mascarpone ice-cream, "the best ice-cream since those chips we had".

Whether or not Vinopolis becomes an established stop on the foodie trail, its Cantina is good enough to become a destination venue in itself, and it is relatively affordable at around pounds 20 a head (not counting the seven different varieties of wine we managed to get through.) One thing is for certain - it is by far the best restaurant you are ever likely to find in a theme park.

Cantina Vinopolis, 1 Bank End, London SE1, 0171-940 8333. Refectory 12 noon to 6.30pm daily; Brasserie 12 noon to 3pm, 7pm to 10.30pm, Mon- Sat. All cards except American Express and Diners. Disabled access.