A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Blandford Comptoir, just off increasingly fashionable Marylebone High Street in central London, opened only on 1 June but this restaurant already has a very London feel about it.
There was a table of two French couples in their early 30s drinking a bottle of French wine. There were a couple of Asian diners by the open front window of the restaurant already enjoying one of the numerous, fairly priced, mature bottles off the list. And closest to our corner table were two American men, obviously in finance from their keen conversation about Jamie Dimon, chairman of JP Morgan, and equally keen on their food and wine as they asked our waiter for the return of the wine list just before their main courses; a ribeye of Fassone beef and a duck breast with ravioli and figs were served.
Their dialogue with the waiter subsequently revealed one other reason for this restaurant's apparent immediate confidence. One of them explained that he had joined as soon as he heard that its founder, Xavier Rousset, was opening a new restaurant.
Rousset, pictured below, is unquestionably French but has spent the last 20 years working his way towards commercial independence in the UK. His CV includes time at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and the Hotel du Vin; becoming the world's youngest MS (Master Sommelier); and opening Texture restaurant on Portman Square with chef Agnar Sverisson, with whom he subsequently opened the three branches of the more informal 28-50 restaurants.
Over the years Rousset learnt one aspect of life in wine in the UK that he has put to very good use: that many of his customers have amassed far more wine than they can possibly drink and are more than happy to find a good home for it. The wine lists at Texture and 28-50 provided these outlets and so too has that of Blandford Comptoir.
The final page of this latest Rousset wine list is headed 'Older and Rarer or Young and Rare' and at the bottom is a separate box headed Guest Enthusiast. When we visited this referred to Colin Wynter QC, described as 'an avid collector, a fast talker and a long supporter of Xavier's ventures' and then lists five mature red burgundies and one mature red bordeaux at very fair prices, wines that are out of reach for most restaurateurs.
Rousset has also acquired a strong team, including the French-born Alice Bernigaud, American Devon Pryor, and Londoner Ben Mellor as head chef of the basement kitchen. But the key ingredient in Blandford Comptoir's ongoing success must be the presence of several strong and able- bodied commis waiters.
They are vital because of the steep 14-step staircase, including a sharp 90-degree bend, that separates the kitchen from the customers. Every plate of food must be carried up these stairs on trays – there is no space for a lift or a dumb waiter – and when the food reaches the ground floor the waiter has to scrabble around for a flat surface to rest it on as he comes face to face with either a customer sitting at the white marble bar or a pillar.
These uncomfortable challenges seem to present no problems for Mellor and his team. One side of his menu is headed Raw and comprises half a dozen relatively simple dishes and a couple more complicated ones such as two variations on a seafood platter. On the other side are the cooked dishes.
From these we chose a very well made gazpacho that zinged with flavour thanks to the addition of ginger, basil and lemon grass and a couple of bowls of risotto whose flavour was enhanced with Italian summer truffle. This was followed by my quasi-vegetarian wife putting in a special request for the vegetable option normally served with a rump of lamb. This the kitchen happily accommodated, serving a generous portion of gnocchi, peas and broad beans and only charging two thirds of the listed price for this meat-free variant. Alongside this, we men ordered a strongly flavoured fricasse of octopus, potato and slightly superfluous Kalamata olives alongside a milder combination of scallops and peas served with a fish velouté.
The wine list presents a far wider choice than the menu and we began with a Sancerre with age on it, a 2007 from François Cotat, that was luscious and aromatic. Our plan was to match this with a Loire red wine, a 1983 Chinon from Chaâteau du Ligre, but Bernigaud warned us off this wine and we settled instead for a bottle of Palacios 2002 Villa de Corullón from Bierzo, north-west Spain. This resulted in a bill for three of us of £285 including service, of which £168 went on the wines.
This high percentage went to the heart of one other interesting aspect of why it is good to have Rousset back at the helm of an exciting, new restaurant – his views on wine pricing.
Experience has taught Rousset that customers sit down at any restaurant with a pretty fixed notion of what they intend to spend on wine over a meal. This may vary up or down by up to 10% but never by much more. Blandford Comptoir's, effectively price-banded wine list has been written with this in mind..
Blandford Comptoir 1 Blandford Street, London W1U 3DA; tel +44 (0)20 7935 4626