Trust a former World’s Best Sommelier to open a restaurant where what you eat is based on your choice of wines. FIONA BECKETT books a table with Enrico Bernado.
If any sommelier looks set for Gordon Ramsay-style stardom it has to be Enrico Bernado. At the age of 31, his eponymous Paris restaurant (Il Vino d’Enrico Bernardo) already has a Michelin star after being open for just six months and he’s launched another of the same name in the smart ski resort of Courchevel. His CV was already impressive: best sommelier in Italy at 20; head sommelier at the Georges V (where he spent six and a half years) at 24; the youngest ever Best Sommelier in the World at 27. Oh, and he’s written a couple of books, including a massive 500 pager of tasting notes on Mediterranean wines, Mes Vins de Méditerranée.
His two restaurants were born of one idea: the food is dictated by the wine. You choose what you want to drink, the chef decides what you eat. There’s an à la carte menu of 13 wines (prices include an accompanying dish) and six set menus ranging from a quick lunchtime menu at €50 (£40) to a no-holds-barred evening prestige menu at €1,000 (£795). ‘In six months we’ve had 30 people taking it,’ says Enrico Bernado. ‘We’ve sold more Pétrus here than I did at the Georges V.’
The idea behind the concept, Enrico Bernado says, is to give customers the chance to explore the wine world with simple Italian food. ‘A lot of top restaurants have big Bordeaux and Burgundy lists and luxury ingredients like foie gras, but people are looking for new experiences.’ But don’t diners want to know what’s on the menu? Enrico Bernado shrugs. ‘When you go to dinner at someone’s house you don’t know what you’re going to get.’ Then again, they don’t charge you €1,000. The menu and wines change weekly, depending what produce is in season and Bernardo’s current wine interests. ‘We have Friday morning tastings where we taste 12 dishes and 12 wines.’ Enrico Bernado, who trained as a chef, comes up with suggestions.
Chef Davide Bariloni creates the dishes. ‘We go with the initial idea in 60% to 70% of the pairings. In 30% to 40% Davide changes the sauce or the garnish.’
My husband and I road-tested two of the lunch menus recently, the four course A l’Aveugle (blind) tasting menu (€75/£60) where you know neither the wine or the food you’ll be getting, and a five-course La France du Nord au Sud tasting menu at €180 (£143) which started off with a Hirtzberger Grüner Veltliner Honivogl – an excellent match for a carpaccio of sea bass but hardly French. ‘What happened there?’ I asked Bernardo. ‘I’m Italian,’ he shrugged, as if that explained everything. Although the longer menu offered three outstanding matches – the Grüner and bass; a 2005 Ballot-Millot Meursault Les Criots with a risotto of morille mushrooms; and a Domaine Gentile Patrimonio Rappu with tiramisu –Enrico Bernado committed the cardinal sin (in my book) of pairing a tannic young red Bordeaux, 2004 Léoville-Las Cases, with Reblochon, offset only by a slice of fig bread. It was a predictably appalling match. I was curious as, on the à la carte menu, his pairings for cheese included the more contemporary matches of a 1996 Pichet Château-Chalon from the Jura, a Duvel beer and a 1989 Rivesaltes. Bernardo’s own preference with a cheeseboard is for vintage blanc de blancs Champagne but he conceded that his mainly French clientele expected red wine with cheese – and in a menu at this price, one of a second-growth calibre.
The blind tasting menu, which my husband took, was better value both from a financial point of view and in terms of entertainment, and I admit Bernardo got the better of us. We mistook a rich Bourgogne Aligoté from JM Boillot (well paired with a Jerusalem artichoke soup and balsamic vinegar drizzle) for a South African Chardonnay, and a heady 2005 Domaine Courbis St-Joseph (served with lamb and Mediterranean vegetables) for a Malbec. We should have known an adopted Frenchman would stick to French wines. We hit the spot with a2006 Bernard Gripa St-Péray (perfect with oriechiette and spring vegetables) which we identified as a Rhône white and a Montlouis Moelleux from Chidaine (gloriously paired with fresh mango and raspberries) as a Loire dessert wine.
There were no Italian wines. Why? Bernardo shrugged again. ‘I prefer Italian red to Italian white. My favourite regions are Burgundy and the Northern Rhône. At home I drink St-Aubin, Crozes- Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Barbera d’Alba. Not Bordeaux – it’s too expensive. I’ve noticed a move away from powerful wines like Amarone and Shiraz that are impossible to drink at table, to wines with more elegance and lightness, especially at this time of year. In spring I look more to Austria, Germany, New Zealand and South Africa for interesting whites.’ Compared to the master of food and wine pairing Alain Senderens, who I’ve mentioned before on these pages, Bernardo’s pairings are less painstakingly conceived and less refined, but Il Vino is a more relaxed experience – a bit like a very classy, designer wine bar, although Bernardo is reluctant to categorise it as that. ‘In France there are different types of restaurant: brasserie, bistro, gastronomic. In Italy there are just restaurants. We are a restaurant with fresh, seasonal food, a nice wine selection and good service. Not sophisticated just comfortable.
‘Too many industry professionals go in for a competitive approach with long explanations for every dish. If you want a spectacle, go to the theatre. People are going more and more for simplicity.’ It’ll be interesting to see how well Il Vino does once the novelty wears off, or whether Bernardo will have to revert to a conventional menu. In the meantime this ambitious young professional alreadyhas his eye on further expansion. In Italy? ‘No! I love Italy but I’d never work there again. Maybe London… Or maybe I’ll go back to the kitchen one day.’ Maybe. With Bernardo I suspect you can never rule anything out.