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