It’s surprising that it’s taken Vinoteca so long to spread its wings. The original branch, just across the road from the St. John mothership in Clerkenwell, has been a favourite grazing destination for years. Sometimes in life, all you want is an assiette of charcuterie and a glass or two of something from the Rhone. Short of hopping on the Eurostar, Vinoteca has long been the place to go for satisfaction. Now that there are a few branches, it looks like they could be rebooting the chain-brasserie concept in a way that the Dome and Café Rouge promised and failed so miserably to do. The latest, in Soho, has already become a roaring success.
This being Soho, there’s no surprise that the main downstairs bar and dining room is first come, first served. For ELLEuk’s visit, on a Tuesday night, the place was rammed and the acoustics made it near impossible to hear any conversation pitched below a roar. But forget about downstairs unless it’s during a weekend afternoon lull, or it’s last orders, when it becomes a more inviting proposition. Instead, go upstairs, which accepts reservations. It’s also a tad quieter, but with so much brick, bare wood and glass, and just a few soft green leather accents, this still isn’t a place to come for some hush or tranquility.
As you’d expect, the wine list at Vinoteca is Biblical. It’s also international and hits all price points and scenarios from a quick after work on a Monday snifter to a seal-the-deal splurge. The menu is arranged with pairing suggestions, which is a nice way to do things if you aren’t the most confident of oenologists. We started with a few plates of charcuterie (from £6 each) and some chorizo croquettes (£3.50). The croquettes were poor: all deep-fried crust and too little filling. The starter was the nicest plate of the evening (after the selection of hams) – cured sea trout with artichokes, almonds and capers (£8.50). It was light but substantial and full of strong, punchy flavours. We skipped the suggested wine pairing and, instead, had a pricey Nebbiolo (£7.30 for 125ml). moving on to the French Syrah (£3.25 for 125ml) to accompany the main, which was stellar stuff – soft tannins, juicy, nice structure. A very lovely wine, which deserved better than the overcooked Cornish hake we drank it with. The rest of the table ordered a duck special, which was more than adequately done. But everyone expressed mild disappointment – particularly as one of our party had been here already and had ‘the best meal of the year so far’. Clearly ordering better on the first visit than we had on ours.
The menu here is well considered and appealing – there’s quail with couscous, a couple of fish dishes, polenta with heritage tomatoes and some pork and steak and chips. Although, the food isn’t necessarily the point. The point is the wine, and the opportunity to try so many interesting things by the glass, and to take direction from the excellent staff about what you might like, according to your tastes. We all agreed we’d be back, but when we fancied that assiette of charcuterie and a glass or two of something from the Rhone, rather than a full meal. So, is Vinoteca the All Bar One for the modern day? We’re a nation of savvy wine drinkers now, so there’s nothing extraordinary about a wine bar, or somewhere that has more than two kinds of Chardonnay. All Bar One was, once, a beacon for those dispirited by the Stowells of Chelsea pumps in pubs. Now we expect more. And Vinoteca delivers it. The comparison might seem unkind, but actually, if Vinoteca rolls out nationwide, but can keep the same hands-on feel of quality and sophistication, being an All Bar One for 2012 and beyond is no bad thing. Anything but Stowells of Chelsea...
The ELLEuk Score
Style of food: Brasserie
Good for: First date; group dinner; work lunch/dinner
Prices and Other Details at Vinoteca
Address: 53-55 Beak Street, London, W1F 9SH
Opening times: 12pm-11pm Mon-Sun
Average price per person for two-course meal without wine: £23
Price of bottle of house wine: £15.95
Price of glass of house wine: £2.70 (white); £2.80 (red)
Price of bottle of house Champagne: £42.70
Price of glass of house Champagne: £9.65
Private dining: No
Garden/al fresco dining: No
Best table? Upstairs, beside the wine shelves
Who goes: After-work media types and West End grazers
Nearest tube: Oxford Circus