This is a wine blog, and I suppose that when I write about a restaurant I concentrate on the wine…and the food too, of course. But this piece isn’t primarily about either, but rather a musing on “lunch” in a wider sense. Long-term readers will have been, at least vicariously, to Masters before. What is arguably London’s finest “fish & chip restaurant” has been the venue for several notable BYO lunches, which have gone under the banner of fizz and chips (Champagne/sparkling) and fish and fino (Sherry). Both are wonderful accompaniments to Britain’s most traditional dish, but this time we felt like widening it out. A kind of bring what you like lunch.
Masters is something of a London institution. Of course, the capital has other contenders, but Masters, for me, is the place to go for fish & chips, and this is surely backed up by the number of Japanese tourists I always see there. Which other nation is so clued-up about the genuinely best places to eat in any given foreign city?
The fish was particularly good last week. A friend quite rightly pointed out that Masters is always that percentage point better than its usual excellence when it is extremely busy, as it indeed was. The oil will be really hot, which makes a difference. But the full Masters experience is not just the fish. A full lunch comes with plump shell-on prawns and a plate of pickled onions and gherkins the size of a courgette. We couldn’t resist adding in a couple of portions of whitebait, one portion being sufficient for three extremely hungry stomachs.
The chips are lovely, dry, fluffy pieces of properly fried potato. I ordered Haddock on this occasion. One of the diners said it was “certainly the best fish I have had in the UK”. He’s a discerning bloke, and as an Aussie knows a thing or two about fish. It really was that good, although it’s fair to say that it was even a small step up from the wonderful fish I’ve had there previously.
So we’ve established that the food is good. I’m sure we all enjoy our fine dining experiences when they come along, but to eat a simple dish so well done makes one realise that fish and chips is not a national joke. I suppose it’s the equivalent of grabbing some cold meats, paté and a good cheese platter in a Parisian bar.
Such a lunch might be deemed to call for simple wines, but in fact we drank the full range, from inexpensive and simple to frighteningly expensive and complex. It was rather odd that we found that every single one of them went perfectly with the food. The essence of a good wine lunch is naturally good food, good company, and just the right number of wines. This is why, wonderful as our various sherry lunches usually are, you frankly get a bit too inebriated. There is always the journey home to be negotiated.
I think the key to the success of this particular lunch was not too many people, and a group who all know each other, but who in most cases hadn’t seen each other for a little while. The food was by no means anonymous compared to the wines, and neither strove to outdo the other, as can happen if you take a dozen different 1982 Bordeaux to a Michelin Two-Star.
I can think of many places where I’ve had spectacularly successful wine lunches. They range from The Ledbury and The Sportsman (Seasalter), through Noble Rot to The Draper’s Arms and Rochelle Canteen (the list is very far from exhaustive). But my point is that this lunch was no less enjoyable, and it’s hard to imagine that is possible from a venue where I paid £20…that includes £5/bottle corkage and a healthy tip.
I imagine that before we go you’d like me to elaborate on what we drank. Five bottles, from a bottle for the rich to a bottle for the poor. You get them in the order we drank them.
Vouvray Pétillant NV, Huet (Loire, France) – These days this wine is usually vintage dated, but this non-vintage bottle is around a decade old. I don’t remember exactly where I bought it, originally thinking it came from the region, but it may have been a bottle I bought from RSJ, the sadly no longer extant Loire-focused restaurant behind London’s South Bank, and the scene of several wonderful wine dinners back in the day.
As a “pétillant”, this wine has lower atmospheric pressure than a fully sparkling crémant, so the bubbles are finer and a little less profuse. The colour here is dark straw, sowing the signs of bottle age, but this is a wine which will normally go ten or twelve years. It is made, of course, from simply Chenin, and from the younger vines at the estate. This gives acidity and freshness, but around three years in bottle before traditional disgorgement allows it to start down the road of complexity, a journey completed when its owner gives it further cellaring.
If I’m honest I wasn’t expecting it to taste quite as fresh as it did for its age, but I was expecting that hint of tarte tatin that came in after the fresh apple and pears of the attack. It’s a dry wine, but the kind of dry wine that gets you wondering whether there’s just a hint of sugar (I don’t know the dosage, but there’s richness from the tertiary elements). A lovely wine. Armit Wines imports Huet into the UK.
Dom Pérignon 2002 (Champagne, France) – So, Dom with fish & chips. To some it will sound decadent, to others a waste of a fine wine. I can’t answer for the first (except to thank the remarkable generosity of the man who brought it along), but I will say without hesitation that it was a superb match for my haddock.
I don’t really need to tell you about Moët’s remarkable prestige cuvée, even more remarkable considering the quantity in which this wine is produced. The 2002 has always been, for me with less experience than others, a lovely DP. I had a couple of bottles of ’02 but I’m pretty sure I drank them. Well, this 2002 was still relatively youthful in some respects, certainly in its freshness and a certain steely quality initially. But when it opened out so much seeped out and amplified. The floral bouquet gave way, eventually, to some beguiling, and almost exotic, stone fruit flavours. Oxidative hints? Hmm, not sure, perhaps the faintest little glimmer.
Elegant, long, glorious of course and ready to drink now without any need for unbecoming haste. Very widely available if you have the disposable income. Occasionally worth an early visit to a Waitrose “25% off all wines” promotion (giving away my secrets).
Chardonnoir 2012, Bodegas Re (Casablanca, Chile) – This is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay from a single site, with the dry-farmed vines mostly at least 60-years-old off steep red clay slopes. Both varieties are vinified and aged in French oak, the Pinot Noir vinified as a white (pressed early and gently), but there is a little colour from the red grape skins, more peachy than pink.
Bodegas Re is a fairly large, 72 hectare family operation. The Morandé family farms some of the best of these two varieties in Casablanca and also in the Maule Valley. The aim here is to make something akin to a still Champagne (as the man who brought it explained). It’s a lovely wine, with both weight and elegance, good acidity and the structure to age further. Acidity plays an important part in the structure, and it does taste like a wine that has not gone through malolactic. But at the same time, it does not lack for absolutely the right amount of weight. Very impressive.
Bodegas Re wines are imported by Berry Bros & Rudd, although I didn’t spot this on their web site when trying to find a price.
Hortas do Caseirinho Frisante (Vinho Verde, Portugal) – Now this is something completely different, although it was no surprise to me, nor the person who brought it, that it was a heavenly match for our food. I told the story at lunch of my first efforts to find and try red Vinho Verde, in Oporto, longer ago than you need to know. A guy in a bar actually tried to persuade me not to drink it. The acidity was ramped up to eleven. Today, things are a little different.
This semi-sparkling red is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Vinhão, Espadal and Touriga Franca. It’s a non-vintage wine, but the grapes saw an eight day cold maceration before temperature-controlled fermentation. It’s a cheap wine that doesn’t taste cheap. The dark purple colour is reflected both on the bouquet and palate. You get plum and the zest of concentrated black fruits. There’s a little soft tannin. It tastes very concentrated yet light, and it only packs 10.5% abv. The fresh fruit acidity cut through the batter on the fish perfectly. I’m told that this is literally cheap as chips in Portugal.
The Wine Society sells this wine’s branco brother for £7.25. If you can find the red version anywhere I’d grab some. Perhaps the person who brought it along might let us know where he found it. I know he generally reads my articles. An ideal breakfast wine too, if such a thing is required.
‘T Voetpad 2016, Sadie Family Wines (Swartland, South Africa) – Without in any way downgrading the majesty of the DP, we did finish up with something very special. ‘T Voetpad (the footpath, which has connotations with the expression of the landscape) is one of Eben Sadie’s “Old Vine Series” wines. Old vines is no lie here. The vines which make up this white Cape blend are all between 90-to-130 years old, planted on original rootstocks on a site which claims to be one of the Cape’s oldest vineyards.
This classic blend is based on Semillon (both Blanc and the rare Gris) with Palomino, Muscat (d’Alexandrie) and Chenin Blanc, all part of a field blend from this single vineyard. The 2016 is quite rich and packs 13.5% alcohol. The wine has a very interesting profile. Stone fruits such as peach probably dominate, but the outlying elements make it special. Orange citrus, quite unusual, gives a nice edge, accentuated by a little salinity, but I won’t go on.
It is typical of a great field blend in that it tastes, however, like one harmonious whole. I say this, and it was true of this 2016 last week, but we were still drinking a baby. This has a good decade before it if you want to give it free rein to show what it can do. Nevertheless, it was also magnificent young, and I’d be just as tempted myself if I owned a bottle. Sadly I can only offer Pofadder.
Where to find it? Uncorked used to be a rare source for some of the Old Vine Series, but I’m pretty sure they don’t have any now. The UK importer to contact is Fields, Morris & Verdin.
Masters Superfish is at 191 Waterloo Road, about a six or seven minute walk from Waterloo Station (when you pass The Old Vic Theatre you are more than half way). Pre-arranged corkage is £5/bottle, but they do have their own inimitable wine list. If you take your own wine I recommend you take your own glasses too. They also serve beer, and in the finest Whitby tradition, English tea, if you wish to go native.