It ain't Pommeroy's, that's for sure.
Everyone would be far too young, way too female, and much too brightly dressed for Horace Rumpole's liking at London's latest, busiest, buzziest basement wine bar.
At Bedford & Strand - so named for the street corner on which it stands - the old darling would search in vain for a glass of Chateau Thames Embankment on the "all killer, no filler" wine list, finding instead Cha Cha Cha Chardonnay from Southern France, or a Californian Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel. Complete, good Lord, with ice cold, 50ml "shots" of Santa Puerta Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at £1 a throw.
Opened by a group of friends in the wine and bar business, B&S is a legitimate attempt to bring back, dust off, brush down and smarten up the London wine bar of the 1970s. Don Hewitson, the wine-loving New Zealander who ran some of the most successful bars of the time, claimed wine bars should be "fun places for relaxing, eating and drinking... and some wine education, if so desired".
It certainly looks like a fun place for relaxing, eating and drinking, with its bottle-laden shelves, mirrors, columns, paper-covered tables, bentwood chairs and lovely, long, zinc bar.
There are heaps of fun ideas in place here, too. House wines, for instance, are divided into Honest, Decent and Good, which seems like an honest, decent and good thing to do. A basically British bistro menu is high on comfort factor, full of boys' and girls' own favourites such as chicken Caesar, chicken-liver pâté, grilled cod, fish cakes, and sausages and mash, as well as a changing daily special (tonight, a pie of steak, green peppercorn and ale).
Foodwise, it's the bastard offspring of All Bar One and your local gastropub, with an all-day bar menu of tartines (open sandwiches) and assemblies of cheese, charcuterie and salmon, put together on small wooden boards at the on-view deli counter. Plates look set to be replaced by planks by the new year, for those interested in such things.
Never one to buck a trend, I start with a planked-up trio of salmon (£8), but it lacks sparkle. A roll-up of smoked salmon is a bit mushy in texture, while two slices of salmon with soy and hoisin sauce taste bland. The best of the bunch is a blushing scarlet beetroot-marinated salmon, which is gravlax with gravitas.
Soupe de poisson (£5.95) is a right little crowd-pleaser, full of wolf-it-down fishy bits. It is overly creamy, however, which tends to cheapen the flavour rather than enrich it.
The food does enough to get by. A tartine of steak and caramelised onions (£7.95) from the bar menu is good drinker's fare, the thin meat quickly seared and plonked on a few green leaves and (not enough) cooked onions, all atop a halved baguette. It's not exactly a big, red-blooded meat hit, but it fills the gap with a little help from a stack of crisp, golden, pre-cut frites.
Does everybody order sausages and mash expecting to be carried away with childhood delight on a wave of onion gravy and nostalgia, only to end up with nothing more than sausages and mash - or is it just me? It happens again with B&S's perfectly fine but very bready house-made pork and leek sausages, serviceable shallot jus and some solid, somewhat lifeless mash (£8).
So you get what you pay for - both main courses tonight are £8, and I had to do some serious drinking to get my bill up past the £70 mark. At least the wines - and the floor staff - work hard for the money. A £3.50 glass of Tourangelle Sauvignon Touraine from the Loire is suitably Decent, while a £25 Sherwood New Zealand Pinot Noir (offered chilled or at room temperature) should have been listed under Even Better, being complex, ripe, plummy, and worth every penny. The tall, likeable waiter is as wine-friendly as one would hope, which adds to the "wine education, if so desired" part of the mix.
By peak dinner hour, the decibel level is rather outrageous, the exhausting equivalent of a pneumatic drill. Make that a slightly high-pitched pneumatic drill, as girls outnumber boys three to one here, happily drinking rosé, sharing puds and splitting bills.
A plank of cheese (£6.50), which should really be one of the highlights of a modern-day wine bar, is a bit of a bore, as is a coupe of ordinary ice cream doused with Illy Espresso liqueur (£3.50). Surprisingly, it is kiddy-sweet, needing the sharp bitterness of real coffee to make it as intriguing as an Italian affogato.
Bedford & Strand is not, frankly, a million miles away from the All Bar One/Firkin & Parrot sort of scene, but it could so easily be lifted clear of the pack with a bit more money thrown into the produce and the kitchen. Even so, it fulfils its brief as a wine bar, because it actually is a fun place for relaxing, eating and drinking. Even Rumpole, after a few of its ports and pudding wines, would have to agree with that.
12/20 Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Bedford & Strand, 1A Bedford Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7836 3033. Lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday. Around £75 for two including wine and service
Second helpings: More wine bars
Vivat Bacchus 47 Farringdon Street, London EC4, tel: 020 7353 2648 The sibling of an established South African restaurant, Vivat Bacchus added its eye-catching wine bar in January. Features include a tapas-style menu and more than 20 wines.
Vintners Rooms The Vaults, 87 Giles Street, Leith, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 554 6767 Choose between dining in the opulence of the stuccoed restaurant, or in the less-formal wine bar. The wine list is serious, so you'll easily find one to go with your Provençal lamb rack.
Oxfords bar & restaurant 35 Oxford Street, Southampton, Hampshire, tel: 023 8022 4444 With its woody, welcoming feel, Oxfords has become one of Southampton's top places to meet, greet and eat. An eclectic menu includes chicken satay.
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