Tumbling out of the wrong exit of Waterloo Station - I seem destined to always come out of the wrong exit of any London railway station I use - I headed in a vaguely easterly direction. Feeling my way along unfamiliar streets I was confronted almost immediately by a three-lane roundabout which seemed to be sprouting dual carriageways heaving with traffic in every direction I looked; spotting a nearby pedestrian subway I headed underground once again, hoping that I would eventually emerge on the far side of the road.
You never know what you are going to find in subways. The best you can hope for is usually a busker. What I certainly wasn't expecting to find was a circular wall of glass behind which a cinema was hiding, a cinema seemingly situated right in the middle of the roundabout (in fact, occupying the entire roundabout) and accessed solely via the subway. And this was not just any old fleapit but a brief investigation (a euphemism for a nosey, hands-up-against-the-glass stare at what was visible within) revealed this to be a state of the art Imax cinema, one that could boast the largest cinema screen in the UK.
I suppose there is nothing particularly remarkable about a gigantic cinema, especially not one located in a busy part of England's capital city. I just didn't expect to find one hidden in a subway, inside a roundabout. Although, to be fair, it isn't really 'hidden'. The building is about four storeys high, and towers over the cars, taxis and London Routemasters that dutifully make their way around it every day. If only I had looked up when I fell out of Waterloo Station, and then opened my eyes at the same time, there is half a chance that I might have spotted it. Possibly.
Something else that I never expected to find in London is a restaurant rich in the wines of the Loire Valley, but it exists, and it is situated just a few hundred metres from Waterloo Station and its towering cinematic companion. The restaurant is RSJ, and it can be found on the corner of Stamford Street and Coin Street, not far from the theatres and television studios of the city's South Bank. A long-established stalwart on the London dining scene, proprietor Nigel Wilkinson has been running this establishment since 1980. I am quite certain of the date, as I attended one of the RSJ's 30th anniversary celebrations back in 2010, a very fine tasting and lunch featuring the wines of Château Pierre-Bise, Domaine de la Bergerie and Domaine Ogereau.
On that occasion I was eating there as a guest - lucky me - but I have since twice returned as a paying customer, and on both occasions I have been delighted by not only the quality of the meal but also, as I am sure you can imagine, the Ligérian plenitude of the wine list. On this most recent of my visits I kicked off with an apéro of a non-vintage Crémant de Loire from Régis Neau of Domaine de Nerleux, and then moved downstream to drink in the pastoral joy of Anjou with the 2010 La Lune from Mark Angeli of Domaine de la Sansonnière. Both wines were delightful; show me another restaurant in the UK that lists either of these wines, never mind both of them. I don't think it exists.
Presented with a choice between a fixed-price menu and dining à la carte on this occasion I opted for the former, which offers splendid value for money and would do even if this little corner of the Loire in London were uprooted and magically transplanted somewhere else in the UK. In comparison to the bills I have faced at other London restaurants, however, RSJ really cleans up. I started with a smoked haddock fish cake, presented with fresh watercress and tartare sauce on the side, and I was pleased with what arrived; a flavoursome fish cake, bread-crumbed and golden-brown, unfussy and familiar for sure, but no less delicious for that. It worked surprisingly well with the 2010 La Lune, even though the wine was showing a little more residual sugar than I recall from previous encounters, coming through not as an overt sweetness but certainly as a deeper, more fleshy texture.
I must have had my main course in mind when I ordered this wine (well, that's what I keep telling myself), as it was perfectly poised to cope with a dish of corn-fed chicken, Spanish chickpeas (the Spanish obviously delight in growing the largest, meatiest chickpeas you could ever hope for) and grilled courgettes. Again, rather like the fish cake, this was solid and tasty, and it certainly worked well with the La Lune, as I had hoped. As did the selection of cheeses that I moved onto thereafter, before I finished up with a very decent espresso.
Overall, I find RSJ to be a must-visit venue when I am in London, and it is clear that I am not alone in this. It was no surprise to see the place packed out on the evening I visited; there wasn't an empty table in the house, and when one was vacated it wasn't long before it had been re-laid, and it was occupied once again. The quality of the food is solid, the style delicious and satisfying with not a hint of pretension, and the service is down-to-earth and honest. What is more there is certainly value for money here, and of course the venue is also very handy for an early dinner prior to an evening at one of the nearby theatres. I don't think I will be visiting any of those theatres any time soon though; not that I don't love the theatre, just that I seldom have time to fit everything in during any of my trips to this city. Nor will I be visiting that Imax cinema, for the same reasons. But I will certainly be returning to RSJ one day soon, for another little slice of the Loire in London.
Disclosure: I know proprietor Nigel Wilkinson personally as he is a regular attendee at the annual Salon des Vins de Loire, and we tend to stay in the same hotel. I have previously accepted lifts between the hotel and the Salon venue from Nigel. On dining at his restaurant I was not charged for my glass of Crémant de Loire, but otherwise I paid for this meal in full, as was the case on my previous visit.
Prices: as I indicate above, for London, very reasonable indeed. The set menu gives one course for £12.95, two for £16.95 or three for £19.95, with £3 supplement for cheese instead of dessert, so I paid just £22.95 for my three course menu. The 2010 La Lune was just £35.95, remarkable value considering a typical price at retail for this wine would be perhaps £18-20. There were many bottles available at lower prices, one of the great advantages when drinking from the vineyards of the Loire. A bottle of mineral water was £2.75, the espresso was £2.25. Dinner for two, all in, was £95.40. (8/6/14)