I'm routinely very critical of the London wine scene on this blog, despite not knowing it half as well as I'd like to. In my ignorance, just about every wine establishment I encounter over there makes me cagey in some way, whether through bald commercialism (Terroirs) or preciousness (Duck Soup) or overwhelming fusty pomposity (Berry Bros. & Rudd) or total irrelevance (Oddbins). It perturbs me that hugely accredited wine writers writing for England's best newspapers speak of wine as though it were purchaseable exclusively in supermarkets. And the nation's draconian import taxes seem to ensure that even the more discriminating British consumers are merely choosing between entry-level and mid-range wines, just horribly distorted in price.
All this is why on my last trip to London I was stunned to discover a truly winning wine bar, easily better than anything in Paris, perhaps on earth: 40 Maltby Street. Located at the eponymous address in the Maltby Street sort-of-market, it's open just three days a week, takes no reservations, and alongside a soulful and inventive market menu it serves the boldly natural French, Italian, and Slovenian wines of the import company with which the restaurant shares ownership, Gergovie Wines. (That the import company is named after a mountain in Auvergne tells you something about its laudable priorities vis à vis non-marquee regions.)
Both 40 Maltby Street and Gergovie Wines are the projects of Raef Hodgson, a fellow about my age whom I met accidentally, after wandering into his restaurant one day between services, only to realise that he was a longtime friend of some of my closest friends, who had indeed been meaning to introduce me to him for years. I'd been walking by with my other friend A, who'd just taken me for midday beers at the Kernel Brewery down the road. A remarked, as we were exiting Maltby St., "Oh, and there's a wine bar here that's opened recently, never been."
It took about one minute scanning the bottles that line the walls of 40 Maltby Street's dining area (it doubles as Gergovie's warehouse) to determine that whoever was selecting these wines had tastes that overlapped extensively with my own: Patrick Bouju's underrated marvels from Auvergne, Andrea Calek's brisk Ardeche beasts, various skin-macerated whites from northeast Italy and Slovenia... All were listed at prices that struck me as atypically reasonable.
I returned the following night, having given the address to some friends who were to meet me, most of whom got lost finding the place. 40 Maltby Street was uncharacteristically quiet the night we went, and until one stood directly in front of the doors there was no way of telling whether the restaurant was even open.
40 Maltby Street's menu is slim, and may have been exceptionally so that evening, as the restaurant was about to close for vacation. But each item on it was crackingly fresh and expertly conceived, so that none of us left hungry or wanting, even the vegetarians.
As I recall we ordered just about everything, and then ordered everything again, marveling at the uniform deliciousness and simplicity of everything coming from the kitchen.
A lone sea urchin I ordered proved to be the most haunting and nuanced I'd ever tasted - like a sea of smoke.
I was just lucky I couldn't convince many of my tablemates to have a taste, since said urchin contained about nine molecules of flesh, so pitifully little that I genuinely wondered if there had been some mistake and I'd been given an urchin recently eaten by another diner.
A plate of sopressata displayed the wonderful melting matte-finish texture of the best stuff.
A silken egg mayonaise came annointed with anchovy and a razor-crisp wedge of lettuce heart to refresh between bites.
The "winter salad" consisted of shaved cabbage and hardier greens, piled high like an overdose of healthiness. (More restaurants should offer this sort of thing. One of the greatest salads I can recall functions along a similar principle : a crunchy hillock of garlicky kale served at Elf Cafe in Los Angeles. Yet to judge by most salads offered at dinner, many restaurants seem to presume that salad-orderers are by nature shrinking dainty types who won't tuck in with any gusto.)
Slow-roasted kid with lemon and green olives was consumately prepared, lush and savoury, and an astonishing bargain at £13. Throughout the meal, I was fairly gobsmacked that such masterful cuisine was coming out of a kitchen that seemed barely to be in use (the evening we were there). Situations like these always beg the question: what is your evidently quite superhuman chef doing with the rest of his or her time? Fighting crime? He or she doesn't get bored?
Hodgson himself has some chef experience, though I'm not certain who was manning the kitchen when we went. In any case the array of culinary talent and experience available to 40 Maltby Street is probably aided to some extent by Hodgson's industry lineage: he is the son of Randolphe Hodsgon, founder of Neal's Yard Dairy, and Anita Le Roy, founder of Monmouth Coffee. Before he found his way back to food and mainly wine he studied Sanskrit at Oxford, which is to say that with his new ventures he's putting his degree to what is probably its most profitable use.
My high hopes for the wine list were roundly fulfilled. We began with a vivid, blossomy sparkling white from Vittorio Graziano in Emilia-Romagna. Graziano is a small-scale (30,000 btl / yr) Lambrusco producer who notably employs bottle-fermentation, rather than tank, as is customary there.
I'd expected Malvasia, which is used in a number of what are often termed 'white lambruscos,' but the "Ripa di Sopravento" is in fact a blend of two distinct Trebbiani (among Italy's bazillion trebbiani): Modanese and di Spagna.
Later Hodgson decanted us a bottle of Daniele Piccinin's skin-macerated Durella "Montemagro," from 2008.
I professed to never having encountered the wines before, which I later learned was probably because Piccinin, a protogé of Angiolino Maulé, produced his first vintage in just 2006, from high-altitude slopes on Monte Cimo. (My last professional wine buying occurred in early 2009.) For that matter I'd never had a still Durella before. Known for lancing acidity, the grape is often vinified sparkling. Nevertheless it proves a happy medium for Piccinin's sulfur-free style, with the "Montemagro" retaining white fruit, acid, and balance despite a rich, oxidative profile.
As all the glowing praise above demonstrates, I pretty much spent my meal at 40 Maltby Street happily eating my words, every bad thing I'd ever said about the London wine scene. What I'd like to see is overwhelming demand oblige 40 Maltby Street to serve dinner more nights of the week. And for same demand to cause similar places to open all over London (and Paris, for that matter). For now I have a reaction similar to that provoked by sea urchins that began our meal: This is incredible ! Why isn't there more of it?
40 Maltby Street
40 Maltby St.
Tel: +44 020 7237 9247
Tel: +44 020 7237 9247
A 2011 feature on scions of artisanal food families, featuring Raef Hodgson @ Telegraph
A pretty superficial post, redeemed by nice big photos, of a 2012 meal at 40 Maltby St. @ SpoonfulOfSugar
A 2011 review of 40 Maltby St. @ TimeOut
A perplexed and slightly furtive review of a meal at 40 Maltby St. @ RocketAndSquash
A starry-eyed review of a meal at 40 Maltby St. @ MissImmy'sLondon