After launching one London restaurant to rave reviews, Simon Mullins and Sanja Morris have struck again, marrying Spanish and Italian dishes with an eclectic wine list. Fiona Sims reports
When you take a trip to Dehesa you could be excused for thinking you were in the Born district of Barcelona. The achingly hip area of the Spanish city is home to some of the country's trendiest bars and restaurants - and Dehesa could easily be one of them. Instead, it's just off London's Carnaby Street, on a corner site running parallel with Regent Street.
You can't book at Dehesa, but that's not a bad thing, as it gives it atmosphere. When I visited it was already full to the brim with the lunch crowd, despite the fact it wasn't yet 1pm and the restaurant is only four weeks old.
The appeal is understandable. There are hardly any places offering this kind of quality in this kind of setting - think high stools and bare wood tables, blackboards and glass storage jars - where you don't need to plan way ahead to eat.
It's owned by Simon Mullins and his partner, in both senses, Sanja Morris - the same folks who own Salt Yard a few streets away. Just in case you haven't heard of Salt Yard, it opened to rave reviews in 2005 and it's still a favourite with the critics who continue to coo over the excellent Spanish and Italian-inspired tapas, quirky wine list and line-up of interesting sherries. And they're doing more of the same over at Dehesa.
The chef is Ben Tish, who has done a lot of time with Jason Atherton. Dishes include pan-roasted duck breast with mustard fruits (£6.50), salt cod croquetas with romesco sauce (£4), chargrilled baby squid with chickpea purée and chilli dressing (£5.50), and courgette flowers with Monte Enebro and honey (£6.50). There's properly sliced Iberico ham there's salami and there's cheese. And there's an intriguing wine list to wash it all down with.
The list is chosen by Mullins and his head sommelier Becky McKevitt. She's not a sommelier in the formal sense of the word (these aren't formal kinds of places) but she directs people round the lists, looks after both restaurants' busy wine event programmes and helps Mullins buy the wines.
McKevitt also writes most of the notes on the list. This is what she says about Piedmont oddball Travaglini's 2001 Gattinara Riserva: "Sexy, dark and masculine with an elegant touch of dried roses". Don't you just love it? Diners do, too, and they are ordering it by the case-load. Not bad at £55 a bottle (or £110 in magnum).
Average spend here is pretty good at about £30 a bottle, says Mullins, and there's nothing that's putting them off. As most of the wines on this list are little-known to say the least, that's some feat. "Our philosophy is to champion indigenous grapes from small producers, which are biodynamic or organic wherever possible," he explains.
There are some big names on there, too, which come together on a page titled Fine & Rare Wines and include the likes of Angelo Gaja, Aldo Conterno and Sassicaia. Not that he's sold too many of those just yet. But when McKevitt's wine evenings are under way - she's planning one a month in the private dining room downstairs at Dehesa - Mullins expects to shift a few more bottles.
The best sellers are a real surprise. On the white front, a Uva di Troia (a grape) from Puglia (Cantine Carpentiere, £6.75 for 175ml/£28), and a wonderfully minerally but ripe Vermentino from Sardinia (Tanca su Contissa, Cantina Trexenta 2006, £5.50/£23) are flying, reports Mullins. Best-selling reds include that Gattinara, and Pittacum 2004 from a Spanish DO in the north-west called Bierzo (£6.50/£28).
The list isn't big, either - nearly 60 bins, organised by flavour, from lightest through to heaviest, with 26 by the glass - yet Mullins juggles up to 15 different suppliers. "I couldn't build up this kind of list without using all these suppliers," he reckons. He buys a lot from Les Caves de Pyrene, and also from Georges Barbier, Astrum and New Generation Wines.
On the sherry front, he reports people are ordering it by the bottle as well as the by the glass. "It's the younger crowd who are drinking it by the bottle - manzanilla and fino, mostly - though people are also choosing a lot of dry oloroso to drink as an aperitif."
What's on the list
- 2003 Pinot Nero Brut, Castello di Neive Classico, Piedmont, Italy, £48
- 2003 Malvasia Passito Soleste, Castelli del Duca, Italy, £40
- 2006 Palacio Verdejo/Viura, Rueda, Spain £14.50
- 2006 Chiaretto, Frati, Lugana, Italy, £26.50
- 2006 Macià Batle, Prensal Blanc, Mallorca, Spain, £28
- 2006 Abbazia di Novacella, Kerner, Alto Adige, Italy, £29
- 1964 Barbaresco Angelo Gaja, Nebbiolo, Piedmont, Italy, £325
- 2005 Weingut Niklas, Lagrein, Alto Adige, Italy, £30
- 2006 Fariña, Joven, Tinto del Toro, Toro, Spain, £19
- 1996 Valbuena 5, Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero, Spain, £115
- 2005 AN2, Anima Negra, Mallorca, Spain, £33
- Fernando de Castilla Palo Cortado, £56
- Oloroso Seco, Almacenista, Angel Zamorano, Lustau, £33
Dehesa, 25 Ganton Street, London W1F 9BP. Tel: 020 7494 4170