Blandford Comptoir, just off the increasingly fashionable Marylebone High Street, opened only a month ago but already has a very London feel about it.
There was a table of two French couples in their early thirties drinking a bottle of French wine. By the open window were a couple of Asian diners enjoying one of the numerous fairly priced mature wines from the list. And closest to our corner table were two Americans, in finance judging by their keen conversation about JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon, and equally keen on their food and wine. They asked to see the wine list for a second time just before their main courses, a rib-eye of Fassone beef and a duck breast with ravioli and figs.
Their dialogue with the waiter revealed one reason for this restaurant’s apparently immediate confidence. One of them explained that he had decided to book as soon as he heard that its founder, Xavier Rousset, was opening another restaurant.
Rousset is a Frenchman who has spent the past 18 years working his way towards commercial independence in the UK. During that time he has worked as head sommelier for Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford and later for the Hotel du Vin chain; become the world’s youngest Master Sommelier; and opened Texture on Portman Street with chef Agnar Sverisson, with whom he has also launched the more informal 28º-50º Wine Workshop & Kitchen restaurants.
Over the years Rousset has 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. On the last page of the latest Rousset wine list, therefore, is a section headed “Guest Enthusiast”. When we visited, this referred to wines obtained from Colin Wynter QC, described as “an avid collector, a fast talker and a long supporter of Xavier’s ventures”. It listed five mature red Burgundies and one mature red Bordeaux — wines that are out of reach for most restaurateurs — at very fair prices.
Rousset has also assembled a strong team that includes the French-born Alice Bernigaud, American Devon Pryor and Londoner Ben Mellor as head chef. But the other key ingredient in Blandford Comptoir’s success must be the presence of several strong and able-bodied commis waiters. They are vital because of the restaurant’s steep staircase, which has a 90-degree bend separating 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.
One side of Mellor’s menu is headed “Raw” and comprises half a dozen relatively simple dishes and a couple more complicated ones, including two variations on a seafood platter. On the other are the cooked dishes.
From these we chose a gazpacho that zinged with flavour thanks to the addition of ginger, basil and lemon grass, and a risotto whose flavour was enhanced with Italian summer truffle. When my “quasi-vegetarian” wife put in a special request for the vegetable dish normally served with a rump of lamb, the kitchen happily accommodated us, serving a generous portion of gnocchi, peas and broad beans and charging only two-thirds of the listed price. Meanwhile, we men ordered a strongly flavoured fricassée of octopus, potato and slightly superfluous Kalamata olives, alongside a milder combination of scallops and peas with 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 Château du Ligre, but Bernigaud steered us instead towards a bottle of Palacios 2002 Villa de Corullón from Bierzo, north-west Spain. This resulted in a bill for the three of us of £285 including service, of which £168 went on the wines.
This high percentage goes to the heart of another interesting aspect of Rousset’s approach — his views on wine pricing.
Experience has taught him that customers sit down with a pretty fixed notion of what they intend to spend on wine. This may vary up or down by as much as 10 per cent, but never by much more. Blandford Comptoir’s wine list has extremely good selections to match whatever figure the customer has in mind.
More columns at ft.com/lander
1 Blandford Street, London W1U 3DA; 020 7935 4626; blandford-comptoir.co.uk
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