“There’s a really brilliant new restaurant, you must have been to it”. People are sometimes surprised to find that I haven’t yet been to every restaurant in London, but I have a day job and I like to be able to fit into my clothes without actual pain and not just the unstructured ones.
Social Wine and Tapas (“SWT”) is a case in point. Unless you have been incarcerated for the last six months, you will already know that SWT is the latest in the ever-increasing Atherton empire. It’s a new tapas-based joint in that slightly unlovely bit of Marylebone just off Oxford Street, the tourist trap around the once-desirable St Christopher’s Place.
The place itself is properly gorgeous, designed by the ever-clever Russell Sage Partnership, transforming what was been a characterless office space into something darkly atmospheric and buzzy. Bang-on-trend copper, dark timber and bronze all feature heavily. Laid out on two floors, there are only a few tables upstairs. That holds the wine shop and a raised seating area, opposite the entrance, great for a bit of solitary people-watching.
The tables are tiny for multi-plate tapas and the somewhat cramped feel is not helped by there being nowhere to put a bag or a coat. There are no hooks on the walls. There is no cloakroom. I resorted to stuffing my bag in the open shelving dividing the seating areas. Playing in the background, although not so much in the background as in your face, is an eclectic soundtrack, louder at night, but pitched so that you can (just about) hear yourself speak. Service is brisk and helpful and at lunch it’s easy to be in and out in the hallowed hour, if you order sensibly and if that is something you feel inclined to do.
My first visit saw a glorious pane con tomate, chopped tomatoes on toasted bread, the tomato chunks glistening like jewels, dressed in a good, sharp olive oil. Simple but perfect. Ham croquettes also worked, though I note that on my first visit I was served four, on the second, only two.
You can do the conventional tapas thing, so there are the usual hams and cheeses, though all the cheese is British. We didn’t. Once you stray away from ham and cheese, the dishes sound more Atherton-esque, which is to say they describe fairly complicated assemblies, with a number of modish ingredients scattered throughout. The sharing plates are not what I think of as tapas at all, more sharing plates of mixed ingredients, the sort of thing you might get at many other small plate restaurants; Picture, for example, up the road in Fitzrovia.
Since I was told that to do so was boring and predictable, I have been deliberately ordering various combinations of beetroot and goat’s cheese. In my quest to find an exciting example, this one raises the bar. A drop-dead-gorgeous plating, all bright pinks and oranges, dotted with sairass, which is a delicate, almost-whipped sheep’s milk ricotta and a drizzle of what looked like raspberry sauce, you know, the sort you used to put on a 99. It’s almost as sweet as that raspberry sugar trail and what with the honey-glazed figs this was almost a dessert.
I wouldn’t pair it with the delicately-flavoured curried hake, crisp-fried and turmeric-coated, served with some citrus yogurt and on a bed of confit leek. I really liked this simple combination. I didn’t really like the Cotswold blue egg and confit chicken with spelt, there was too much of that gelatinous stuff going on with the egg and the lukewarm stock made it all a bit too sloppy to enjoy.
Chipirones (deep fried squid) with a pool of deep black squid aioli and lime hit the carb spot, the togarashi pepper giving a little heat. Order it. Once you’ve tried it, you can have the char-grilled 28 day aged steak, topped with chimichurri dressing. Traditionally made with parsley, garlic and oregano and white wine vinegar, chimichurri hails from Argentina, as a topping for steak. C is sniffy about the vinegar and states with some authority that it has no business near steak. What do the Argentinians know about steak, I do not say. I think it tastes good and I like the sharpness. Not for the first time, I feel that I have created a monster.
Desserts are the unexpected highlight; Crema Catalana, infused with blood orange and served with actual orange chunks is perfectly executed, exquisite in fact, the citrus tartness setting off the richness. The salted caramel ice-cream comes in a slightly tricksy cornet, with an individual bottle of butterscotch sauce to drizzle over. It’s so good that C forgives the affectation of the presentation and I eat the sauce with a spoon as there happened to be some left over. I so hate waste, don’t you?
The wines are worthy of special mention even though I didn’t do them justice myself. It really works for the wine enthusiast, with interesting tastings and a wine shop as well as a separate tasting room. Lots of choices by the glass make this a very attractive proposition for an after work snack and drink. Wine and Tapas, perhaps.
The summing up:
I’m not sure I’d really call this a Tapas restaurant. It does have a fair few “traditional” Tapas dishes and on the occasions I visited, those were by far the best things we ate. There are a lot of complicated things on that menu that I wouldn’t describe as Tapas at all. Keeping it simple would be my plan of action, rather than go for the dishes that seem to be there for people who don’t want Tapas as we know it, Tapas Athertonised, which is fine if you know what to expect. It is a welcome addition to an area dominated by mediocrity and with its good easy atmosphere is already fairly busy but (oh joy) they do take reservations. Brave the tourists and leave your shopping elsewhere. There’s nowhere to put it.