Noble Rot. An affair to remember.
On entering, there is triggered a dim and distant memory of a rather louche afternoon spent here some time ago, in the entertaining company of a rather reprobate lawyer. This was before we all became slaves to modern technology and when you could just go AWOL for the afternoon, without someone thinking you were dead because you hadn’t responded to their email within 30 seconds.
It was called Vats wine bar then and they gave you free Twiglets to carb-line your stomach before it was hit by the alcohol deluge that invariably occurred every time you visited “just for the one glass,” on the way home. It was full of lawyers.
Whilst those lost afternoons have become somewhat less of a regular occurrence, more’s the pity, I am delighted to find that 51 Lamb’s Conduit Street is still, despite being a foodie favourite, a place where Rumpole of the Bailey would feel rather at home. Not that you’d be able to order a bottle of Pommeroy’s Very Ordinary, or a glass of Chateau Thames Embankment here, mind.
Noble Rot is the name of a magazine and a very good magazine it is too. The magazine is the brainchld of the owners and predates the restaurant. “Sex & Drugs and Pinot Noir – The Joy of Drinking ” is the title of the latest edition and that gives you an idea of what’s in store. It features, inter alia, an article by top restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin, entitled “Never Stop Drinking”. She has obviously met a number of my banking clients.
The restaurant is designed to showcase the magazine and the wine list certainly reflects that. Whilst I can’t claim to be an expert or anything like, even I can see that this is a wine lover’s wine list presided over by a chap who looks too young to be drinking anything other than Ribena. I tell him what I like (boring old cliché that it is) and he suggests a South African alternative. It is spectacularly good: toasty, peachy, oaky but mineral. Ooh, get me.
Because I cannot always concentrate on everything when I’m with clients, I forget to take a note of the name. Because to tell you I’ve made new discovery without telling what it is would be unacceptable, I phone them to find out. The lovely sommelier comes to the phone and tells me that it is Cartology, produced by a winery called Alheit, Western Cape, 2013 vintage. I feel like I did when I first discovered Walter Hansel wines, when I was in Napa. I almost don’t want to share, as it is so difficult to get hold of in the UK. Majestic for Walter, Berry Bros for Cartology. You’re welcome.
Wine tour over, it’s back to the food. I’ve eaten twice at Noble Rot, the first time being a dinner presided over by the great Stephen Harris himself, executive chef here and known for The Sportsman, about which I have written elsewhere. I had expected good, if not great things and whilst the wine flight was full of fireworks, the food didn’t quite match it in terms of interest. I will draw a veil, as it was a one-off event and I never write about things you can’t experience because that would just be arsey and irritating.
So after that, I was a little apprehensive about going again, with a client and colleague, conscious that there had been the inevitable backlash after the initial over-hype that seems to be de rigeur for a certain type of restaurant; the type where Stephen Harris is the executive chef, by way of an example. And given the meal I had, I was concerned that it may have been a little Emperor’s new clothes.
But I needn’t have worried. From the moment the first plate arrived, they didn’t put a foot wrong.
The menu is short and sweet and I toy with the slip sole and smoked butter but I’ve had it at The Sportsman and I want something new. Mackerel and Pink Grapefruit catches my eye. A whole simply grilled fresh mackerel comes strewn with pink radicchio, glazed with olive oil and what might be a honey-based dressing, with shreds of grapefruit scattered underneath and around the fish, a few stalks of frisée adding a little bitterness and texture. It is simple and quite brilliant. I have never enjoyed mackerel dish quite as much.
We are all drawn to the Halibut, braised in oxidised 1998 Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru. For me, it is an opportunity to get some Batard inside me for under £200, which is the cheapest bottle I can find on the net. The thing about these grand appellations is that they go off and then you might as well use them as a cooking wine. That might sound odd, but oxidation is not necessarily dramatic; it can simply be a loss of some flavour and brightness; it doesn’t always taste like vinegar. But all worries about what oxidation might mean disappear with first mouthful of the rich, cream-based sauce. This is classic French saucery at its finest.
The fish is superb; flaky, delicate and tranches of it just fall away under the fork. It is perfectly cooked. New potatoes and leek sections sit beneath the fish and there is a cushion of crisp fried mushroom, umami-rich and intense, providing yet more depth of flavour. Chopped chives finish off the classical combination. It is so good I ask for a spoon and bread. There is no way any of that sauce is going to be left on the plate.
By way of detour, I found my perfect card yesterday, in Selfridges. The message is short and simple:
I don’t want to look back and think
“I could have eaten that”
Go in and order the fish, so that you avoid that horror.
Almost as an afterthought, I order the pistachio cake, a dish which is clearly having a moment. Having experienced the pistachio cake of dry misery at a restaurant which shall remain nameless for now, I wanted to give it another chance here. Moist, rich and sophisticated are words which conjure up more than cake but this was indeed a cake of pure sexiness. The honeyed blood orange compôte was perfect, just sharp and sweet enough to make every mouthful zing, a little smooth creamy richness, should you need, coming from the mascarpone.
The Verdict: A perfect wine bar with a very good restaurant attached. Ideal for a long and leisurely lunch, for wine buffs and foodies alike. The wine list is worthy of special examination and they tell me that they have just bought some interesting and rare bottles at auction and that they will be featuring them on the list in the next few weeks. Get yourself down there for an old-fashioned experience, with none of your loud music, intrusive service or strange pairings. There are plenty of nooks and crannies for those in the market for some afternoon delight. Second time around I loved Noble Rot, in case you couldn’t tell and I’ll be going back for the Comté Tart and the Crème Caramel. After all, I don’t want to look back and think “I could have eaten that.”