On the table: Ikoyi

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Ikoyi, credit: St. James's Market, London, Thea Lovstad

Ikoyi, credit: St. James’s Market, London, Thea Lovstad

With worldly cuisines in many hand and fork-to-mouth guises at our fingertips, Nigeria remains a lesser explored version at the top-end. Along the monopoly board that colours London’s food scene, we sent Alexis Self to Ikoyi to discover something altogether off the map

If you stuck a cocktail stick in the ground at Piccadilly Circus and drew a circle one mile in diameter, the catchment area would include dozens of restaurants serving high-end versions of most of the world’s cuisines. Up until last year, however, there was one glaring exception. Despite its population of nearly 200 million, and not to mention its significant London-based diaspora, Nigerian cuisine is almost invisible on the city’s fine dining scene. That isn’t to say that you can’t find good west African food in the capital – as anyone who has had their palate stimulated on the Old Kent Road or in Ridley Road Market will attest – just that its powerful spice and exotic flavours are all but impossible to find once you cross into Zone 1.

Those hoping that Ikoyi, a new west African restaurant opened last year by old friends Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukale in St James’s Market, might introduce the uninitiated to some of the country’s traditional dishes could be disappointed. Ikoyi is far from traditional. If chicken tikka masala and lamb balti were the intentionally sweetened stalking horses that brought south Asian cuisine into the British mainstream, Ikoyi’s buttermilk plantain and smoked scotch bonnet is a multicoloured zebra doing somersaults across the tongue. While its smoked crab jollof rice – a dish almost as lovely to speak as it is to eat – is about as far away from the moulded orange molehills served on the Old Kent Road as one can get without sliding off the Monopoly board.

Indeed, if one were to make an updated 2018 version of the world’s favourite board game, the newly renovated St James’s Market development might indeed squeeze Mayfair off the board. The “luxury office and retail space”, with its glassy canyons and greige identikit cladding, might appear to represent some of the less savoury things about modern-day London. However, its apparent soullessness stands in great contrast to the very real vibe and soul emanating from Ikoyi and its food. Tucked away in the upper reaches of the development – itself sandwiched between Haymarket and Lower Regent Street – the space has been meticulously well thought-through. The interior, with its earthy oranges, yellows and clean wood-panelled lines, would seem to owe much to Geoffrey Bawa – whose Tropical Modernism can be seen in Fitzrovia’s Hoppers 2, another recent opening doing a lot for a different underrepresented cuisine.

The food at Ikoyi is served on cool (in both senses of the word) ceramic slabs with black cutlery and a killer soundtrack. The wine list is nice and compact with a pretty even quirky/classic mix. There are tempting bottles in each category – Slantik Radikon, an orange “unicorn de jour” from Italy and the tasty Joshua GMS from Australia’s Teusner, deserving of special mention. In the end we order a bottle of Weingut Eymann’s lip-smacking 2016 Riesling, whose crisp acidity and subtle spice turn out to be just the ticket for our first morsels.

Ikoyi, St James's Market, credit: Thea Lovstad

Ikoyi, St James’s Market, credit: Thea Lovstad

The aforementioned plantain comes coated in bright pink “raspberry salt” with a side of smoked scotch bonnet mayo. Its space-age appearance and peculiar taste make the perfect introduction to this intriguing menu. Moin moin, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a squidgy bean pudding. Ikoyi’s version is crested by a Scottish prawn and a slice of kohlrabi, a vivid purple cabbage-like vegetable – it’s a wonderfully crazy looking treat. The crumbling shortcrust pastry of the dambu namba (dry shredded beef) and whipped bone marrow tartlets remind me of a custard tart/beef pattie hybrid, which I think provides a neat physical representation of what Chan and Hassan-Odukale are trying to do here.

The meat and veg, including the scotch bonnet, is all UK-sourced. The ingredients may have been grown, and reared, close to home, but, thanks to the inventive use of African herbs and spices, the flavours are otherworldly. The octopus, ndolé and calçot looks like something out of Creature from the Black Lagoon: a single tentacle submerged in a green pesto-y slick next to one of the very en vogue small leek-shaped scallions. The octopus is cooked perfectly – not too tender, not too tough. Even better is the stone bass, red pepper and kelp – served in a deep brown bowl it has all the exquisite spice of a Keralan fish curry but with more delicacy to the meat.

Despite the richness and spiciness of the food, at no point do we feel full or, god forbid, bloated. This is especially appreciated as we are yet to tuck into our main. Duck (NB. this is our fifth different meat of the night – vegans, please look away now), cooked to pink perfection, is bathing in another sublime smoky, candied bacon sauce. By now we’ve had a lot of wonderful sauce so, foregoing dessert, we decide to have a bit more and order two glasses of the house red. A 2015 Tinto from Prunus in Portugal’s Dão region, it’s really good and the silky fruit provides the perfect parachute with which to begin the descent back to Earth.

One shouldn’t go to Ikoyi full of preconceptions about anything – luxury office and retail spaces, jollof or west African cuisine. Just let your taste buds soar. The food looks space age, and it tastes out of this world…

To find out more on the restaurant click here.

Category: Food & Wine

English spirit

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The English are renowned for nothing if not their discernible “spirit”. In the run up to St. George’s day, we ask whether the descendants of this patron saint are capable of rivalling their neighbours’ propensity for distillation over the border, and further yonder. Spirits Buyer Rob Whitehead offers us his thoughts

“And were distilleries builded here, among these dark, satanic mills”

It is my opinion that our Scottish brethren make more, great whisky than anyone else in the world. Thankfully, for someone who enjoys variety as much as I do, there are many other nations producing good, great, and even glorious whiskies in this twenty-first century golden era. Here, I will take you on a spiritual tour, as we explore the whisky awakenings of the Scots’ southern, Sassenach siblings:

First, to Norfolk, as we visit the current leaders of the pack, is the admirably very straightforwardly-named English Whisky Company. This was established in 2006 by Andrew Nelstrop and his late father James amongst fenland and fields of barley at St. George’s distillery near the Norfolk/Suffolk border. The team here, led by wildly talented master distiller David Fitt, has produced a range of bottlings over the years, including some I’ve deemed worthy enough to be the first ever English whiskies sold by Berry Bros. & Rudd. The last few years have seen a consolidation in the range of offerings, which in my view, has allowed them to scale even greater heights of quality.

West next, to Herefordshire we travel, to Chase Distillery: erstwhile potato peddlers, and now in serious contention for the classiest distillers in England. They produce a range of gin and vodka – the smoked and cask-aged variants of the latter proving particularly intriguing, and liqueurs, including the only limoncello I’ll allow in the building (!) Chase have never released a whisky, so why include them in this tour? Well, call me curious, but they’ve got some beautiful little copper pot stills, access to quality barrels (not to mention malted barley) and the long-term sensibilities that so often beget warehousing brim-full of liquid patience…one to watch, we suggest.

Southeast, slightly, to the bucolic Warwickshire hills for our next stop at the Cotswolds Distillery. Here, in splendid setting, spirit has been flowing since their founding, by redoubtable American Dan Szor, in 2014. Firstly, an excellent gin was the only available fruits of the team’s labours, but now, after the requisite passage of time, they’ve allowed the first small batches of single malt out into the world. Thankfully, the wait was worthwhile, and you can expect to find their products in our range shortly.

Now northwards we must go, to one of England’s most ruggedly picturesque regions, as we visit The Lakes Distillery in the achingly beautiful heart of Cumbria. As with their Cotswold cousins, distilling began here in 2014, with, predictably, gin being amongst the first products released. It has been refreshing to note that, amongst the veritable horde of gins being offered and proffered to me, this producer (along with the two above) have striven to distil individual, interesting, quality gins whilst still focusing on that very much longer-term goal of maturing whisky. The first of their products to nestle in our range, the Explorer Gin has very recently arrived – likely not to be too long until temptation strikes, and I admit one of their whiskies into the fold.

Finally, and with no lack of hometown pride, we cross the Pennines into my beloved county of Yorkshire, to visit the newest, and final, distillery on this spiritual journey. Established in 2016, a mere 11 miles from where I was born, the Spirit of Yorkshire distillery is producing, without question in my mind, the most exciting malt spirit in England at this tender age. Growing from the shared dreams of farmer and top-notch brewer Tom Mellor and long-time friend David Thompson, and now under the stalwart purview of Director of Whisky, Joe Clarke, the team are growing all their own barley at the start of the process and bottling on-site at the very end, which is a rare occurrence anywhere in the whisky world and shows the commitment to quality being upheld here. So far, there is no whisky, as the minimum maturation period for English whisky is three years in oak, exactly as for Scotch. However, if the immense promise inherent in their one-year old Spirit Drink (the unromantic but legally correct term for not-yet 36-month-old whisky) is built upon, and furthered by the passage of time, then I hugely look forward to welcoming a Yorkshire whisky into our range.

In conclusion, I shall continue my journeys, and ask you to join me in this enjoyable endeavour. Furthermore, (with apologies to William Blake), I will not cease from the mental fight of exploring these and other new producers, nor shall my tasting glass sleep in my hand, now that we have built distilleries in England’s green and pleasant land.

Drop in to our 63 Pall Mall and Basingstoke shops where many of our wines and spirits are regularly on taste. For other English products to try, click here.

Category: Miscellaneous,Spirits

2017 Bordeaux: in summary

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Ch. Ausone, Bordeaux credit: Jason Lowe

Ch. Ausone, Bordeaux credit: Jason Lowe

Returned sated and satisfied, our 2017 Bordeaux buying visit closes in reflective mood. Will Lyons wraps up the week, in thought, and word, and in writing all of our soon-to-be-published tasting notes – in deed.

In Bordeaux history is all around you. It was the Latin poet Ausonius who first recorded mention of wine production in the region. That was in AD 350 in the area around St-Emilion where the Romans were probably the first to plant vines. Ausonius now has a château named after him, Ausone which sits on the hillside on the southern outskirts of the village. But it wasn’t until the Dutch introduced technology to drain the marshlands of the Left Bank to form what is now the Médoc in the 17th century that some of the region’s most famous names, Ch. Lafite, Latour and Margaux were created.

Today what Bordeaux does have is a track record. Although every growing season is different, and one of the attractions of Bordeaux is that the style of its wines change with every year, the overriding beauty of it is that whatever conditions are thrown at the winemaker it is highly likely someone in the region will have experienced it before. Bordeaux 2017 may well be remembered for the frost in late April which devastated nearly half of the potential crop. But we have been here before, most notably the extremely cold winter of 1956 and more recently in 1991. Crucially, as already observed in these blog posts, the frost of 2017 was uneven, some appellations were spared completely as were many châteaux.

So how will history judge 2017? It is important to note that the wines are just at the very beginning of their ageing. As for the growing season it is worth reminding ourselves of the five conditions which govern the success of red wine vintages in Bordeaux as laid out by Dr. Axel Marchal, Dr. Valérie Lavigne and Professor Laurence Gény from the Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin, Bordeaux Aquitaine University. These are: warm and dry weather during flowering and fruit-set, a warm and dry (but not excessively so) July, August and September and fine and relatively dry and warm weather during harvest so the grapes can be picked at optimum ripeness without the risk of dilution, rot or loss of fruit aromas.

As they write in their report on the 2017 growing season: “Although all five conditions for a great vintage were not combined in 2017, it was nevertheless possible, in plots spared by frost, to produce deeply-coloured, fruity, tasty red wines with good ageing potential. It would therefore be a mistake to overlook this vintage.” Adding that although quality was more mixed than 2015 and 2016 in 2017 there are many good wines.

This is undoubtedly the case. The wines perhaps lack the concentration of great years but the best examples are attractive. Those that were hit by the frost less so.

To follow the campaign click here and to keep up to date with all our Bordeaux coverage click here.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

A Gymkhana collaboration: wine on spice

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Culminating on Saturday 12th May, we’ve teamed up with No.3’s neighbour and Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Gymkhana to offer a month-long collaborative tasting menu. Fanning together multiple flavours from around the world through each delicious course, we speak to Head Sommelier Valentin Radosav on how best to pair wine with spice

“It looks like we’re at the beach with no sun” says Romanian-born Valentin Radosav as we sit down next to the photographer. He is referring to the lack of bottles in the background as we chat. Radosav heads up a team of four sommeliers at Mayfair’s Michelin-starred Gymkhana, in situ here now for two years after previous stints at “Dinner by Heston” and “Purnell’s” in Birmingham. A professional first foray into this “exciting” cuisine, his love for and interest in it began at home “my partner is from India. Her family is from Punjab.” He says she cooks up a more Indian inspired storm at home, in contrast to his ability for making Paella – a must-be happy aide to his continually evolving wine pairings: “I needed to try something new.”

The wine list at Gymkhana changes every two to three months. A challenge, surely, for anyone to provide something interesting, complementary and exciting for diners who come here to eat its much-accoladed cuisine from far and wide. The 200-strong list features one Indian wine – a Cabernet Sauvignon-Sangiovese blend served by the glass from the Sette Fratelli winery in the province of Maharashtra – made under the guise of esteemed Italian winemaker Piero Masi. Similarly off the traditionally well-worn wine track, he has a couple of Greek wines on the list, chosen by fellow Greek sommelier Savas: “we all work together. I like the team to be able to express their personality through the wine list. I was taught that at Dinner, where I was allowed to do that too” says Valentin.

The dishes on the table tonight range from spicy to sultry, from subtle to highly assertive. How does Valentin go about matching such expressive flavours? “Usually with Indian food I like to start with a light white wine – not too soft, with some body.” The match with the first course – a Samosa Papdi Chat with Tamarind and Sev, is a dry Manolás Furmint from Oremus in Tokaji, Hungary. Here he says the creamy texture of the wine balances with that of the samosa, bringing an acidity and balance to the pairing. With this kind of cuisine, he says he aims for the “dishes to express themselves and wines to complement.”

There are six courses on this specially-curated menu, each with their own array of flavour challenges. “I don’t try to fight the spice, I try to embrace it – so you can feel both spice and wine’s texture at the same time.” Riesling is a classic choice matching to the texture of scallops with green apple chutney – an ingredient he describes as quite spicy with a sweetness and delicacy. “Usually I love to put sake with this dish but I added the Riesling to try to have variety. I try to touch all the continents” evident in the wide cross section of wines chosen for this collaboration, and for this dish, matching the chutney profile, because it too is “something with a touch sweetness, that is delicate and light.”

The hardest dish on the menu to match, but one Valentin also describes as his favourite, is the Pork Cheek Vindaloo – this comes paired with a 2006 Vall Por Priorat from Sangenis I Vaqué. “From one to ten [in terms of spice] this is a 20” says Valentin, so there are two ways to approach this – either you go for something like a Pinot Noir, low in tannin and more direct in alcohol, or you go for a wine with age – where the tannins become less aggressive, and become riper and creamier on the palate.” It is a pairing he is very happy with, saying simply: “sometimes in life when you are challenged and you succeed then you will be much more satisfied than when you achieve something easily.” Using a wine with some age is something he says he loves to do – “It is hard to get aged wines on a wine list. When I get the opportunity [to buy them], they are something I like to present.”

If you don’t choose the Vindaloo, the alternative (non-vegetarian) option is an Achari Jheenga (langoustine) Curry – “quite mild. It is creamy.” So, to match it Valentin pairs it with a Pinot Noir from California’s famous Au Bon Climat. “It has a delicate creaminess with a touch of American oak – [it shows] coconut and sweet spice,” complementing the very same flavours found in the sauce.

Valentin Radosav, Head Sommelier at Gymkhana, and Demetri Walters MW of Berry Bros. & Rudd

Valentin Radosav, Head Sommelier at Gymkhana, and Demetri Walters MW of Berry Bros. & Rudd

Valentin uses a Viognier from Churton Wines in New Zealand’s Marlborough with the Gilafi Quail Seekh Kebab with green chilli chutney, saying he decided on this because he likes to “break the myth that New Zealand can make something else” (outside of Sauvignon Blanc). Similarly, with the Kid Goat Methi Keema, Valentin goes for a Cinsault from Itata in Chile – over and above something like a Pinot Noir from the same country. “A Pinot [here] would be obvious. It is better to go with a País or a Cinsault, or a Carignan.” He extols the virtues of Sémillon now coming out of Chile too – giving Bordeaux and Australia a run for their money – somewhere he visited after winning the Wines of Chile Wine Bar Wars in 2016.

Personally, Valentin says he likes unknown wines, and unknown varieties – tipping Portuguese wines and grapes as something of particular interest. He also likes wines with stories – which is why for this menu, he says he chose the Hambledon English Sparkling Wine to start with. When it comes to building his own list, reflected on the tasting menu over these weeks, he says he tends to go for half classics and half completely different. “It’s like visiting an unknown city – [you need] something familiar but [want] something unusual.” With the same sentiment he talks about how he has adapted to pairing wines with Indian cuisine – something he says he now does with ease. “You need to train the palate to the flavours.” But he adds that it is the same with wine. You may be drinking something totally different from what you once enjoyed two years ago “Your palate adapts as you get to know and drink different things.” An evolving global exploration for the senses; cuisine and wine alike.

The Berry Bros. & Rudd wine pairing menu will run at Gymkhana until the 27th April. More details can be found here.

Category: Food & Wine,Miscellaneous