It's a bold time to open a £4m restaurant with 48,000 bottles of wine in the cellar, but lower gross profits and an emphasis on sourcing are key to a new London eaterie, says James Aufenast
Gary and Kathy Jordan have a well-established wine estate in the heart of South Africa's traditional winemaking region, Stellenbosch, making mid-range to premium wines that sell well in the UK.
So why on earth have they left beautiful mountain scenery for the lowlands of credit-crunch London? "This is a natural progression for us," Gary says. "We make wines that should be enjoyed with great food, and what better place to do this than our own London restaurant?"
Some might question that argument just at this moment, but nonetheless the couple have landed a great spot opposite the Tate Modern, hard by the city's financial district. The Millennium Bridge carries tourists to and from St Paul's Cathedral, hopefully in future via their restaurant, with its approachable wood tables and chairs and slate floor decor. The food is suitably casual, too - steaks, loins, whole fish, vegetable terrines and sausage and mash.
But the wine is aimed at potential City clientele. About 48,000 bottles rest in two cellars beneath the restaurant, and manager/sommelier Neleen Strauss has been poached from another City-side South African-owned restaurant, Vivat Bacchus. Yes, there are two Springbok establishments operating near each other in London at the same time.
"I've gone easy on first growths because of present conditions," Strauss admits. Another consequence of the recession is that gross profits have been drawn back, about 65%, rising to 70% for by-the-glass. More expensive wines have a lower margin added on.
Thanks to the Jordans, a bold 80% of the list is South African. It's a "who's who" of the industry - Hamilton Russell, Boekenhouts-kloof, Rustenburg and De Toren - including the Jordans' own wine, of which we drank their approachable latest vintages of Chardonnay and more lively Chenin Blanc, the white grape of South Africa.
The fact that Gary Jordan was once chairman of the Cape Winemakers' Guild has allowed some fantastic South African purchases from this auction-only source. These sources of direct supply mean Strauss has only five suppliers, including Marc Fine Wines and New Generation.
We kicked off with Paul Cluver's outstanding dessert Riesling to go with a chicken liver and foie gras parfait with orange Muscat jelly. This is, broadly, a classic match where the place of the wine is usually taken by Sauternes. Then Strauss chose a rich, intense 2004 Meinert Cabernet Sauvignon/ Merlot combining blackcurrant and plum intensity, tannins and spice with the main course. South Africans are making excellent Bordeaux-style blends that defy the sweet fruit New World template, and this was a good example.
Strauss appears to be working well with Justin Saunders, formerly of Dukes Hotel, Mayfair, and executive chef for the group that ran London's Independence and Perseverance pubs. Saunders has, sensibly, not tried a similar South African twist with the food - no "symphonies of biltong" or "ostrich three ways". Instead, the accent is British - frozen South African meats rejected in favour of Farmer Sharp's steaks and assorted cuts. We kicked off with the Cumbrian producer's version of Parma ham, thin slices of air-dried mutton leg served on a slate square.
They don't do plates here - the main course, a 350g rib-eye steak, came on large wooden boards in New World steakhouse fashion, served with the traditional accompaniments of cherry tomatoes - seasonality is swerved for one of the few times here - with fried onion rings. The beef was outstanding, melting in texture from 32-day ageing and expert medium-rare cooking.
Bravely, the vegetable dishes to accompany hover around £2-3. "I'm not going to rip people off with £5 for side orders so they suddenly find they've spent £70 on a meal," Saunders insists. The Jordans want repeat business, and gross profits rise to 80% on the cauliflower soup with blue cheese ravioli, but dip on the foie gras parfait. Saunders also carries out all his own butchery, using fat from the supplied meat to cook his chips, and takes chicken livers from label Anglais destined for a main course dish to place in the foie gras parfait. You have to work hard with your ingredients in current times, but thankfully not always at the expense of a fine meal.
High Timber, 8 High Timber Street, London EC4V 3PA, 020 7248 1777www.hightimber.com
ALSO ON THE WINE LIST
- Trentham Vermentino 2008, £19.50 (£4.90 a glass)
- L'Occitane Blanc 2008, £28
- Meursault 2006, Domaine Jacques Prieur, £62
- Brampton Cabernet 2007, Stellenbosch, £17 (£5 a glass)
- Dominio Del Bendito, Spain, £29
- CWG Jordan Sophia 2001, £145
- Cristal 2002, £295
Spend over £75 in a Malmaison brasserie and stay the night in a room for just £10