The flow of press releases announcing new restaurant openings has slowed to a trickle. Planned launches have been aborted before take-off, and roll-outs hastily rolled back in. As the recession bites, restaurants around Britain are closing their doors – around 100 in January alone, according to a recent report in The Independent – taking with them the pension plans of well-known figures such as Antony Worrall Thompson and Jean-Christophe Novelli. Even for an industry with a perennially high churn rate, these are turbulent times.
So how has a small wine bar, which opened last autumn with almost no publicity, somehow become the hit of the moment? Tucked away in commuter-land between Trafalgar Square and The Strand, down one of those side streets that will always owe more to the Lyons Corner House than Lyon, Terroirs is packing them in. And it’s doing so almost entirely through word-of-mouth recommendations. It really is the kind of place you find yourself wanting to tell other people about: that rarest of rare beasts, an atmospheric little place serving great food and wine at terrifically reasonable prices.
It comes on like a bistro, with its bentwood chairs, zinc-topped bar and bare brick walls covered in none-more-French posters and memorabilia. But Terroirs calls itself a wine bar because wine is at the heart of the enterprise. The owners are the Guildford-based wine merchants Caves de Pyrènes, who supply some of Britain’s best restaurants. Now they’re showing their clients how it should be done.
The 25-page wine list is unusually structured: there’s a page, for example, titled “white wines of the moment”, like some vinous download chart. There are rarities and eccentricities, and a focus on natural wines, which are organic and biodynamically produced. The length and unfamiliarity of the list might be momentarily overwhelming, but the French manager is soon at hand, perching on a corner of a neighbouring table to talk you through the options.
The food is designed to enhance the wine-drinking experience rather than be fetishised in its own right. The French influence is strong, as you’d expect from head chef Ed Wilson, who has worked with some of London’s pre-eminent Francophiles. But Spain, Italy and Britain also get a look-in, with slow-cooked Suffolk pork belly sitting happily alongside matjes herring, and snails rubbing shoulders with potted shrimp.
There are sub-sections of charcuterie, cheese, and bar snacks like duck scratchings and brandade, all designed to be nibbled, tapas-style, while sipping something interesting. But as our lunch was on a school day, we’d come to give the menu, rather than the wine list, a shake-down. There’s a selection of small plates, mainly priced from £6-£8, and a handful of more substantial plats du jour, equally reasonable at £10-£12, and miraculously varied given that the tiny galley kitchen is equipped with just two electric griddles and no gas.
Small plates they may be called, but the hunk of smoked eel that arrived on a celeriac remoulade was so supersized that my companion made an indelicate reference to Viagra. The dish worked brilliantly, as advertised, with the mineral purity of a Montlouis Chenin (Frantz Saumon “Minerale +”, 2007). Having said we weren’t there for the wines, it would have been churlish to resist, since they’d gone to the trouble of offering them by glass or 500ml carafe as well as by bottle.
A two-fisted salad of beetroot, watercress and tangy Pecorino was a collision of big, fresh flavours, though it could have done with a bit more bite in the dressing. Tender grilled squid came with stewed chick peas and a slick of Romesco sauce. And from the plats du jour, a steak that demonstrated Terroirs’ ambition: rather than the formulaic entrecôte-frites, a cheaper, tastier cut – bavette – sliced into ruby chunks over a deliquescent mulch of caramelised onion. Croutons spread with a shallot and red wine butter and a few sautéed new potatoes completed the party; this isn’t a menu for anyone craving their Five-a-Day, with green veg playing about as prominent a role on the menu as Piat d’Or does on the wine list.
A prune and Armagnac tart, and some crêpes partnered with salted caramel were somehow magicked out of that tiny kitchen, bringing the food element of our meal to a laughably reasonable £25 a head.
With its spindly furniture and chilly expanse of naked window, Terroirs probably isn’t the place to come for a special occasion. But for just about every other occasion that requires great food, intriguing wine and a slightly raffish atmosphere, it’s perfect. Now pass it on.
Terroirs, 5 William IV Street, London WC2 (020-7036 0660)
Around £25 a head for three courses before wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side orders: A lotta bottle
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