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Michael Broadbent 395th column: April ’10 – Cold Comforts

By the time you read this, spring will be in the air. But due to deadlines I’m drafting this article (as is my wont, in bed on a Sunday morning) in the midst of Britain’s longest, coldest spell of post-Christmas weather. Eventually we got out of our country driveway and skidded back to London. Our flat is in what I call Fulham-on-Thames, opposite the famous Mile Post of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and the fascinating London Wetlands Centre in Barnes. During this restricted icy period we took advantage of neighbourhood restaurants, of which we are well served in all price ranges.

It took 20 minutes, clinging to each other on sheet-ice pavements, for Daphne and I to inch the 350 metres to the most famous Thames-side eatery, The River Café. On the coldest night of the year I thought it would be denuded by cancellations. Not a bit: it was packed and we only just managed to get a table. It is rightly renowned for its excellent Italian food and wine list. It took me half an hour to scan the list, stupidly declining the proffered Prosecco which I always think is overrated.

I felt I needed advice. The lissome (I know, I know) waitress, not English – unlike the very English duo of Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers who started, own and run the restaurant hands-on (they cook) – was well briefed and helpful. Her first recommendation was Malvira’s 2008 Roero Arneis from Piedmont, which proved a perfect foil for spicy calamari, but less so for classic sole.

Originally a canteen for the adjacent architectural practice, it was a brainwave to convert it into a modest place to eat, now outstanding for food, wine and faultless service – from reception to fond farewell – but not renowned for its acoustics. The noise of the glitterati (not their eating habits, but their high-decibel conversations) ensure they are not only seen but heard. So it was something of a relief the next evening to go to our even closer, quieter, neighbouring restaurant.

Mes Amis is anything but plain and simple. Spicy, imaginative Lebanese food cooked in a small, cosy room with highly original decor. (I was tempted to say bizarre, but it reflects the taste of the kind, gentle, brilliant owner-chef.) We usually start with Karim’s special salad while a classic middle-east meze is being prepared, then minced lamb with hummus garnished with incredibly sweet sliced oranges.

Having tried a range of seriously good Lebanese wines, I find Sauvignon Blanc goes best with the spicy food. I normally give Sauvignons a miss. I think I was put off as much by the huge swathes of valleys and slopes I saw on our only visit to New Zealand, as by the acidic, oak-chipped but bland commercial output which makes life difficult for all but the very best producers to make a mark. But I digress.

The Sauvignon Blanc I settled on at Karim’s was from Chile – Viña Maipo’s Gran Reserva 2008. Extremely pale, a touch of yellow; pleasant, sweetish and fragrant aroma, dipping deep for a whiff of gooseberry; perfect weight (12.5%abv), attractive but not brash flavour with a touch of ripe melon, some softness, yet good acidity.

Mes Amis is characterful, innovative, inexpensive, quiet and intimate, patronised by agreeable locals, both young married and geriatric. But we always advise our guests to dress, as we do, in jeans, or equivalent, as there is a pervasive smell of exotic cooking which follows us home (we hang our clothes outside).

Finally to our current favourite, The Cabin, a longer walk inland towards Fulham Broadway. We enjoy our favourite mojitos before sitting down to share a large pot of steamed mussels – the sweetest and juiciest we’ve had for years, when we visited a little fishing village in Belgium. This is aided and abetted by a glass of 2007 Viña Estampa Viognier-Chardonnay from Chile: a pale waxy sheen, distinctive yet undemonstrative nose, dry enough, good flavour and texture, perfect balance. These Chileans do produce the goods.

The Cabin is also renowned for excellent, well-hung steaks. We normally have an 8oz (225g) Scottish sirloin accompanied by a copybook Rioja – the Criadores de Rioja’s Castillo Viento Tinta Joven 2007. Fairly deep, velvety; flawless nose, wine not fruit; flavour to match, good flesh, masked tannin. The menu is original, the wine list interesting and well priced. Daphne and I should experiment more, but we are creatures of habit. Why not stick to what one likes best?

The clientele – aspiring yuppies, not rich and trendy – hail probably from the gentrified Fulham houses; conversation is intense and intimate. Less deafening than The River Café, but one criticism: a rather tiresome tape of ‘music’ dominated by a remorseless thump-thump of bass and drum. But one gets uses to it

Written by Michael Broadbent

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