Dragon Drinks: Marques de Casa Concha

Marques de Casa Concha

Marques de Casa Concha tasting @ The Strand Dining Rooms

If you’re in the UK, you’re most likely to have encountered the wines of Concha y Toro via their Casillero Del Diablo range, often seen in the supermarkets and brought along to dinners and house parties when people are looking for a reliable, affordable Chilean wine.

Until I typed their name into Wikipedia though, I’d had no idea that Concha y Toro is apparently “the largest producer of wines from Latin America”, and has dozens of labels under the Concha y Toro umbrella.

One of these brands is Marques de Casa Concha, “one of the best-known and traditional brands of Chile”, but much lesser known over here. So when the chance to attend a tasting dinner (happy emphasis on that last word) arose, I was more than delighted to head along and meet Marcelo Papa, winemaker at Marques de Casa Concha since 1999.

From the Marques de Casa Concha website

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TigerBites: Kanada-Ya, St Giles High Street

Kanada-Ya restaurant

Kanada-Ya | Original Ramen with extra order of Hanjuku Egg

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twelve months, you’ll be aware that London is currently swaying in the onslaught of a non-stop, full-fat Ramen Attack.

So far, there have been a few newcomers worth a quick doff of the cap to (e.g. Bone Daddies), a few that are better left unnamed (I can make my own overly-salty instant noodles, thanks), but none that have you searching under the table for the proverbial socks just knocked off your feet by a truly awesome ramen experience.

With the recent opening of Kanada-Ya though, just round the corner from Tottenham Court Road tube station on St Giles High Street, we’re definitely coming close to sock-less territory.

As restaurants go, the layout of this 24-seater ramen bar is anti-social at best — all the seats are laid out in rows of low barstools, either facing the window, a blank wall or the backs of other diners. Go alone or, if you must, in a pair.

Menu-wise, discerning between the three types of ramen on offer (all served in the same 18-hour tonkotsu pork bone broth) is a game of Spot The Difference. (Hint: the only thing different about the Moyashi is the bean sprouts.)

I went for the Chasiu men, which substitutes the thick slices of pork belly in the Original Ramen for thin slices of ‘deluxe chasiu pork collar’. The waitress couldn’t quite explain what was particularly ‘deluxe’ about this piggy neck meat, but it was tasty all the same.

You’ll have to pay £1.80 to add a Hanjuku Egg (a special type of soft-boiled egg) to your noodles, which seems a bit steep. But it is a rather fabulous egg, if that makes you feel better, with a stickily-semi-translucent yolk and stained a dark-brown from simmering in some soy-based sauce.

Let’s talk about the stars of the show, the ramen itself and the broth. The tonkotsu broth is light, yet porky and creamy — only towards the end of the bowl does it get a bit heavy. (I still finished the whole bowl.) The ramen noodles are of the thin, straight variety, and you’re offered them firm, medium or soft. Go with firm; you can get soggy noodles anywhere.

As expected, it’s the usual first-come-first-served no-bookings policy here, but the turnover is relatively fast.

For just under £20 for a bowl of ramen + egg + drink, it’s a far cry from the quick cheap-eats of Japan’s ramen bars, where a bowl of the very best will only set you back a fiver.

But, lacking a twelve-hour flight and £700 plane ticket, if you’re looking for a bowl of London’s best tonkotsu, you’re definitely looking at a contender in Kanada-Ya.

64 St Giles High Street
London WC2H 8LE


Kanada-Ya on Urbanspoon

Dragon Drinks: Newbie Guide to Ordering Wine in Restaurants

This piece was originally commissioned by American online magazine who, on receipt of said piece, produced a tightly-typed six-page freelancer contract with words like ‘power of attorney’ (eh?), ‘indemnification’ (wah?), waiving of moral rights (a big no no for freelancers, see here for why), a statement that they could reject any commissioned piece without payment (er… no), and other choice phrases.

Life’s too short to sign contracts you feel queasy about. So here’s the piece, free for your perusal instead. Happy drinking!

It’s all wine to me…

It happens to the best of us. You’re peacefully perusing the menu – you’ve narrowed down the starters, had a minor tussle over the mains (“Come on, people, we can’t all order the sea bass”), and are now engaged in a pleasant daydream concerning the dessert menu – when a waitress, all tip-hungry smiles, makes her stealthy approach. Would you like anything to drink?

Ah. You look around wildly. There, in the middle of the table, sits a leather-bound tome worthy of George R. R. Martin himself. For some unknown reason, your friends/partner/date are looking at you expectantly. The cowards.

You look up at the waitress. “Can you give us a minute?”

An ice age might be more useful, you think, as you pick up the wine list with both hands, trying not to strain your lower back.

You riffle through the thick pages. Names, countries, vintages, all fly past. You might as well be reading the Slovenian telephone directory. Eagles Eye, Chateau Pants-de-Cotton, Blue Jean Valley, 2012. Is it a grape? It is a plane? Is it a flying winemaker? You wish you’d paid more attention back in Geography class.

By now, you’re dying for a drink.

It doesn’t seem fair. You’re a moderate wine lover. (Moderate in knowledge, that is. The less said about last Thursday night’s debacle, the better.) You know your Chardonnay from your Merlot; you know Napa is a region, not someone who’s perennially dozy. But faced with a list like this, you have the sudden urge to turn teetotal.

But here’s the dirty little secret: almost everyone finds wine lists a bit of a nightmare. Only those who work in the wine trade, or own cellars large enough to require a GPS map, can claim even partial mastery over an average restaurant wine list.

So how can you, the average wine drinker, expect to choose from dozens (or hundreds) of wines that you don’t know the slightest thing about?

Here’s how.

Continue reading Dragon Drinks: Newbie Guide to Ordering Wine in Restaurants »

TigerBites: Grain Store, King’s Cross

Grain Store

Finding your way to Grain Store sounds simple enough: get yourself to the road that runs between St. Pancras International and King’s Cross, and walk north until you hit the snazzied-up Regent’s Canal and a set of pavement-level fountains designed to soak absent-minded tourists.

Only problem is, the amount of recent building work at King’s Cross means that the station layout seems to change every five minutes, so your best bet is to get out into fresh air and grab a passing arty-looking student and ask them the way to Central St. Martins, housed in the same building — incidentally, a grand old brick storehouse which used to store, yup you-got-it, grain.

At first, the menu at Grain Store — is it me, or does the name cry out for a long-lost ‘The’? – appears worryingly vegetarian. There’s an abundance of words like ‘chamomile braised heritage carrots’, ‘cauliflower ‘couscous” and the thoroughly wholesome-sounding ‘bean & pototo salad’. Sprouting seeds, millet and ‘multi-grain porridge’ also make appearances befitting of the restaurant’s name.

But carnivores, fear not. After a careful reading, various seafoods and meats can be picked out of the jumble of multi-ethnic combinations. There’s squid, hake, roast rabbit saddle, even some lamb. In fact, only two of the eleven main dishes are vegetarian, and only one of these vegan: the somewhat unexcitingly named ‘chilli con veggies with mixed grain rice, sour cream’. The meat is there; you just have to wade through a long list of vegetables to get to it.

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Young Wine Writer Award 2013

Hurrah of the week for this Thirsty Dragon: I came runner-up, along with Mike of Wine Philosophy, at the Young Wine Writer Award 2013, sponsored by Pavilion Books and in association with the Circle of Wine Writers and Wine Australia.

Congrats to Mike, and of course the winner Hugh, who won a two-week wine tasting trip “of a lifetime” to Australia with his piece on busking to save up for a very expensive bottle of wine.

You can read Mike’s piece here and Hugh’s piece here. And, should you want to read mine, I’ve supressed the urge to edit it further and pasted it below. Happy wine week, all! Continue reading Young Wine Writer Award 2013 »

DragonDrinks: Moët Rosé Impérial (And What They Don’t Teach You at Wine School)

Wish this was my mantlepiece at home.

Wine education is a lot like high school education. The only way to teach complicated things is to re-express them as simple things which are, you later find out, actually wrong. Quite a bit wrong.

But it’s still worth wrapping your head around these untruths, just so that the slightly-more-true untruths that you learn the next year will make bit more sense. (At least, that’s what my friends who made it through to A-level sciences tell me.)

So, at wine school, you learn the untruth that Chablis is unoaked Chardonnay.  The truth: “Many Grand Cru and Premier Cru [Chablis] wines receive some maturation in oak barrels, but typically the time in barrel and the proportion of new barrels is much smaller than for white wines of Côte de Beaune.” (Source: Wikipedia, citing Jancis Robinson.)

You learn that Rioja’s vanilla notes come courtesy of American oak. The truth: “In recent times, more bodegas have begun using French oak and many will age wines in both American and French oak for blending purposes.” (Source: Wikipedia, citing Jancis Robinson. Again.)

And recently, I had the chance to overturn another untruth: that the Champagne region makes their high-acidity cool-climate grapes into sparkling wines because they taste rather awful as still wines.

Truth: after tasting the various base wines that go into making the Moët & Chandon Rosé Impérial NV, I had to concede that they were actually rather scrumptious. The acidity was high, for sure, but there was ample fruit in the young base wines, and gentle complexity in the older vin de réserve.

Three of the several base wines and the final (still) assemblage blend

Unfortunately, due to a French air strike — aside: I thought someone was bombing France when I heard this, until it turned out to be a typically French case of la grève – the white base wines didn’t make it to London for the tasting, but the pinot meunier (which makes up around 10% of the final blend as a red wine) and pinot noir (again making up 10% of the final blend as a red wine) were definitely pleasing and rather intriguing.

The other untruth combatted by Benoît Gouez, Chef de Cave at Moët since 2005, was the relative lack of regard we (or I?) generally have for non-vintage Champagne. We’re told: they blend over the years to ensure ‘consistency’ — a word we associate with mass production, conveyor belts and the decidely non-artisan.

Yet, come to think of it, a mark of a great restaurant is the ability to perform consistency at the very peak of culinary effort. Perhaps we should extend the same acknowledgement to NV Champagne. The ability to produce a consistent blend, three times a year (at Moët), through the up-and-down years of frankly nail-biting weather in northern France, is no mean feat.

Hats off to them, then.

We also had the chance to taste the Grand Vintage Rosé 2004 and the non-available (I think) Moët Grand Vintage Collection Rosé 1990 in magnum.

Which backed up one of the few truths we did learn in wine school. That vintage champagne, rosé or not, is really rather special.


Innocent Inspires – A Guide to Good Taste?

It probably says something about my over-developped cynicism gland that, having been invited to one of the Innocent Inspires talks — runby those funky smoothie-sloshing folks at Innocent Drinks — on the subject of ‘Good Taste’, I expected to have a good time, be fed, but I didn’t really expected to be inspired.

As much as I admire chefs (Florence Knight and Ollie Dabbous, though sadly the latter did not feed us), supper clubs (the irreverant MsMarmiteLover), jellymongering (Sam Bompas of Bompas & Parr) and whatever ‘food design’ is (half-French half-American Emilie Baltz, who fed us ripe figs and made us sniff vanilla with ear plugs in), none of these are key inspirations in my life.

And yet. Bit by bit, the speakers opened up to the crowd and, lo and behold, inspiration reaches its wafting tendrils into the night. Here’s some nuggets from the evening:

1.  Have Fun

It was highly obviously listening to MsMarmiteLover that she has bags and bags of fun. Oodles of fun. Whether foraging (“I’ve actually got food out of bins” – this story wasn’t, I think, related to her supperclubs), dissing Italy (“A sea of good taste beige”) or increasing her guests’ waistlines (“I’m a feeder”), she’s having a good time. And doing things a bit differently while she’s at it. Which makes things even more fun.

2.  Go Ahead and Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

Bompas & Parr (jellymongers extraordinaire) wouldn’t be where they are today without buckets of ingenuity, a ridiculously zany sense of fun, and the audacity to wing it whenever the situation calls for it. From saying yes to catering a twelve-person Victorian breakfast (with no catering experience), offering to make ‘anything’-shaped jellies (without knowing anything really about jelly) and almost accidentally selling 2000 tickets to a jelly exhibition, these boys have gotten themselves into situations that would shoot a normal person’s stress levels sky-high and gotten out the other end covered in praise and glory (and jelly).

As that sports brand says: Just Do It.

3. Believe in Yourself, and Others Will Too. (And, When Called For, Tell Very Big White Lies.)

Ollie Dabbous, as he tells it, had no backers, no restaurant site, and nothing to show for his 10 year ‘working like a dog’ climbing the cheffing ladder. Humble wasn’t working, his business plan wasn’t getting him anywhere. Then one day, he finds a great restaurant site. He puts in an offer, without a single backer (Lie No. 1). He does the rounds of the most slightly-interested potential backers, claiming to have most of the money in the bank, he just needs their input too (Lie No. 2). A few days to go, he raises over half a million quid, and gets his site. The rest is history (with a very long waiting list).

He wasn’t afraid to fail. “If you look at what your competitors are doing, you’ll only ever be a little bit better.” Get outside that box and think.

As Thomas Edison said: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” But we all still need that one percent in our lives.

So what are you waiting for?

TigerBites: Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

Bar Boulud Review

It took me a long time to put two and two together and realise that the restaurant ‘Barbooloo‘ that everyone kept going on about and Daniel Boulud could possibly be linked. I’d read his short book Letters to a Young Chef while at cook school and was suitably in awe of this veteran Frenchman-made-good-in-NYC.

Bar Boulud, the London outpost of his NYC bistro of the same name, is famous in foodie circles for one thing: the BB burger. Here’s how the website describes it:

beef patty, foie gras
red wine braised short ribs
truffle, frisée, horseradish mayonnaise
confit tomato, black onion seed bun

‘Nuff said, really.

Bar Boulud Restaurant Review London

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In Brief

Culinary school graduate.
Umami addict.
Wine junkie.