The Wine Theatre
Here’s the winner of the monthly TFYS award for Most Boring Menu. It reads like a species of dilute Jamie Oliver, a sleepwalker’s wander down a well-wandered path. Hazily Mediterranean, Brit-friendly staples: carbonara, garlic bread, lasagne. It’s food so sterile it’s had a vasectomy, ideal for diners with the itchy-footed adventurousness of paranoid agoraphobes. How I wish the chef had enough self-respect to include just one thing with a bit of interest, a dish to snag the eye and pique the senses. I don’t know, a bottarga maybe. Or a nice piece of liver.
The Wine Theatre opened recently on an ugly road in Southwark, far from Borough's madding crowd. When I showed up, it was bleakly deserted, and a pretty waitress was reading the Metro. ‘I’ve booked for two,’ I proffered, rather redundantly. She lifted an ambitiously large reservation book and opened it at random, to a page joyfully bereft of writing. She studied this intently, apparently scanning through hundreds of bookings. ‘Yeeess… What was the name?’
I told her, and she looked up, throwing a long gaze round the room, as though overwhelmed by the heaving bodies, bustling staff, clinking crockery, kitchen cat-calls and scraping chairs, as she searched for a tiny corner to squeeze us in among the hubbub. I looked around the empty space, which has the optimism of a dentist’s waiting room, and asked if we might sit outside. ‘Um… I think that should be fine.’ No-one else showed up.
In a breathless preamble to its menu, The Wine Theatre makes much of its ‘philosophy’, the ‘aperitivo’. There’s a great deal of branding puff around ‘aperitivo’, as if it were the most radical gastronomic concept since Theophanu, the tenth century Byzantine Empress, popularised the fork. From what I can gather, ‘aperitivo’ consists of a free nibble with your drink. Hardly the Shock of the New.
I went with Robert McIntosh, who writes Wine Conversation. He chose a deliciously light and supple Barbera d’Asti, perfect for lunchtime. Which was just as well, because this was some of the blandest food I’d eaten in ages.
Robert’s starter reeks all the way from the kitchen. It’s a noisome dish of pastey sardines and overcooked onions spattered with raisins, like fishy muesli. I have a revolting salad of squid and olives. The squid is pre-frozen and cut into stumpy fag-butts, surrendering all pretence of flavour. The olives are sliced, and straight from a tin. At what point, do you think, does someone decide an olive would taste better sliced? Do these people lie in the bath and say to themselves: ‘Olives are a perfect size to pop in your mouth. Humans have grown them for as long as they’ve grown anything. We have machines nowadays that stone them if you can’t face spitting out the pip or putting your dentures in. So the only way we can improve on this is by cutting them up into meanly astringent little slices, like caustic Polo mints, and steeping them in horrendous vinegar’?
I can’t understand the logic. Why would anyone, anywhere in the world, want to eat a sliced olive? Chopped into tapenade I well understand; stoned I can just about handle; but these are pocked, mutilated monstrosities, an insult to the noble name. The best thing about the dish is the griddled ciabatta on the side, though it makes Jadis look warm.
My main course is slightly better. ‘Fettucine with prawns’ turns out to be a clump of coldish pasta with two anaemic prawns on the side. It comes with courgettes (the menu promised rocket) which were cooked ages ago and are bracken-brown and slimey; and some chunks of cat-food tuna. The prawns weren’t prepped properly, and each carries a streak of intestinal waste down its back. Robert has a lasagne which I strangely forget to taste, though it doesn’t look bad. I finish with an amaretto crème brûlée, which had sounded interesting. But rather than spiking it with Amaretto liqueur, which I’d hoped for, they’ve crushed amaretti biscuits into the custard, a terrible idea. The soggy crumbs give it a mouthfeel like a frog spawned in it. I don’t finish it.
Some might argue that, because the restaurant has the word ‘wine’ in its name, I should make allowances for it. The drink’s the focus here, they’ll say: it’s wrong to concentrate on the food. Well, this is a food blog, and The Wine Theatre is a restaurant. Its solitary waitress is friendly and amenable, its wine list is sound, and its loos are spotless. To use a technical term, though, its food is pants. I give it six months before it’s curtains.
The Wine Theatre, 202-206 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7261 0209
See on the Map
Lunch for two, including drinks and service, costs £75
All pictures mine except the exterior shot, courtesy of the London SE1 Community Website