Degò: Wine by trade, Italian by nature

Published on The Prodigal Guide on 6th February 2012:

Charcuterie and Franciacorta wine glass at Dego, London

An exploration of wine led me to Degò; an Italian restaurant and wine bar that’s so far removed from its Oxford Circus surroundings it leaves you disorientated.

How do you explain its concept? “Devil’s in the detail” perhaps, which is what might be invoked when your eyes set upon its red and black theme. So potent and masculine is the colour, and all hard wood and sleek granite. Yet, there’s also a hint of femininity – the curvature of the bar upstairs, and elsewhere, all moulded around the glass of Franciacorta. Incidentally this is the sparkling wine, produced via the same method as Champagne, you really ought to indulge in. Degò has chose to stock only Franciacorta by Villa and it stocks it exclusively.

The music in the wine bar, played on a bespoke sound system, always falls in the background facilitating ample conversation. The wine selection, mostly Italian, some French and a generous few exclusive to Degò, paired with the cheese and charcuterie is equally adept. In a rather unusual fashion, the board of cold cuts is served with a sauce of sweet chilli which works surprisingly well with the La Tur.

Stairs, black marble inlaid with red, leads down to the restaurant itself where the theme continues in a more prominent fashion. Breathtaking is probably not the right word for it. Over a thousand panels of red hued leather adorn the walls, creating a womb of shimmery rouge. The low and boothy seats encourage the Casanova position – that is, a sideways seductive recline against the supple leather, one hand supporting the head and the other nursing the wine.

Steak tartare ingredients at Dego, London

And wine is as big an aspect downstairs in the restaurant as it is upstairs in the bar. A fact which was obvious from the wine coolers built into all the tables; a considered design. The food, leaning towards Venetian, is no less important and Degò has been furnished with two AA Rossettes and a place in the Good Food Guide.

The bread platter is plenty and full of choice, but don’t fill up on these. Start with the steak tartare for something a little different. Made to order at the table rather than in the kitchen, the meat is coarsely ground (it’s an Italian thing I’m told) with a perfectly balanced proportion of ingredients. And while good, it doesn’t take your breath away in quite the same manner as the scallops with hazelnut cream and Amarone apples, which looks like a sandy rockpool artfully spilled across the plate. Drink Soave La Broia D.O.C. 2009 Roccolo Grassi for its crisp, balanced lightness.

Scallops with hazelnut cream and Amarone apple at Dego, London

The veal chop serving as a main, though inspired by its Milanese counterpart, is much more generous in its portioning but no less tender. A side of frangipane potatoes, a dusting of lightly spiced crust, is a surprising addition but pairs beautifully with medium rare duck breasts and French beans. Opt this time for a dark and smokey I.G.T. Jeudi 15 2009 Vino di Anna, made by Anna Martens, the wife of Caves de Pyrène’s founder Eric Narioo.

If you can, make room for the Bigoli with duck ragu too. A buckwheat pasta with a rich, gamey sauce will surely leave you feeling wholesome and satisfied. Or indulge in their selection of desserts instead, it will give you the same pleasure.

The chocolate caramel meringue has the ginger sauce to give it a kick, though you might kick yourself for not ordering the rose parfait when romancing – it comes with a single red rose. Therein lies the detail of the whole operation. Call it cheesy if you like but really, it’s just flamboyant Italian.

The inappropriate use of wines

Published on The Prodigal Guide on 4th January 2012:

A couple of months ago I was sent three bottles of Bordeaux by a friend for tasting. The Avery’s Pioneer Range Bordeaux 2009, Chateau Grand Jean Bordeaux Millésime 2009 and Dourthe Reserve Montagne Saint-Emilion 2009, to be precise. Nothing mind-blowing as they say but a fine selection of tipple for every day drinking. Shortly afterwards, another friend sent me a further three bottles of wine as a thank you gift. This time it was a choice selection from the 90 point club – that’s excellent for savouring.

Suddenly I had a small portfolio of enjoyable wines. Some would say that’s pretty good going and yet months later, the wines remained untouched. Until this week, that is.

After much struggle with a new and unfamiliar bottle opener from the Harrod’s Wine Shop, I managed to uncork the Avery. A deep inhalation down its neck was met with pleasure – robust plummy goodness. And then the purple liquor went straight into a measuring jug at 290ml and onto some cubed lamb-soon-to-be-daube waiting expectantly in the Le Creuset for its fruity marinade. The rest, uncorked, went into the fridge. Not a drop touched my lips.

Something similar happened a few months ago.

Shallots diced, parsley chopped, garlic minced and mussels scrubbed, I realised I had no white wine. How was I going to pull together a moules marinière? The Pommery which sat in the corner caught my eye. Swiftly the metal cage was disengaged, the cork wrestled out and the bubbles poured into the pan with the lid replaced firmly. A short while later, I had an indulgent lunch watched disapprovingly by the empty bottle.

Moules Mariniere

For the passionate oenophile, this must seem appalling. But for the avid gastronome? Probably quite appeasing.

My reasoning was this: since I spend much of the week at events, mostly involving some form of drinking, I really ought to curb my enthusiasm when at home. After all, drinking alone was never fashionable. Eating alone, however, was run of the mill business. Weighing up the probability of a guest who would genuinely appreciate the wine against the probability of me seriously enjoying the food, my ravenous hunger won out. I suppose that makes me a better gastronome than an oenophile, when alone at least.

Of course not every meal is as indulgent as the champagne moules marinière. On this lamb occasion, the Avery was chosen for its full fruited body and generous tannins though perhaps more so because I judged it as the lesser drinking wine out of my collection.

As it happens, I was cooking the lamb daube for a friend who had come to photograph me spatchcock a poussin. The perfect opportunity to sample some of that wine you say?

Well a small splash of the leftover Avery was supped with the lamb before it was filed back into the fridge – unfortunately I didn’t have the good sense to serve it at room temperature. Still, the dulled flavours of the chilled wine remained richly plummy and heavily tannic. It was not at its best for drinking but served rather well as a side to the already basked lamb, which my friend appreciated so much more.

See what I mean about probabilities?

And the rest of that bottle of Bordeaux? Well, it’s going into next week’s coq au vin. Naturally.

On food and relationships

Published on The Prodigal Guide on 28th November 2011:

Food writing, it’s a complex game.

For the aspiring, and even established writers, who are desperately trying to charm editors into a commission, it’s not only hard work but also extremely competitive. Equally, though, the food circle is very small and winds tighter and tighter the closer you come to the fore. Everyone seems to know everyone else in this industry and, as a consequence, everyone else’s business too.

I often wondered what one might read on the rags of a Gossip Girl equivalent of this little incestuous crowd. Judging by what one hears on the grapevine, it’s detrimentally scandalous. Thankfully, no such column has been penned. Yet.

Of course that is not to say the subtleties of relationships haven’t escaped into writings here and there. Indeed, on these very pages and elsewhere, Douglas Blyde wrote of our fleeting encounter during the summer months. But like the chilled champagne served during that lukewarm season, the bubbles dissolved as they surfaced and quickly fizzled out. And at the end of it, a teased palate was left unsatisfied – because when two hungry gourmets collided, the explosion was gastronomical.

The intricacies of navigating a post-love battlefield are always delicate, but it’s even more so when all paths in the small space afforded eventually lead to heart-mines. Faced with the omnipresence of these reminders, I got thinking about food and relationships.

While my own recent forays into this connection has been a romantic one, it isn’t the rule across the board. Certainly, it wasn’t why I got into food in the first place – my love of eating did that.

For chefs in particular, the link has been mostly inter-generational and apparently patriarchally skewed. Nigel Slater got into food because he wanted to please his father; Allegra McEvedy started cheffing following the advice of her father; and Simon Hulstone probably wouldn’t have competed in the Bocuse d’Or if it wasn’t for the competitive streak instilled in him by his father, who at one time was also a competition chef.

And there are many chefs with fathers in the industry like Dominic Chapman, Henry Harris and Alain Roux; the list goes on.

Then there’s all the ways that our relationships in food have influenced our cooking style. There’s Cass Titcomb of Canteen who was always brought up on the best of British and that’s filtered through to the menu served across their five venues in London. Or Jun Tanaka of Pearl, a Japanese chef known for his French style, who started by working through all of his father’s top rated restaurants, all of which were French.

And that’s just about chefs. What about academics? Politicians? Artists?

It seems that food and relationships is a subject so fertile that a bare few hundred words would not do it justice. So while the seed of this idea is sown here, I will ruminate over what grows from it in the columns which will faithfully follow.