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28/04/2009

Terroirs, Charing Cross, London

Terroirs
★★★★★


Awful name, Terroirs. It's that niggling, wriggling little plural, the silent S gilding an already ponced-up lily. The word's yet to enter anything like ordinary English, of course, and remains a fairly prissy piece of jargon - a loanword adopted cautiously, as you might a young offender. Try to Anglicise it, though, say it in an English accent, and you sound like Lloyd Grossman. Tear-warr. Scientific research - I will not disclose my methods - leads me to conclude that only 13.6 per cent of the British public has the slightest clue what it means. As a name for a restaurant, then, Terroirs is about as democratic as Chad. And for the few who do know it, it’s a daft bit of underselling by the wine merchant owners, a misbranding on the scale of Woolworth’s ‘Lolita’ range of kiddie furniture. Because ‘terroir’, reeking as it does of swill and spittoon, of noble rot and pigeage entre-deux-mers, implicitly suggests that food here plays second fiddle to plonk. Which it doesn’t.

The restaurant opened six months ago but has been shamefully underreviewed, no doubt in part due to this barmy ‘wine bar’ marketing. It doesn’t even have a proper website, just (like Jesus) a ‘Coming Soon’ message. As the first photo shows, the exterior is understated to the point of concealment; and despite being a Molotov cocktail’s throw from Trafalgar Square, it’s pretty hard to find. You can imagine tourists shuffling past, staled and stupefied by the National Gallery: rattled parents tugging slack-jawed ten-year-olds, seeing the name and assuming it sells dogs.

I went with London Eater and the editor of Metrotwin, a crafty website that links Big Smoke with Big Apple. It was a magnificent lunch. The wine list, which naturally deserves attention, places emphasis on small growers and biodynamic producers, and has a groaning rack of organic bottles. The menu is self-consciously arresting, rustically artful, utterly du moment. Small, tapas-style plates are very vogueish right now, with Bocca di Lupo doing a similar thing. It’s a concept that caters for the picky, the sociable, the pinched and the stingy alike. Here, depending on wallet and appetite, you nibble or scoff. There are bar snacks priced at a couple of quid, several small dishes at £4 to £9, or half a dozen main courses, each under £15. There’s also a good selection of charcuterie and some cheeses, the latter £3.50 apiece. In short, it’s a place that comfortably allows for a drink and a nibble, a medium snack, or a substantial meal. You can guess which one we plumped for.

In fact, we order so much it’s almost embarrassing. From the bar snacks, cervelle de canut, 'silk worker's brain', a base of fromage blanc muddled by vinegar, is a delight: refreshing and milky, drizzled with what I’m pretty sure is walnut oil, and dressed with tiny rings of chive. Another taster, though, is a let-down. Duck scratchings, which sounded promising, are crisped boils, bitty explosions of cold grease. Amongst the smaller plates, steak tartare is available with or without heat: we order it spicy, and though it lacks an appreciable kick, it’s fresh, eggy and sharp, budded with a capery tang and excellent on hot toast. A pricey (£9) bunch of new season asparagus is perfectly cooked – so many places underdo it nowadays – with a vibrant splodge of hollandaise.

Bone marrow with truffle (oil, naturally) is the best dish of all: jellied discs of tissue wobbling like the busts on can-can dancers, dotted on a thickly foresty duxelle. Clams steamed in vermouth are plump and juicy, in a delicate, wormwoody sauce with grassy currents of parsley and a garlicky dollop of aioli. A pot-roast quail with braised artichokes is mellowed yellow, the bird of an infant tenderness, in a sauce salty with pancetta and with that curious sweet-and-sour note of the thistle. Puddings too, of course: a clever crèpe made with a caramel of salted butter, double-taking the tongue; and the best panna cotta I’ve ever had, quivering like a dumped lover’s bottom lip, its vanilla richness sliced by blood oranges steeped in Campari.

London badly needed a place like this, dextrously serving honest, compelling food in a sociable and unpretentious setting. The concept, for want of a better word, is as up-to-date as the Speaking Clock. The young chef is Ed Wilson, who trained with the Galvin brothers and who somehow produces everything from an open-plan kitchen slightly larger than a hankie, with just a couple of electric griddles and not even any gas. Pricing is ludicrously low for a restaurant of this calibre. The current lunch deal is a tartiflette, a green salad and a glass of ingenious white for ten measly pounds. I’m going back next week.

Now, any suggestions for a new name?


Terroirs, 5 William IV Street, London WC2

Tel. +44 (0)20 7036 0660

See on the TFYS Map

Indefensibly large lunch for three, including drinks and service, costs £138

Terroirs on Urbanspoon

16 comments:

  1. Why a molotov cocktail? And isn't the real 'Big Smoke' Sydney? Why is this person who links Sydney and New York eating in London?

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  2. Thanks for commenting. A Molotov cocktail because lots of riots have taken place in Trafalgar Square over the years. I think a number of cities might be colloquially known as the Big Smoke, but London is probably the most famous for it.

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  3. Excellent review, as always. How did you find the service? One thing I have read in reviews is that the service has been off.

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  4. Nice review. I've been meaning to try this but heard it was quite tricky to get a table.

    I'm not sure the name is all that bad; restaurants have been called far worse things. If you buy into the concept of terroir – your tone suggests you don't but the restaurant owners clearly do – then it could well be applied to food these days as much as wine.

    Last week I went to Cellar Gascon, which is in a similar vein. The wine list there focuses on the South West of France. We had a cracking bottle from Saint-Mont (near Madiran) and a Vin de Pays d'Oc with an intriguing whiff of oyster on the nose. It's probably pricier than Terroirs as the portions are a bit stingy but still well worth a try.

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  5. Lizzie - Thanks! Actually the service was very good: quick to recommend dishes and wines, friendly and attentive. I'd be nit-picking if I banged on about the fact we had to ask more than once to have more water.

    Mr Teaspoon - Nice nom de plume. I'm not sure about how hard it is to book: you'd have to ask London Eater!

    I do accept the concept of terroir: I'm not sure rejecting it is really an option. You're right that it's a word that can be applied to food nowadays, and in fact I've used it that way in past reviews. But this restaurant has been promoted mainly as a wine bar - probably because it's largely financed by Les Caves de Pyrène - and its name only compounds that. I feel such marketing does the food a disservice. Gordon's is round the corner, and it really IS a wine bar. Terroirs is simply light years ahead.

    Thanks for the tip on Cellar Gascon. I've been meaning to go to Club Gascon for a long time now, and your mention of it has only added to this. I'll definitely be making a visit in the next few weeks. Thanks again for a very interesting comment.

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  6. I have been reading and enjoying your blog for a while so thought it was about time I chipped in!

    I would agree that if the food is as good as it sounds then they are probably underselling themselves. They hadn't fallen under my radar but then I'm a wine enthusiast.

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  7. Great review! Looking forward to visiting after reading this and Kang's review of your lunch...

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  8. I really want to eat here, I keep meaning to go but things seem to intervene at the last minute. i think the food all looks delicious but £9 for that asparagus - that is just taking the piss isn't it?!

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  9. Mr Teaspoon - Very good of you to leave a comment. Thanks.

    Helen 1 - Definitely get down there. It's really worth a visit.

    Helen 2 - I know, it does seem rather a lot for a smallish plate of asparagus. The cervelle de canut is only £3 though, and pricing elsewhere seemed very fair.

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  10. It was indeed a glorious lunch in your company and yes the pannacotta was one of the best ever, London truly needs Terroirs badly and I'm glad we chose this place in the end!

    Still need to try Hawksmoor though - When are you next available?

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  11. Oh! Great :) I've been there for wine and loved it, and am keen to try the food. Shame about the duck scratchings, I was looking forward to those! I agree with you on the branding, it could do with a review!

    Niamh

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  12. Kang - was all down to you! Great choice. Look forward to another lunch.

    Niamh - yeah, it's a shame, in a way. But do bear in mind I'm in something of a minority in saying I didn't like the scratchings: Matthew Norman thinks they're delicious. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/apr/25/restaurants-terroirs-london-matthew-norman)

    Either way, it's a great recent opening.

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  13. Great stuff Oliver - just read the opening para out to the office to conclude a discussion about what a silly name for a restaurant it is! Food is bloody good though...

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  14. Great article. In my opinion Terroirs is an exciting addition to London scene. The food is delicious and oh-so-moreish and the wine list is unique for London. And what a place to hang out (if you can get in). I spotted three wine journos and four major restaurateurs when I was last there!

    I'm not sure that I would agree with you about the name. Terroir refers as much to food as to wine (eg cuisine de terroir), but it is a catch-all term referring to importance of provenance. The food is simple, allowing the main ingredients to express themselves cleanly and clearly.

    I might also dispute that Terroir is an obscure term. We don't have an equivalent word in English, nor do the Italians, but the notion that food and wine should taste of its origin is something that is increasingly recognised.


    Anyhoo, keep up the good work!

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  15. I agree - what a wonderful place. Nowhere I'd rather clog up my arteries with French splendours. Just discovered your blog by the way. It's a pleasure to read! (I'm new to blogging.)

    Terroirs reminds me somewhat of Comptoir Gascon - must revisit.

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  16. I ate here a few weeks ago and loved it.
    I'm coming back to London this summer and this is one of the first restaurants that I plan on returning to. I love the tapas food. So much fun.

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