Green Man & French Horn
If you like the wines of the Loire, if you have a thing about quirky wines, be they natural, organic, biodynamic or maybe just made from a Ligérian grape variety that you're unfamiliar with, or if you just like drinking wines made by men with great swards of unnecessary facial hair, then the Green Man & French Horn is a must-visit venue for you. I'm very keen on two of the above (I'm keeping which two close to my chest though) and so to finish off a recent trip to London I popped into this, one of several little offshoots of the quirkiest of all the UK's quirky wine merchants, Caves de Pyrene.
The location is something of a surprise. Not being an inhabitant of London I usually have to check out quite carefully where restaurants are located, mainly to see which underground station is nearest. Then, just to confirm my 'country boy' status I have to consult the Transport for London underground map to see how to get there. At least these days I can do this on my mobile phone, so I don't look like such a tourist anymore. With the Green Man & French Horn, however, I stumbled out of the National Portrait Gallery onto Charing Cross Road, just at the back of Trafalgar Square, then made a quick dash - because it was pouring with rain - up adjacent St Martin's Lane. Within two minutes I had located my destination, trying its best to disguise itself as a city-centre boozer. Which is hardly surprising as, until recently, that's exactly what it was.
I settled down near the window; business was slow, perhaps not surprising for a Tuesday lunchtime. Correspondingly, service was quick; it came with a French accent, was pleasantly business-like and seemingly unruffled. Not even changing my order after submitting it - not as some sort of 'test' (I'm not that sad, honest), rather a reflection of true indecisiveness - caused even an eyebrow to raise. Before long I was quaffing the 2012 Saumur-Champigny from Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves, selected from a voluminous wine list comprised entirely of wines from the Loire Valley. This is my kind of list, full of excellent choices, as you would expect from Caves de Pyrene; Luneau-Papin, Marc Pesnot, Thierry Michon, Frantz Saumon, Thierry Puzelat, Clos Roche Blanche and Noëlla Morantin, and there was even a wine from the late Christian Chaussard. And this is just a selection from the by-the-glass list, by the way. The list proper extends to another 24 pages of choices, with Domaine les Roches Chinons back to 1976, Bourgueils from Catherine and Pierre Breton back to 1985, vintages of Fief du Breil from Jo Landron back to 1993, and so on. Come here to drink the Loire, or don't come at all.
My starter was a pork rillette, fairly heavy in texture, with the appearance of blended tuna mayonnaise. As you might imagine from that opener this wasn't the best rillette I have had by a long shot I'm afraid, but this is London not Tours or Le Mans, I guess. It lacked the golden-brown colour a rillette should have when finished, and it also lacked the soft and slippery deliciousness that comes from a long, slow cook in pork fat. Perhaps this was a healthy, slimmed-down version? The portion size was huge, way over the top for a starter, so much so I couldn't help wondering whether or not there wasn't some attempt at compensation for the inevitable disappointment in this. Some mini cornichons, served on the side, added a much needed extra lift to this rather heavy dish.
Happily, the main course was much more convincing, a combination of octopus and black pudding, these two working together quite well; the pudding was fairly moist and succulent, a decent black pudding overall, and the octopus was sensitively cooked. I was right (first time for everything!) to carry on drinking the Saumur-Champigny with this dish, as black pudding was by far the more dominant flavour. My dining companion, who had endured several hours circling the various rooms of the National Portrait Gallery, was rewarded with a salted beef in a rich, savoury consommé. I was allowed a taste, mainly because she could not finish the dish after consuming a mountain of rillette. I have to confess the consommé had a superb flavour, and on the whole was a success even if the beef was, inevitably perhaps, a little dry.
There was no room for pudding, and we had a plane to catch, so one espresso later I was leaving. I spent the last few minutes perusing the pictures on the wall, portraits of Loire Valley vignerons, all familiar faces bar one (annoying, that - and I still haven't put a name to the face). And, of course, checking out the guide to Loire Valley facial hair hidden within the menu. I fancy growing a full barbe, à la Richard Leroy, rather than trying to imitate the munificent efforts of Jo Landron or Jo Pithon. As I left, there was no doubt in my mind that, if I did not live so far away from London, I would be back here like a shot. Sure, not all of the dishes were top notch, but others were better, the whole ambience feels right, and the wine list is to die for. In fact, I will be back one day, next time I'm in London, I'm certain of it.
Prices: Extraordinarily reasonable, with one course for £10, two for £13.50 and three for £15 at the time of my visit. Those in a rush could opt for the generic "glass of red or white" for £3.50 per glass, or £30 for a 500ml carafe. From the main list, wines by the glass start at £4.75, and remarkably bottles start at just £18.50, not for some disgusting on-trade-only blend of Airén and Tempranillo but for the Luneau-Papin Folle Blanche in white, or the Clos Roche Blanche Cuvée Pif in red; both are excellent selections. There are lots of more mature options available, and prices are very fair throughout. (14/9/13)