As the name implies, food isn't the main point of the Kensington Wine Rooms. Its point is to serve wine by the glass – and that means expensive, quality, premier cru stuff, as well as the Chateau Collapso. If you've never tried a 1992 Haut-Brion but have wondered what all the yelling is about, now's your chance: you can sip a £52 glassful, rather than shell out £288 for a whole bottle.
The front room is laid out like a wine shop with a posh bar. At the side, there's an array of bottles inside glass cabinets from which punters occasionally fill up their glasses like guests at a self-service buffet. The machines are called Enomatics: you acquire a plastic smartcard at the bar, rack up some credit points from your bank account, insert the card, choose a wine and a measure (125 or 175cl) press the metallic nipple and the machine dispenses the vinous fluid until the money runs out, without ever uttering the words, "Don't you think you've had enough for one evening, sir?"
Walk through to the back room, and you'll find a dining-room that's instantly welcoming. The walls and ceiling are painted a restful lilac, leather chairs and chintzy upholstery give the place a nicely old-fashioned feel, and half a dozen prints by the novelist-turned-artist Charlotte Cory, photo-shopping the faces of animals on to the bodies of Victorian bigwigs, hint at a refreshingly un-serious personality behind the restaurant. The moment you sit down, you feel you could stay for hours.
The menu is heavy on steaks and fish, full of butch flavours and determinedly international – tempura this, carpaccio that, calamari here, confit there – and each dish comes with a suggestion for an appropriate wine. Some are inspired pairings (Cotes de Provence Rosé with crab cakes, for instance) and some less so (Californian Syrah is surely miles too fruity to drink with rack of lamb and mint sauce) but it's good to have this level of attentive recommendation.
My starter of pan-fried prawns with spicy chorizo and broad beans was a mélange of bits: the prawns were hot and juicy, the chorizo slices a touch over-fried and tepid (they clearly hadn't shared a pan with the prawns) and the beans boringly unseasoned. My friend Robert's grilled calamari with rocket and walnuts looked excitingly stark and monochrome but also disappointed: some of the squid roundels were burnt at the edges, the dressing wasn't strong enough to mask the charry pong, and the advertised walnuts were hard to detect anywhere.
The wine, however, made up for it. Given the raison d'etre of the restaurant, it seemed rude not to drink as much as possible. We chose some wines to accompany The Ordering of the Food: I tried a Bourgogne Blanc that was bursting with melony fruit and amazingly refreshing. Robert had an Arbois Chardonnay and liked its biscuity top note. Then – only because the menu has suggested it – we ordered more: my friend had the Vouvray Sec, a dry Loire the management recommends with calamari, and we decided, Yup, that goes just fine with slightly burnt squid.
I resisted their suggestion of a Dreissigacker reisling to go with my prawns, and gulped an Alsatian Gewurtz instead: its gorgeous, Muscatel-grape perfume didn't, in fact, do anything for prawns at all, but I found that, oddly enough, I didn't care. We wondered if we should order a wine to accompany The Chat Between Courses, but decided not.
The mains were an improvement. Robert's tempura fish and chips with delicately minted mushy peas and tartate sauce (and, inevitably, a Chablis Corine Perchaud) were a great success while my confit of duck was a parcel of slithery, pungent leg-meat inside a crisp carapace: fat loganberries and cooked cherries sat in its folds like handmaidens, while a pillow of creamy mash offered a contrast of textures. Oh, and a wallop of Patagonian Malbec/Merlot moved things along too.
By the time we got to puddings, we were awash with wine and couldn't justify having the Maury Mas Amiel pudding vino they suggested with the baked chocolate mousse. The mousse itself was a dense affair, tending towards the fondant, but was delicious, its slimy heat offset by a black pepper ice cream (vanilla actually, with a teensy, pepper aftertaste).
It was a perfectly good meal, made unnecessarily expensive by reckless experimentation in the wine menu. The Rooms offer a lunch menu of £14.95 for three courses, which seems tremendous value. Our à-la-carte lunch for two would have set us back £65-£70, if we'd ordered a single bottle and stopped there. By experimenting with half a dozen glasses, we made the wine bill a whopping £35. I wish I could blame the management for their seductive ways, but it was my own silly fault. And I suspect this new addition to the Notting Hill scene will soon be full of locals, similarly throwing caution to the winds over the carte de vin.
Kensington Wine Rooms, 127-129 Kensington Church Street, London W8 (020-7727 8142)
About £65-£90 for two (depending on wine consumption)
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Wines by the glass
Richard Phillips' vineyard restaurant sells more than 30 wines by the glass; try the Pinot Blanc at £8.95.
Smallhythe, near Tenterden, Kent (01580 761616)
Every dish on the menu at this award-winning inn is matched by a glass of wine – a large glass of Miner Cabernet Sauvignon costs £10.
Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire (01672 870871)
More than 20 wines are available by the glass at this elegant City newcomer – and the food is fabulous, too.
34 Threadneedle Street, London, EC2 (020-7628 0001 )Reuse content