A little knowledge can go to the head

For wine novices, dinner at the Crooked Billet is an education - but so enjoyable that you may forget all you've learned
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's time I came clean. I suffer from a kind of oenological amnesia. Tell me about the year, the region, the grape, the terrain, the name of the maker's dog, the way wine buffs do, and by the time I've drained the glass I'll have forgotten it all. I'm not alone in my lack of knowledge. You'll notice other restaurant reviewers seldom mention what they drink with their food. Some never touch alcohol. Anyway, in most restaurants you're likely to try only one half-bottle's worth of wine.

It's time I came clean. I suffer from a kind of oenological amnesia. Tell me about the year, the region, the grape, the terrain, the name of the maker's dog, the way wine buffs do, and by the time I've drained the glass I'll have forgotten it all. I'm not alone in my lack of knowledge. You'll notice other restaurant reviewers seldom mention what they drink with their food. Some never touch alcohol. Anyway, in most restaurants you're likely to try only one half-bottle's worth of wine.

But, at the Crooked Billet, near Bletchley, accompanied by a friend from the Open University at Milton Keynes who has more than one ology but not the oen that mattered this time, my ignorance threatened to be more of a handicap than usual. Then again, adopting a more bottle-half-full than half-empty attitude, it was an opportunity to try twice as many wines as usual. The Crooked Billet was taken over six months ago by John Gilchrist, sommelier of Brown's Hotel in Mayfair, where he'd built up an award-winning list of wines, and earned even more accolades for his policy of serving 200 of them by the glass, and Emma Sexton who was chef at Nicole's round the corner in Bond Street. You might expect them to go chi-chi in the country. Not a bit of it.

The pub has the requisite thatched roof to fit into an unspoilt village, but appears to have landed in a residential extension of Milton Keynes. Inside, there are dried flower arrangements and well-polished brass and techies getting together for a beer after work. It looks like a regular pub populated by regular guys. Until you get to the wine list. Leatherette-bound, it goes on for pages and pages and pages, with wines grouped by country, and with all 250 available by the glass. You can spend as little as £3 on a glass and as much as £30, and try three or four different wines for no more than the price of a bottle.

"Sorry we're late," we'd said, sitting breathlessly in the bar. "You've done me a favour," the landlord replied with what quickly became clear was characteristic bluntness. He chose a glass of wine for me and beer for my friend. I envied his half of Cockahoop ale; wine doesn't slake a thirst after a long journey as effectively. We swapped.

"I don't know much about wine but I can tell this isn't chardonnay," said the sociologist. I agreed. At which moment our host passed by. "What's this wine?" we asked. "It's chardonnay." How were we so easily fooled? Because, according to the uniquely qualified landlord, it's a French wine that doesn't taste of the too-familiar new oak we associate with that grape.

Gilchrist seems to have the knack of passing on knowledge sparingly, pithily and without humiliating slow learners like us. Where the wine trade seems to attract smooth, fruity characters, he is refreshingly dry, almost flinty. With a place of his own he can introduce diners to the subject he loves without charging prices for the food or wines that make it exclusive. Starters are less than £5, mains £10-£13. It's enough of an attraction to ensure a full house on Saturday nights well into next year, and don't even think of trying to have a Christmas party there.

Food - served in a dining room decorated with framed photographs of grapes - is gutsy and imaginative. For starters, bouillabaisse was a fine, aromatic and peppery broth lapping over a seabed of sweet little shrimps and squiggles of squid, and a tart of silky, soft braised endive and grilled goat's cheese on a diamond of light pastry with lots of balsamic-spattered rocket on the side packed its various punchy flavours into a tremendously satisfyingly whole. A gorgeous, fragrant and fruity sauvignon blanc had been provided to go with the bouillabaisse, and I'd reclaimed and happily spun out my pleasingly deceiving chardonnay with the tart.

Meanwhile, if I thought I was shamefully ignorant about wine, my companion was making me feel like a Mastermind candidate. "What are there," he suggested, "three or four types of red grape, three or four white?" I was about to venture that there were a few more than that, when Gilchrist came to ask what we'd like to drink with our food, and told us there are 10,000 different grape varieties. Which only confirms what I've always thought - that there's far too much to remember.

With a daube of beef cooked for nine hours (they were just putting more in the oven for the following day) came a glass of Madiran, a powerful red from south-west France. Red or white, with your monkfish Wellington, I'd been asked? Red, I said, on the grounds that, on a drab winter night, it's a shame not to put away at least one glass of red over supper, rather than because I wanted to flout deliberately the white wine with fish convention. "Good choice," came the reply. I felt well chuffed. His selection was a South African pinotage. I couldn't have known that the monkfish, sealed in pastry, with mashed potato deliciously bolstered with olive oil, and green beans cooked to earthy, unusual but mutual benefit with chanterelles and shallots, would feature a fine, rich, seemingly red wine and possibly meat-based sauce. The beef, with more of the mashed potato that no overnight gravy should make its next-day appearance without, was meltingly good. I reached across the table and combed some off with my fork - it was that tender.

Dessert was a warmly spiced slab of fruit-packed bread pudding, with custard that may have been Bird's and certainly could have been creamier. A dessert wine would have helped it down if we hadn't been a long way from home. Service was swift and sweet, until I realised at the end over ordinary filter coffee, that we hadn't ever been offered water. And that so much good eating and drinking - for £30 a head - and the effort of remembering all those wines, had made me forget all about it.

The Crooked Billet, 2 Westbrook End, Newton Longville, near Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire (01908 373936) Tue-Sat bar lunches 12-2.30pm and dinner in restaurant 7-10pm, Sun lunch 12-2.30pm. Major cards except AmEx and Diners accepted. Limited disabled access

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