It has long been my contention that the simplest way to boost the appeal of our restaurant trade, and so elevate the place of good food in our culture, is to reduce the off-putting mark-ups on wine. So many middle-class eating experiences are tainted by that awful moment when eyes are dragged reluctantly to the farthest right column on the wine list, where some pedestrian Picpoul or charlatan Chardonnay is winking away at a cool four times the supermarket price.
The restaurateur's defence is as predictable as it is invalid: I have to make a profit somehow and everyone else does it too. Alas, this is myopic. My dear fellow, you might make more of a profit by not causing eyes to bleed on reading your drinks menu; and as for marching in step with your peers, leave that to the Army.
Wine is allegedly the central attraction of Galoupet, named after its owners' vineyard in Provence and which by appearances has slipped comfortably into the ostentatious despotism of Knightsbridge. It has a giant Enomatic machine at the front, from which 36 wine varieties can be extracted via a top-up card system. It looks like a spaceship designed by oenophile aliens, and the idea is to encourage contemplation of how different wines and foods best align. There is also a basic retail service, so this restaurant acts as local off-licence for the denizens of SW3.
Unfortunately, this makes buying wine to accompany the food very annoying – eventually. For reasons I cannot fathom, at the end of the meal we are shown the retail list, so that only then is it clear how much extra we're paying for the privilege of sitting in this long, thin room, with its clinically white upholstery and tilted mirrors. The last of these are a nuisance, because by hanging off opposite walls, they make it hard not to spend the meal staring at the back of one's head.
The summer menu has 14 dishes, six of which come in both small and large sizes, and each comes with a recommended wine. It is mostly underwhelming fare; several dishes have ingredients speaking at, rather than to, one another. They give off noise rather than polite conversation.
The grilled watermelon, Thai basil and baby fennel is a case in point (£7.50 large); so too the corn-crusted aubergine with green-tomato chutney and goat's curd (£8.50). Similarly, the chilli pork "Rib eye" with cucumber, coriander and lime (£11.50) has perfectly serviceable components, but they don't associate to mutual advantage. The onglet steak with mandarin, peanuts and papaya is confused and confusing.
But there are hits among the misses, each of which reveals chef Chris Golding's experience at Nobu, Nahm and Zuma. Octopus with fennel, kohlrabi and miso (£9.50) is excellent, and the lamb with chilli-pickled fennel and pistachio (£11) is a pseudo-Korean delight, a real thump of spice and nutty flavour. The heritage tomato with shiso (a Japanese herb from the mint family) and pepper dressing (£7.50) is well-balanced, and the stone bass, with burnt tomatoes and coriander (£11) is wonderfully muscular with a shimmering, tungsten skin.
These come with wines ranging from £4.10 to £13.80, and at that upper end a 2009 Meursault is fine. My friend Peter happens to be erudite on matters wine, and after I insist that we get a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape at £71, we spend a few glasses savouring a lovely flavour.
And then, after the bill is settled, comes the mood killer, as our otherwise delightful waitress presents us with an unrequested retail price list. And what do you know? This £74 bottle is just about half that price if we want to drink it again, outside, with only each other and the swallows of Hyde Park for company.
This is distressing in the extreme. Peter is as baffled as I am. At least don't tell us we've been ripped off, for goodness' sake. Doubtless some – especially those who make a living out of this trick – think it naïve to expect anything else. What with food inflation and soaring rents, perhaps we punters ought to understand booze is your best business, and shut up.
But I'm afraid that's not how it works. Vast riches will flow to those who realise that such mark-ups generate resentment, and leave a very sour taste in the mouth. Restaurants should, of course, aim for the exact opposite, but at Galoupet they seem not to have noticed.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Galoupet 13 Beauchamp Place, London SW3, tel: 020 7036 3600
Lunch and dinner daily. About £125 for two, with a mid-range bottle of wine (not the Châteauneuf du Pape)
Worth it for the wine
28 Putney High Street, London SW15, tel: 020 8785 4449
The best Italian wine list outside Italy is cleverly matched with expertly prepared dishes, in a lovely setting
Old Bridge Hotel
1 High Street, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, tel: 01480 424 300
An ivy-clad riverside hotel, where consistently good food plays an honourable supporting role; its owner, John Hoskin, is a Master of Wine, and his list is remarkable
174 Woodlands Road, Netley Marsh, Hampshire, tel: 023 8029 3784
Acclaim is growing for this boutique hotel's subtle cuisine. And its wine? Let's just say patron Gerard Basset won this year's World's Best Sommelier contest...
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.comReuse content