17 Mar 2008

To Dine For...

‘I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan which hath a good and most particular taste which I never before encountered...’
[Samuel Pepys, 1663]
FOR THE fervent bon vivant, hangovers are inevasible. Of course sybarite Pepys knew this, detailing unrestrained impulses for wine, women and song in his 17TH century ‘blog’, along with the consequences...
Fortunately I awoke remarkably fresh following the launch of ‘Gaustronaughts’, a brutishly sensual dining club assured “to develop heritage”. I must owe this cheerful state to the quality of that consumed; all those good hearted resveratrols soothed me whilst sleeping. The inaugural venue, ‘Le P’tit Normand’, a slightly frumpy looking, internally faux timbered restaurant sequestered within an unassuming Southfields shopping parade.
The French usually belittle with ‘petit(e)’. Think of ‘Petit Chablis’, for example, where the prefix warns the economically aware about a loss of sourcing pedigree. But in this cosily smelling, thickly carpeted haven it meant endearing, especially considering that l’addition was petit to boot. Almost elastically hospitable Polish restaurateur Kristina may have been able to offer such obliging value because of savings rendered by the lighting, dimmed so low that we saw eachothers tannically stained smiles in sepia.
The criteria for the Bring Your Own bonanza: a focus on Bordeaux grapes. Here follow the highlights…
We started with one of two Pessac-Léognans, Château de Fieuzal Blanc ‘01, Sauvignon/Sémillon: a theatrical whisper. It had a pretty, citrus stained, slightly tropical nose inducing passion fruit seeds, with Selvapiana honey on the recently extinguished, setting beeswax candle textured palate. A slight pepper on the finish was echoed in garlic butter-bound snails and potted gentrified frankfurter.
Another ‘01 white Bordeaux followed, Pavillion, second wine of Château Margaux, produced in strict quantity compared to its red sibling. This 100P/C Sauvignon was very different to the Fieuzal, appearing almost oxidised, with a sour crab apple pungency. It was peachy too, with chopped nuts and a briney minerality. Eccentric, it offered a personal beauty. Luxurious, recherché Foie Gras Crème Brulee accompanied, also a staple at Bayswater’s ‘Angelus’ restaurant. This incidentally is is run by a former rugby playing master sommelier.
We then ‘studied’ a flight of three Clarets, blind. Our goal: identify First Growth, Second Growth and the Cru Bourgeois. This was harder work than it really ought to have been. I cheated, deducing answers by watching the examiner sip. His first empty glass contained the First growth, the second, the Second… Wine is a lot about what you bring to it. The wines represented three good years, from classic, to extraordinary, although none were particularly charming. From Graves, S.P.'s favourite, Haut-Brion ‘88 conferred gentlemen’s club (wood spice and pipe tobacco) enriched with cassis, game and an angular, tangibly mineral palate with cloves and low, but sufficiently functional acidity. The second, ‘89 Léoville-Barton, Saint Julien, was as tightly non-committal as a riled commissioning editor, eventually revealing floral notes, then animal (at school, we nicknamed a poor chap ‘Animal’). Its starring moment is yet to come. Finally, St. Estèphe Château, Phélan-Ségur ‘90 provoked debate. It pitched and swelled with hemp, bell and ground pepper, more cassis and similar, well-hung game birds to the ‘86 I tried last year. Ultimately a classy, not sassy, soft-centred composition.
Grilled rare rib eye with a small, melting marrow crown and, appropriately, ‘Binge’, beef dripping potatoes followed, although it would have been better à point (medium) on reflection.
Over to the right bank, Château Laforge, Grand Cru, St Emilion ‘03 was unexpectedly chaste on the nose, but dirty weekend through and through on the incandescent, mocha stained palate.
The next wine provocatively eschewed selection criteria. Ca’ Viola ‘01, from ‘Dolcetto King’ and one time Gambero Rosso Winemaker of The Year, Beppe Caviola mingled an unlikely quartet. Setting Dolcetto aside to craft this serious ensemble, bright Barbera (to kill exotic connotations of this variety, simply pronounce it as the Christian name), Pinot Noir, tea-tannic Nebbiolo and a ripple of Cabernet were forced to unite in the squall. So densely dusk and breathless, experiencing this wine was like being shut in an airing cupboard. Hard to decipher, but after a few twirls this vampire released an attar of liquorice, black cherry, and comforting osso bucco. I wrote something about ‘finding it quite sexy’, but being unsure why. The same has been said of me!
Like its maker, Angelo Gaja, a near flawlessly charismatic Super Tuscan followed: Merlot and Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc) – Magari ‘02, the second wine from Ca’Marcanda. A super sleek, balanced Bolgheri, chamois soft, with cassis, cracked vanilla pod and creeping mint leaf. Lush, fine-grained tannins were unobtrusively architectural.
A magnificent ‘97 Malbec from Argentine icons, Katena followed, released from a lead heavy bottle. Its outpouring evoked a pheasant in a cigar shop braised in creamy lassi (blended Punjab yoghurt drink rather than celebrity Collie) although I forget the exact olfactory details because someone waved a blazing linen flag in my eye line. It is so easy to accidentally ignite a napkin these days.
Venerable sweet twins with perfectly augmented acidity followed: almost chewable, truffle scented colossus, ‘89 Château Coutet, Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle, a favourite of Thomas Jefferson and the filigree, malt, burnt marmalade and Cuban coffee scented ‘90 Château Climens (entirely Sémillon). A good selection of well stored cheeses so ripe that they would, given a little time, leave the board of their own accord complemented, followed by a tinned fruit topped tart, which had a flaccid form I wouldn't bet on. However, savouring such eloquent stickies, the venue's lack of effort with pud provided us only petit bother.
A cliché, but as Pepys wrote, ‘feasting reconciles’. Indeed, flambéed napkin, lacklustre pudding and a fellow sommelier being sick on the table did not quell our collective, consumptive appetite for pleasure…
Le P’tit Normand – 185 Merton Road. SW18 5EF. T. 020 8871 0233
Restaurateurs: the 'Gau'stronaughts are plate prowlers. If you are brave enough to host us, GET IN TOUCH.
'Vino Theraphy' is de rigeur. However, I found a link to an unusual interpretation HERE.

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