Paul Merrett and Olly Smith met on UKTV, pairing food and wine for the television cameras. Now they have joined forces at a new pub in Surrey. Fiona Sims reports
What are the chances? Two gastropubs with virtually the same name, and both with great wine lists, have opened in London within weeks of one another.
Merrett has always wanted to do this. The chef, who presented BBC's Ever Wondered About Food and who appears regularly on UKTV Food's Great Food Live, jumped at the chance to buy the respected gastropub near Sheen Gate in Richmond Park. He took it on with business partner Greg Bellamy and had the interior redone.
The chef, former holder of a Michelin star, was involved with the launch of the Farm in nearby Fulham, but his new venture promises to be a smarter affair. "Two years ago," Merrett says, "I wanted to be spit-and-sawdust, but I can't get fine dining out of my system. Things are more refined here than people would imagine."
He admits that his knowledge is rather thin on the wine front. "So," he says, "I thought it was better to spend my money chatting up Olly rather than employ some snooty person who tries to sell you the most expensive bottle on the list."
The two met on TV while coâ'presenting UKTV Food's Uncut. In addition to writing on wine, Smith also appears on radio and on other TV shows, from Saturday Kitchen to Richard & Judy. But the Victoria gave him the chance to do a first proper wine list.
"It's a bit like picking the England cricket team," Smith says. "A huge responsibility, but fun." And while his tasting notes verge on the surreal, Smith has produced an impressive wine list at the same time as keeping prices down.
There are 60 wines in all, from Novum, Bibendum, Hallgarten and Mentzendorff, split by style: four each for red and white, from crisp, dry whites to buttery whites. "It gives the customer the best possible opportunity to find what they like," says Smith.
He adds: "There's an awful lot of laziness in pub wine lists. Most haven't thought about style, and it's obvious when a merchant is pushing stuff on them - they should be shopping around more."
At the Victoria, he says: "We've gone for a mix of the unexpected and exciting, and some comfort zone." That includes a 2007 Thalassitis from Santorini (£28) and an Alto Adige Pinot Grigio from Tramin (£23.50). "The trend right now is for super-dry white wines," says Smith.
In red, he has chosen a 2005 Ars in Vitro, CompaÁ±Áa VitivinÁcola Tandem, Navarra, Spain (£19) and a 2003 Nicolis Amarone della Valpolicella Classico - the latter, at £58, the most expensive on the list.
The alcohol strengths are listed alongside grape varieties, origin, and matching tips. Mark-ups are 20% less the more expensive the wine, and half the list is offered by the 175ml glass and 250ml carafe. There are also tumblers for the cheaper wines.
Smith has performed stand-up comedy, and some of his notes are amusing. Of the 2006 Perez Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, Maipo, Chile (£19), he writes: "Smell it! Guava, anyone? Insanely decent wine." Of the 2005 Setanta Shiraz, Adelaide Hills, Australia (£34), he writes: "Blimey. As Benny Hill so memorably said in The Italian Job, ‘I like 'em big.' This isn't just big - it's enoooormous."
Smith explains such linguistic licence: "If the wine list isn't engaging people, that's a sin. I want to give the list personality - a sense of fun. It's so boring just listing the wines - you wouldn't do that with the food. Lists should be friendly, not intimidating. It's about getting as much enthusiasm and information in there as possible."
He now plans wine evenings and talks at the Victoria, and is looking after some of the staff training, while the suppliers take care of the rest. And if people don't like any of the wines, he has set himself up for a deluge of eâ'mails - his address is on the end of the list.
What's on the list
- 2005 Ridgeview Cuvée Merret Bloomsbury, West Sussex, England, £36
- 2007 Els Pyreneus, La Côte de Flamant Picpoul de Pinet, France, £19
- 2007 Tramin Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige, Italy, £23.50
- 2007 Johann Donabaum, GrÁ¼ner Veltliner, Austria, £26
- 2007 AlbariÁ±o, Bodegas Lagar de Pintos, RÁas Baixas, Spain, £28
- 2007 Thalassitis, Santorini, Greece, £28
- 2006 Condrieu Les Ravines Robert Niero, Rhône, France, £49
- 2007 Rioja El Talud Rosado, Old Vine Tempranillo, Bodegas Martinez Laorden, Spain, £19
- 2005 Ars in Vitro, CompaÁ±Áa VitivinÁcola Tandem, Navarra, Spain, £19
- 2006 Esk Valley Reserve Merlot/Cab/Malbec, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, £32
- 2005 Setanta Shiraz, Adelaide Hills, Australia, £34
- 2007 Mahi Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand, £39
- 2005 Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional, Portugal, £49
- 2003 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Nicolis, Italy, £58
The Victoria, 10 West Temple, Sheen, London SW14 7RT.Tel: 020 8876 4238 www.thevictoria.net