At the end of my second dinner at Noble Rot, the wine bar and restaurant on Lamb's Conduit Street in Bloomsbury just round the corner from London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, our guest and the second American woman I had dined with there, asked me about the origins of its name.
I explained, as visitors to this site probably know, that it was the English translation of the French expression pourriture noble, the grey fungus that attacks ripe grapes and is responsible for deliciously sweet wines such as Barsac and Sauternes in Bordeaux.
Noble Rot aims to be both a wine bar and a restaurant. It opened twice, the first time on 13 November 2015 three weeks after the new owners had taken it over from David Allcorn, who had run it as Vats wine bar since the 1970s. It then traded until 23 December before closing until mid January, when it reopened after a lick of paint, with a new, pristine bar close to the entrance, softer lighting and new artwork on the walls. It belongs to two individuals (pictured), ex-Roberson Mark Andrew, 36 (left), and Dan Keeling, 40, for whom this place is the second manifestation of their passion for wine.
The first is the wine magazine that bears the same name and is shortly to launch its tenth quarterly issue with an interview with the journalist Caitlin Moran. This was their first dip into the wine world, having met at a tasting of Granges des Pères, the cult Languedoc wine, which Andrew organised in 2010 while at Roberson Wines [attended by me and reported in Grange des Pères v Mas de Daumas Gassac – JR]. Keeling had spent over 15 years in the music business but, having been MD of Island Records, he was kicked upstairs to be a bean counter. Not being very good at counting beans, he was ready for a change of career.
Keeling brought with him a vital friendship. Through a family connection, he had got to know Stephen Harris, the chef/proprietor of the highly regarded Sportsman restaurant in Seasalter on the north Kent coast. It was Harris who, partly out of his own love of good wine, encouraged them to look for a site. Buoyed too by the success of Clown Bar and Vivant in Paris, Terroirs and The 10 Cases in London, they found backers and then went out looking for a potential site, only to be immediately discouraged. They had no track record; no covenant to satisfy the banks; and no brand name easily recognisable outside wine circles.
Then good fortune intervened. Last August they were shown Vats and were struck by its charms and history including an early-18th-century wine cellar in the basement. ‘This place has witnessed a lot of drinking over the years’, Keeling observed, ‘having become a haunt for many of the surgeons and lawyers who practise nearby. Our initial aim was to improve the quality of what is in their glasses.’
With chef Paul Weaver, they have done a pretty good job of improving the food, although one structural challenge remains.
Admittedly it does not get in the way of enjoying two of the menu’s attractions, the bread and the Spanish ham and the coppa that they are beginning to cure in-house. But it is the bread that at £4 a serving no one should overlook. These range from a focaccia as baked at The Sportsman to a soda bread with black treacle as per a recipe from Richard Corrigan and a sourdough baked according to Mickael Jonsson of Hedone restaurant in Chiswick.
These and the Whitstable oysters and a few other cold dishes are all available in the wine-bar section at the front of the building, which, with its black wooden panelling and fireplace, has something of the air of an old Amsterdam coffee house. Behind the bar is a bigger room down three steps that is the restaurant.
It is here that the structural problem becomes apparent. On my first visit it was my main course, a fillet of halibut braised in oxidised 1998 Batard-Montrachet, that was served lukewarm at best. On my second, having decided on an unusual first course of a thick soup made from monkfish and oysters, I encountered the same phenomenon. This did not seem to affect our main courses, which included a particularly pleasing Comté tart, fillets of John Dory and several generous slices of pork belly. But given that their kitchen is in the basement and the food has to be carried up, this is something that ought to be rectified. Using covers could do it, for example.
They certainly seem to be aware of the downstairs temperature. On our last visit, during a particularly cold spell, our friendly waitress greeted us by saying, we thought, that since their salads were quite cold we should think about ordering them straight away. We subsequently realised that what she actually said was that as their cellars were quite cold, if we wanted a red wine we should order one straight away.
We did, choosing a gorgeously rich 2010 Barolo Serralunga from Giovanni Rosso (£59) from a clearly laid out and keenly priced list that alongside an exceptional range of wines by the glass, offers great incentives to return.
Noble Rot 51 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London WC1N 3NB; tel +44 (0)20 7242 8963