A casual fine dining restaurant on a golf driving range? Let’s get wood at Vinothec Compass.
The grass next to the restaurant appears to be sprouting mushrooms at a remarkable rate, but you really don’t want to pick these. They
are in fact golf balls, and as Michael Caine noted in the film Zulu, there are ‘fahsands of ‘em’.
From the two tiered stand at N1 Golf London, scores of golfers are relentlessly whacking balls out into the sky and the only thing stopping them from sailing on to land in Canary Wharf, glistening like a mini Dubai in the fast setting sun, are giant nets.
I have a go, my only golf experience up to this point being Crazy Golf (if you want to know how to get around the miniature windmill in two shots, just ask me). This is not enough it seems to handle a real golf club as I swipe wildly into the air twice and then hit the ground on the third go with enough force to almost pop my shoulder out of its socket.
One of the many golf pros on standby steps in, adjusting my stance and showing me how to bend my legs, my arms and how to follow through. Amazingly on my next attempt there is a solid connection and the ball arcs outward like a bullet in a most satisfying way. I can see how golfers can get hooked on the feeling.
Anyone can have a go, N1 charges £ 12 for 120 balls (£10 off-peak) or 60 for £6 and there are worse ways to spend a lunch hour or early evening, but it sure makes you hungry. Fortunately there is the 19th hole, Vinothec Compass a new restaurant that’s a long way from the traditional clubhouse with its coronation chicken sandwiches and Jaguar Mk II driving men ordering a G&T for the little lady.
The restaurant is airy, canteen-like which goes with the ‘casual fine dining’ label it has given itself. People today, we are told, don’t like fine dining, have a phobia about napkins, a fear of tablecloths and a visceral hatred for waiters who glide instead of walking.
On the other hand we don’t all want to eat American Casual Dining, or expensive junk food as it’s better known, all the time. So what lies between? Well step forward Vinothec Compass.
Arnaud Compass, a geographer and geologist by training, and Keith Lyon are the founding partners here and they have invited me to sample a selection of miniature tasting versions of chef Jordi Rovira Segovia’s menu along with wines Keith has chosen himself. One wall of the restaurant is lined with bottles bearing simple price tags that belie their far from simple prices.
We eat tapas of baby squid, tomato and coriander along with Chardonnay from Bulgaria, a Château Burgozone 2012. The squid is excellently cooked, smoky and soft and the Chardonnay likes it.
Next up a dish that almost required a magnifying glass to view, this was of course just a taster though, of labneh, dried black olives, asparagus, citrus vinaigrette and fresh oregano with salmon roe. A Volubilia 2013 Moroccan Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, Vin Gris rosé was excellent and the food sharp and clear and the dried olives little nuts of concentrated flavour.
Suckling piglet belly with piquillo was fatty in a good way, melting into the mouth and served with a red that was slightly below room temperature with a slight chill to the bottle. Arnaud explaining that room temperature was often too warm, nowadays. Couvent des Jacobins 2005, a St Emilion Grand cru is a concentrated, darkly attractive wine already softening in its tannins but with still perhaps a few years left yet to achieve its full potential.
A piece of cod that passeth all understanding was next, fresh from Billingsgate and delightfully firm and well textured with slippery Romesco sauce, the wine Arnaud chose came from where he grew up, Dido 2013 from Montsant vineyards. It had nothing to do with the MOR made in Chelsea chanteuse fortunately and was intriguing in its ‘thick’ texture.
Arnaud rather bravely stuck with this white for the, much anticipated by me, Longhorn Onglet, served rare as it simply has to be, from a fifth generation butcher in Chipping Barnet. A superb piece of meat, one that I regard as the best steak of all. Dido accompanied it (sic) very well indeed and I could have eaten a great deal more of it given half a chance.
Finally, a deconstructed Vinothec Cheesecake made with cheese named after Jean Anselme Brillat-Savarin. A feast of fats it was as lush as could be and for once I was happy at the reduced portion size. Arnaud served his last bottle of 1971 Rivesaltes, a part of France I remember only vaguely because while I was there I drank Rivesaltes out of litre containers filled from converted petrol pumps – happy days, if now very blurred ones, of being almost constantly drunk and making expeditions in the dead of night across the border to Spain to smuggle back soft drugs. It was thirty years ago, I hasten to add, so don’t go try writing me up for that bizness, seen?
Anyway we downed some espressos from one man band artisan roaster, Francis Bradshaw and I rolled out into the night in search of a kebab, well as I keep saying, they were very small portions.
You may not feel that trundling out to what still feels rather like the ends of the earth to eat is worth the trip, but I feel you should reconsider. The food was excellent, the wines clearly well chosen and with plenty more to choose from as well. And you get a chance to thwack golf balls into space, what more do you want?
Foodies talk a lot about balsamic vinegar and its amazingness, but in the South of France there’s an artisan making something a drop more interesting and rare.
‘You need good wine to make good vinegar,’ says Nathalie gazing watchfully over her militarily ranked wooden casks. The south of France sun is beating down on the covers that shade the casks from the full heat, her dog is flopped out on the road outside. It’s too hot to do much. Time moves slowly here.
The vinegar she makes at La Guinelle, above the hamlet of Cosprons, overlooking the bay of Paulille on the Mediterranean, is made slowly and uses only Banyuls sweet wine, an AOC fortified apéritif or dessert wine made from 50% and up to 75% Grenache grapes from local vineyards.
This in itself would all but guarantee a good result, but Nathalie chooses carefully to get the flavours she wants. She then uses an organic process of double fermentation, alcoholic and acetic, with the barrels open to the air and natural bacteria. Then follows ageing in oak barrels for between 4 to 8 months with further resting after that in glass demijohns in that shade. To put it into perspective an industrial vinegar might mature for only eight days before being sold. No wonder it’s just sharp and boring
A simple life
The vinaigerie is at the end of a long dusty, bouncy single lane with no housing and only a few simple, small wooden structures to be found when the track finally does peter out. There’s a kind of Bedouin open sided tent where the vinegars live, a small hut serves as an office and shop and another as a place to hand bottle the vinegar.
This is artisanal for sure but Nathalie is also making a highly respected product. Her vinegar is sought after by many top Michelin starred chefs in France and only around 10,000 bottles are produced a year.
‘I also have one chef buyer in England,’ says Nathalie, ‘have you heard of XXXX?’ She’s speaking French and while I understand her words, I simply can’t catch that name, so I nod and we carry on.
Splash it on
She shows me a one year aged red vinegar and I have a teeny taste. ‘Splash it onto just picked sliced tomatoes or some local oysters’, she recommends.
It has less than 6.5% acidity so it’s not viciously sharp and while I don’t care for fruited vinegars as a rule, these vinegars only contain wine and so I pick up raspberry aromas, along with hints of spice and vanilla, but it’s all about the original wine and nothing else. As she says, the end vinegar can only be as interesting as the wine it was created from and her vinegars are very interesting.
She mentions the UK chef again, I still don’t get it. She elaborates: ‘The restaurant is called ‘edon’ It is in West London?’ Ahhh, the centime drops, Hedone is the restaurant and the chef is Michelin-starred Mikael Jonsson so no wonder we struggled with pronunciation. If he’s using this vinegar that has to be a good endorsement as his restaurant has received nothing but rave reviews.
Pearls of the Mediterranean
As well as various aged red vinegars, Nathalie also makes a white vinegar from 100% grey Grenache that has a lemony freshness, and she has recently branched out into more esoteric styles. She shows me a red vinegar that has undergone spherification, the El Bulli promoted method of turning liquid into tiny pearls that pop in the mouth.
‘Imagine that scattered over roast lamb!’ she enthuses, ‘or sprinkled into a salad’. She has also created a solid, almost rubbery vinegar block that can be grated finely onto dishes. Again something that can inspire creative chefs.
Well what could I do? I bought a bottle; apart from anything else it was just so damned cute to look at I just had to have it. Now back in England I am splashing it on sparingly but lovingly, just the way it was made.
Virtually visit La Guinelle