The British incarnation of Chez Panisse and Kermit Lynch
There are very few bars or restaurants in the world where I could order any wine from the menu and be certain to love it, but at Noble Rot in London’s Bloomsbury, I can. Co-founders Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew also publish a four-monthly wine and food magazine of the same name that was their stepping stone in the world of wine and gastronomy. It now has almost cult status. Last year they expanded their mini-empire with the opening of a second restaurant in Soho and the publication of a book. The most recent addition is a wine shop across the street from their first restaurant. This was enough reason to head over to Lamb’s Conduit Street, where I spoke with co-founder and artistic mastermind Dan Keeling.
The Noble Rot family may now consist of multiple members, but back in 2013 Dan Keeling’s first venture into wine was the magazine. He and his business partner Mark Andrew, a Master of Wine, started the magazine to fill a gap in the otherwise large offering of English publications. As Dan says, most of them were too dry, too technical, verging on the academic. He and Mark aspired to a more accessible style, with humour, but insightful. “We want our readers to smile, it should be entertaining,” Dan explains. “We find it important to show and preserve the diversity of European wine, which we do by telling the stories of winemakers, wine styles and wine regions.” Issue 26 testifies to that with compelling, well-written and entertaining stories of, for example, Domaine Trimbach’s quintessential Alsatian Riesling Frédéric Emile, and a wine lover’s guide to Iran (by Norwegian food writer Andreas Viestad).
But Noble Rot isn’t a wine-only magazine – it combines wine with food, and it must have been among the first that integrated art into the concept as well. Why? Eating a preternatural dish, drinking an unearthly good glass of wine, hearing a gripping song or discovering an eye-opening piece of art can all be life-affirming experiences. Most wine lovers like good food and the arts too, as Dan says, and Noble Rot is catering for all these needs. With 4000 subscribers and 5000 additional issues sold through their stockists, it may not be as big as other publications, but with its approach and edgy design – Dan is the Art Director – it attracts a broad readership, consisting of people with a penchant for fine wine in all age brackets around the globe.
Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling
Over the years many luminaries from all walks of life, even without any noteworthy link to wine, have made it onto the pages of Noble Rot. Most recently Grayson and Philippa Perry (the eccentric, drag-loving artist and his psychotherapist wife) were interviewed. But most, like the physicist and wine lover Brian Cox and the novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney, have closer ties to the vinous world. Although there are still people who are surprised by the broad, eclectic range of topics, the magazine is primarily about food and wine. “Roughly 50/50,” says Dan.
You may sometimes forget it, but fine wine and food is a niche product. And writing about it may well be an even more specialist field of work, from which it isn’t easy to make a living. So, after combining wine and food writing with their regular day job, Dan in music and Mark in wine, they decided to open a bar and restaurant where they could sell the wines they love and beef up their income, before quitting their ‘normal’ jobs.
Finding a good location for the restaurant, also named Noble Rot, wasn’t easy. Historical real estate, especially in East London, is a scarce commodity. But eventually a deal could be closed for a site on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury that ticked all the boxes: an old building, with a bar area and a working fireplace in the front and space for dining tables in the back.
The food philosophy is vino-centric: the food has to be delicious and wine-friendly; the wine has to accentuate the food. Stephen Harris, the chef-patron of Britain’s supposedly best gastropub, the Sportsman in Seasalter (Kent), became the restaurant’s chief adviser. English/northern French in style, Dan describes its cuisine as franglaise. But things aren’t too prescriptive. I had, for instance, a creamy soft, but just chewy and textured enough Italian burrata, which was, admittedly, served with good old English peas and mint. Quality of produce is key; complicated, pretentious preparations and ostentatious prestation are shunned. Classic dishes like roast lamb in green sauce or a grilled Cornish lobster set the tone.
Noble Rot, Lambs Conduit Street
In September last year, Dan and Mark opened a second restaurant in Soho. The former Gay Hussar (now Noble Rot Soho) is steeped in British history, although apparently more for its clientele – among them many politicians – than for its gastronomical wizardry. The intimate interior is carefully restored to maintain its old ambiance: the original brown leather upholstered benches and dark green panelling line the walls on both sides. In the small upstairs dining room a tryptich of Greek Street at the Gay Hussar is mirrored by a tryptich of Greek Street at Noble Rot, both by political cartoonist Martin Rowson. Thankfully, there wasn’t any music. The animatedly chatting patrons provided the perfect auditory backdrop.
Started off as a Hungarian haunt in the 1950s, history lives on with an occasional small digression into Magyar cuisine (goulash last winter, choux bun with duck liver parfait and Tokaji jelly now), but the cuisine is mainly southern French and northern Italian. The creamy, saucy (but not runny) vincisgrassi (a type of pasta from Le Marche reminiscent of lasagna) with porcini and sprinkled with shaved truffle was a gluttonous luxurious highlight. And while I write this, the Soho wine list contains no less than five Hungarian wines by the glass or on Coravin, among which a lightly blossomy and smoky Furmint, Hárslevelű and Welschriesling blend from Moric and Kis, a Kékfrankos (or Blaufränkisch, from Franz Weninger), a Tokaji Aszu 5 puttonyos (from Megyer) and even a 1993 Tokaji Aszu Essencia (from Royal Tokaji, for £100 per glass), which aren’t available at Lamb’s Conduit Street.
As if two restaurants and a magazine weren’t enough, this autumn a wine shop was added to the roster of Keeling and Andrew’s ventures. As many diners want to drink those wines at home that they liked so much at the restaurant, it seems to make commercial sense. On the flipside, there will be people who are put off by the mark-up in the restaurant, which, as far as I can judge, is quite reasonable.
The wine selection in the shop and the combined restaurants is absolutely mind-boggling, in quantity and quality. Despite limitations in availability, offering wines in the upper segment is relatively easy. The hard bit, as Dan explains, is to find fantastic wines for a friendly price. But here they succeed too. I was blown away, for instance, by the Piteira, a talha or amphora wine from the Portuguese winery Encostas do Alqueva. It has complexity, soft acidity and a lightly grippy texture, all for just five quid per glass. Although the vast variety of wines on offer (both by the glass, on Coravin and by the bottle) may be daunting for some, others (and I include myself in this category) will feel like a kid in a candy store. While I normally prefer to drink one bottle of wine throughout a meal, at Noble Rot I lose myself in sampling new producers, new varieties, new vintages or appellations I never visited. It has led, for example, to a renewed appreciation of white Bordeaux (through Domaine de Chevalier) and the rediscovery of Chenin Blanc (Mullineux, Guiberteau). I admit my picks are not always the best match with what is on my plate, but that is beside the point. It is about exploration and the excitement of what’s new – and all wines, regardless of the price tag, are good – at worst.
So, obviously, the question arises how Keeling and Andrew, to paraphrase the title of their book, curate this collection of “wine from another galaxy”. Keeling shrugs lightly and says: “Taste a lot”. As true as this may be, there is more to it. They seek out those artisanal producers, who treasure old vines and old indigenous varieties, whose wines are vinified using ambient yeast, and aren’t normally fined or filtered. They aren’t fussy about a smidgen of sulphite. More importantly, the wines must have finesse and drinkability and are typically low in alcohol.
Sitting back and contemplating on the wines I imbibed and the dishes I devoured at both Noble Rot restaurants, it dawns on me that Dan and Andrew forged something like an amalgamation and a European incarnation of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and Kermit Lynch’s eponymous wine import and retail business in Berkeley, California. When I ask Dan if he sees that as a compliment or a backhanded insult, he says he finds it an honour to be standing in the lineage of these illustrious and ground breaking persons. Especially Lynch, both in his wine philosophy and his writing, has always been an example for Keeling and Andrew. Although both Waters and Lynch are Americans, and therefore, as Dan says, “different in their sensibilities than the English”, they are Euro-centric like themselves. And indeed they have largely overlapping ideas about what constitutes good food and wine.
On my way back to the underground I drop in at the small new shop, Shrine to the Vine. Ingesting the collection, bottle after bottle, I realise once again, how phenomenal and spot-on their joint palate is. And despite my inclination to try out new restaurants before returning to ‘old’ ones, I know I will be back at Noble Rot to further explore the depth and breadth of their ridiculously good wine selection.
A version of this article (in Norwegian) has been published in Apéritif (December 2021)