30 Days Without Restaurants : week 1 (and a bit)

Well, one and a half weeks in, it’s all going rather smugly well. Whether this is due to the large and generous Ocado orders or the rampant plundering of the overstocked cellar, I couldn’t possibly say, but we’re certainly heading in the right direction.

Major positives:
- cooking things like this:

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And this:

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And this:

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And this:

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all in one week. I’m finally cooking a few new recipes properly instead of relying on the old favourites or half-arsed versions of things made too late, too drunk and with too few of the right ingredients. Last night’s Chicken Pappardelle from the new Bill Granger italian book was a particular result in the FRICKING DELICIOUS department.

- spending less money generally. Unexpected result – making myself avoid spending £40 on an average meal of a weekday evening has made me think seriously about all other spend. It hasn’t avoided the Oyster fares and the odd £4 pint but it’s made me think twice about a quick post-work trip to Cos or an Amazon splurge.

- spending more time in with my husband. Whether ‘awwww’ or ‘bleuuuurgh’, this has genuinely been a really nice side effect. We’re both taking more time to cook, spend time making our flat a nice place, and generally hanging out in the evening, which just has to be a Good Thing.

Major Negatives:

- drinking our way through the cellar. After months of complaining that we’re not making any headway brought our overstocked cellar, we’re now powering through it at an alarming rate. So as well as cracking too many bottles of youthful Nebbiolo, I’m also using staying in as an excuse to get stuck in most nights. Truly, staying in more has led to a distinct upturn in consumption. It’s not that I need a drink to have a good evening in, but the novelty of having my own cellar and drinks cabinet on tap every night hasn’t yet worn off. Add to that the change in dynamic – before, a night in was a rare opportunity to sit one out, to have a welcome night off, an evening of mint tea and steamed greens. Now that every night is a night in, it’s significantly harder to draw those boundaries, so essentially my mind and body have reached the conclusion that EVERY NIGHT IS FUN NIGHT. This is not a sustainable situation.

- that’s kind of it. Genuinely quite enjoying the whole thing, apart from the odd moment, usually post-pub, where the strength required to fight the takeaway compulsion is superhuman. Also, knowing that this is only for a month is a godsend, I make no promises about my behaviour and bank balance come May.

Austerity April

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In lieu of lent, I’m signing up for Austerity April. This isn’t a thing, it’s not sponsored, it’s not for any social, spiritual or meaningful reason, other than absolute lack of cash. Don’t panic, I’m not exactly out on the streets, but having gone from a steady sales job to a part-time marketing role with a bit of minimum wage bar work thrown in, my incomings have changed relatively dramatically, whereas my outgoings are taking a while to catch up.

 

With no wish to exaggerate, mine and my husband’s one major financial downfall is eating out. There’s no getting away from it, we are food people. We live and work in London and are soldered to the very heart of its restaurant trade. We’ve fallen into the very tasty trap of eating out almost as a foregone conclusion. I used to be much more of a home cook, but working in the wine and hospitality business means I love nothing more than inhabiting it in my time off, and my husband’s work as a lifestyle journalist and editor puts him right in the centre of London’s restaurant scene.

 

We embrace restaurants without prejudice. We love regular Byron burgers, our local Sicilian pizzeria, Ten Ten Tei in Soho for kid-ourselves-healthy rice bowls & sake, taking advantage of my staff discount in Vinoteca wherever possible, Brasserie Zedel for a quick cocktail and choucroute, the Ledbury or Chiltern Firehouse for a birthday treat, and 10 Greek Street as often as humanly possible. And this all has to stop. Not forever, just for a bit. For a month. 30 days without paying to eat out. Obviously there’ll be the odd press meals or work things which I’m not going to turn down because FREE FOOD, but other than that, it’s time to dive into domestic dining, bust out the bangers & mash, and cash in on the casserole.

 

File this right under middle class crises / first world problems as you will, but here we go. 30 days without restaurants. This is serious shit.  20140331-232218.jpg(Our last meal out for 30 days. Crikey.)

 

…elsewhere

Let’s be honest. This blog has become infrequent to nonexistent. This is largely because I’m now blogging, writing and tweeting for Vinoteca as their Head of Communications (in, lest we forget, a department of one).

Recent (vaguely) drinking-based blogs can be read here, I might start using this as a platform to go in a few different directions. Or I’ll half-heartedly post something about booze every couple of months – let’s wait and see.

In the meantime, please follow my Instagram on the left hand sidebar (or bottom of page if you’re reading this on tablet) or @boozeismymuse for most recent drinking and eating updates, and thank you for past, present or future reading.

…to round off 2013 and starting the new year as I mean to go on.

A very happy new year to everyone. It really IS a very happy new year here at Last Night I Drank. I am now a contributor to GQ Magazine (starting with a piece on a new English Vermouth on the front page of their food and drink section in the February issue – out now, with a big picture of Michael Fassbender on the front) and am working with them on a book project for later in the year, certainly more details to follow on that. I’m still having a brilliant time working at Vinoteca Soho, am working on some musical bits and bobs, have a few other irons warming nicely, and overall am really quite vehemently delighted with life.

All of the above has meant the blog has taken a bit of a back seat which a) I’m hoping to remedy in 2014 and b) means that I’m going to post much of the last month’s drinking in one go below. I’m hoping that pictures really ARE worth a thousand words, because I’m going to give you far more of the former than the latter.

So, in a roughly sensible order:

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This was ‘a cocktail’ at a very cool new bar in Camberwell called Communion, arranged by my very finger-on-the-pulse friend Lindsey. It’s a great place, totally unexpected and suitably dark and crypt-like. It’s ‘a cocktail’ because I can’t unfortunately remember what it was – the evening confirmed to me yet again (though, as evidenced, not for want of trying) I’m yet to find a new cocktail to make it in to my limited repertoire of favourites. After this one, I switched back to a Manhattan.

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Incredible food at Silk Road in Camberwell, after Communion. Plenteous, warming and almost illegally cheap.

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Some warm sake at Bone Daddies. This was a much-needed break in a day of solo Christmas shopping. I can confirm that a bowl of tonkotsu and a beaker of sake is EXACTLY right to warm the freezing stomach and ease the aching wallet.

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A mid-double-shift ice cream from Gelupo. I don’t do many double shifts as I’m only a part-timer. The cons of a very long working day are almost entirely offset by having the perfect excuse to have a mid-afternoon lunch in Soho. This was about a week before Christmas so I rounded my lunch off with some Nutmeggnog (yes, actually) gelato, the coldest Christmassy thing in existence.

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I can’t remember exactly when I opened this but it must have been just a few days before Christmas as that’s the only time I made mince pies, and there they are, next to a bottle of the stunning Vajra Barbera. It’s bottles like this that remind me I don’t always want a heavy, spicy wine in winter – sometimes I want to be uplifted out of the cold gloom with a glass of berry purity. This was perfect – juicy, precise, balanced and mouth-watering.

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Champagne in the Bassoon Bar at the Corinthia Hotel on Christmas Eve. We had a London Christmas on our own for the first time, and this bit was particularly good. I think I may have genuinely found my favourite London bar. Old school, relaxed, calm, proper. Looking at that list, sort of everything that I am not. Which is probably why I love it.

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I love it so much that here is another picture of it.

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Then we went onto Berners Tavern, a place that is so gilded and warm and festive, I imagine it feels like Christmas even when it’s not. The food was good (starters superb, mains disappointing), the wine was alright (hard to find much of interest/value under £40/50) but I would definitely go back just for the room alone. I mean JUST LOOK AT IT.

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This was the drinking of the week or so around Christmas, including the day itself. The highlight was undoubtedly and slightly surprisingly the Crystallum 2009 Clay Shales Chardonnay. God, it was good. The clarity and sunshine of Chardonnay at its most joyful, but at the same time restrained and elegant. Seriously, this blew me away. All the Crystallum wines are excellent, I would really recommend looking out for them – a great representation of the new face of premium South African wine.

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What I was drinking in early January. There are many deceptively tasty green smoothies. This was not one of them. I desperately need a more nutrient-heavy diet but there is no chance it will be coming through the medium of this.

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Beers and a small sipping tequila for a family lunch at Wahaca on the southbank. There are few places where three generations of my family, including a two nephews under seven, one with a serious dairy allergy, could all be fed, watered and kept happy, and this entirely did the trick. Tasty, fresh food, good drinks, and really friendly service. A winner.

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A red vermouth I tasted at Toast in East Dulwich when I was researching a piece. Yep, this drinks writing lark really is as fun as it sounds.

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A 500ml bottle of takeaway wine from Toast. They have their own house white and red in tank that you can buy in re-usable bottles at ridiculously good value prices and in very handy sizes. The red was excellent (a Southern French blend I believe) and I’ll be going back for more.

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A grapefruit spritz at Boopshi’s, a new Schnitzel and Spritz restaurant just off Charlotte Street. They have a great-looking bar downstairs which I want to go back and visit for a few more of these. After which I will attempt to say ‘Schnitzel and Spritz’.

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Another Toast triumph (what with buying my dad’s Christmas present there too, it did very well for me over the last few weeks) – two moderately priced Northern Italian wines to continue the theme of pure, fruit-driven reds to counteract the grey, miserable weather. One and a half of them have been drunk so far, can report only good things.

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And finally, not sure why this has uploaded at the end. This was just one of the wines I tried at a tasting evening at the Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a new wine bar in Neal’s Yard. Covent garden. Although I’m not sure it’s entirely my kind of place, I think it’s absolutely beautiful (owned by the same people as the Experimental Cocktail Clubs and just as stunningly furnished) and quite thrilling to have a stylish destination bar in which to drink such brilliant, interesting wines. It’s not cheap but that’s more to do with their choice to make the list premium, the wines they’ve selected are actually quite sensibly priced. If £13 for a cocktail in a plush bar is just part of a swanky night out, then I think £10 for a glass of well-chosen wine in perfect condition should be just another option. More places to drink more wines with more choice of atmosphere and surroundings is never a bad thing and I’m sure they’ll do very well.

…professionally once more

I recently left my job for many reasons, one of which being that after working constantly since I left university ten years ago without even a two week holiday in that time, I was knackered. There were also significantly more sensible reasons like wanting to write more, wanting to sing more, and wanting to just take a bit of time to explore where I wanted to go next in the drinks trade.

It turns out that I really don’t like not having a job so, after a few weeks of going on honeymoon, catching up with friends, watching multiple box sets as they should be watched (in sessions of several hours while wearing pyjamas) I managed to get myself a few shifts a week at the brilliant Vinoteca in Soho.

I’ve blogged about it before but that was mainly about my obsession with the interiors, particularly the apple green leather banquettes, so perhaps not with as much focus on the wine as it deserves (not to do down the banquettes – I now see them three or four times a week and the obsession shows no signs of abating). It’s a fantastic place to work due to the staff, atmosphere and general buzz, as well as having a fascinating selection of wines, around 25 of which are by the glass at any one time. I won’t pretend it’s easy going back to high energy bar shifts at the age of 32 after 6 years of office jobs, but it’s worth every late night and moment of creaky knees.

Just a handful of the extraordinary wines I have got to know in the last two weeks by working in a great bar include:
2011 Costieres de Nimes Blanc, Mas des Bressades – Rhone, France
2012 Naoussa ‘Young Vines’, Thymiopolous – Macedonia, Greece
2012 Fiano do Puglia, Mezzogiorno – Puglia, Italy
2009 Verdelho ‘Maranoa’, David Traeger – Victoria, Australia
2013 Puritan Shiraz, Battle of Bosworth – Mclaren Vale, Australia
2010 Crozes Hermitage ‘Champ Morel’, Martine Vandré – Rhone, France
2011 Element 20, Litmus – Surrey, England
2012 Terra Alta Garnacha Blanca, La Multa – Catalunya, Spain
2011 Fitou ‘Jean de Pila’, Domaine de Roudènes – Languedoc, France

All of these are interesting delicious and excellent value – I’d happily recommend any of them.

Other things I have got to know in the last two weeks by working in a great bar include:
- However tired you are after a shift which finishes around 1am, you will need to stay up for at least an hour and a quarter watching stupid television and eating inappropriate foodstuffs when you finally get home. This will hit a low point at Ryvita spread thickly with butter when the cupboard is bare, but occasionally peak with things like leftover Crispy Duck pancakes and your own body weight in Green and Blacks Sea Salt Milk Chocolate.
- Central London at 2am on a Saturday night is like rush hour. For drunk people.
- Bar work is the mortal enemy of nice looking nails. My hands have, in the course of two weeks, started to resemble those of a 70 year old Mongolian potato farmer. I have since discovered Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve and cannot recommend it enough to combat the potato farmer-ness.
- People continue to surprise you constantly. The general public is a non-stop source of entertainment and fascination.
- Spending time recommending a wine to someone then later being told how much they loved it just never gets old.
- Serving wine to other people for 8 hours does not make you want to drink wine less.

More insights into the world of the wine bar to come, as well as what I’ve been drinking in my own time (clue – there may be a large overlap with the above list. I get a staff discount at Vinoteca and have been not just using it, but abusing it.)

…conclusively

A couple of weeks ago, I invited a few friends over to taste eight different gins and nine separate tonics.

This may not sound like your idea of a good time, but if that’s really true, I doubt you’d be reading this. It’s much more likely (and just better) that you’re immediately intrigued and thirsty.

The main point of the evening was to judge blind whether there was serious significant difference between own brand, Schweppes and Fever Tree tonics (the Primark, premium High Street and Couture options of tonic, if you will) with time for blind gin preference discovery on the side. The tonic fest was financially driven – time and time again I find myself paralysed by the choice between the bargainous and the supposedly gourmet. It’s a choice I’m happy to make with wine, beer and spirits (often tending boringly toward the latter) but somehow with tonic I feel utterly the confused consumer, panicking about whether a couple of pounds will truly mean the difference between a decent drink and a great one.
Although our conclusions got a little hazier towards the end of the evening, (an early tasting note reads “herbal and aromatic – really like this, spicy hints as well. Elegant, complex, savoury” in comparison to a later extract which is as follows: “ok. Juniper. Bit drunk now”) it was really clear to see just how much difference tonic made to the drink.

Schweppes is king; that was well and truly proven. Waitrose own brand is the best Schweppes imitation and had the best slimline if you prefer the taste of full-fat tonic but you’re trying to save on the sugar/calories. Fevertree is really delicious and clearly a more complex drink, but that’s just it – it’s a bit of an attention seeker which takes much of the focus away from the gin itself.

Ginwise, it was clear that ones choice should be a stylistic and momentary decision. The surprise of the evening was how none of the gins fell below a basic standard of ‘tasty’, even the Beefeater which in all of our minds had been a bit of a budget choice. And best, or certainly most intriguing flavour, of the night was a completely new discovery called Berkeley Square, a premium London gin which none of us had previously heard of. Very herbal and savoury, this had a really serious, grown-up character which I loved and will be revisiting regularly.

As to fruit and other garnishes (juniper berries, cucumber etc), it’s laughable to think we could have managed any other layers of complexity, even while sober. Lemon, lime, grapefruit, bayleaf or mint leaf, I’d be interested to hear what addition floats your g&t boat.

…in the USA

Well, it really has been an eventful few weeks in reality, if not on this blog. I’ve left my job (hence the change of blog subtitle for the hawk-eyed among you), been on honeymoon, and begun a temporary period of freelance unemployment. 

Choosing between those, the honeymoon is certainly the most interesting for drinking opportunities (although what freelance unemployment fails to provide in beer money, it more than makes up for in ‘hours during the day where there are no actual forces stopping you drinking other than societal norms and risk of Proper Alcoholism’).

We went on a two week road trip around the South Eastern states of the USA, flying in and out of New Orleans then hitting Memphis, Nashville, Savannah and the Florida Coast. 
I’ve posted an edited and filtered (literally) selection of some of the most photogenic bits here – incidentally my Instagram page is where I allow myself to be one of those gross people who posts pictures of things that make their life look like one nonstop whirl of glitz and glamour. Luckily for all of us, loyal reader, you know that for each glass of champagne there is a can of Red Stripe and for each night of negronis, there are two of teetotalism. They just don’t make for as pretty a picture.

I’ve been to America lots. I love it. It’s massive and weird and large parts of the population have really odd ideas about human rights, but when it’s good it’s fantastic. Whenever I go, I drink cocktails and beers – even though the exchange rate is nowhere near as exciting as it was five or ten years ago, they still both offer good value and there’s a variety, wealth and basic quality that beats the UK hands down. 

Yes, excellent craft beers are available in the uk now, but not yet to the extent of every single establishment from swanky hotel bars through old fashioned restaurants with doily tablecloths to grubby dive bars all having three or four local ales on tap, all of which are a completely different selection from the place next door. Obviously this is a vastly generalised and rosy picture, and luckily I really go for the hoppy, tropical, complex, concentrated flavours of the American style of pale ale, so it’s kind of a done deal.

The cocktails also win hands down – the USA understands hard liquor. It doesn’t shy away from it. It pours it freely and generously, whether into a six buck margarita in a plastic cup in a honky tonk bar or a hotel $15 manhattan, served in a glass the size of a punch bowl, perfectly chilled, perfectly dry and hitting spots you didn’t know you had. 

The South just confirmed the impression and the palate I already had from previous USA trips - we dabbled in wine but it was, with the exception of a superb Stags Leap Chardonnay, disappointing, dull and frequently corked. 

I could write an entire blog about the food – that is to say I have enough material and inspiration, but because I’ve never been and never wanted to be a food writer I’ll stick with a summary of deep fried oysters, pulled pork, barbecue ribs, and a noticeable and wildly successful Italian/Southern fusion which seems to be happening in New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville. 

As disappointingly cliched as it may be, the only thing better on our return than cracking open a perfectly kept and fruity Barbera from the cellar was a nice cup of tea. It was good to be away, but it’s great to be back.

…some new discoveries and at some old favourites

It’s me! I’m back! And drinking! Yes, the boredom of my bizarro stomach continues, but I’ve managed a few drinks in-between, namely:

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Dinner at the ever wonderful Quality Chop House. They have named themselves so very aptly – another top quality evening where, despite having a set menu, they looked after my annoying dietary requirements like it was the easiest thing in the world. Also still a brilliant wine list with lots of unusual bargains and, guaranteed to please me in particular, two affordable and delicious lighter reds, still such an under-represented area on so many wine lists. (I am aware there’s only a picture of one of them. I OF COURSE now have absolutely no memory of the other one. You see, this is seriously why I started taking pictures and blogging, because of my godawful memory. The other one was possibly / probably a Barbera, and whatever it was, it was absolutely lovely)

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A new addition to the Liberty Wines portfolio – this phenomenally tasty honey beer, coming soon to all good booze purveyors near you. A far cry from the volume-produced Honeydew, this is a seriously hand-made, quality drink which uses beer from tiny honey producers from London and rural areas to make a beer which, well, really tastes of honey. Hannah, the owner and brewer, gave us such a vivid description of the food matches while we were tasting it that it left the entire sales team with a violent craving for salted cashews and manchego cheese for hours afterwards.

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Beers at Shoryu. Everyone raved about this place a few months ago and its main selling point is the ramen – proper Japanese bowls of steaming broth with noodles. I love a noodly broth anytime, particularly when it feels like it’s the best possible thing for my health. Possibly less good for my health was this beer, albeit the teeny tiny one on the right.

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Lunch and wines at 10 Greek Street for my team leaving lunch. Yes, after an incredible six and a half years I am leaving the warm, alcoholic bosom of Liberty Wines to go in a slightly different direction. Worry not, this blog (and my wide-ranging drinking) will continue apace. Although I wasn’t drinking much (still not a fan of the boozy lunch after eight years in the trade. It’s pathetic, but I just can’t face that slightly fuzzy, over-full afternoon feeling and premature hangover. And if I tried the drinking-through technique, I think I would actually die.) the wines were typically superb. It remains without doubt the best value place to drink excellent wine in Soho, possibly in the whole of London. Nyetimber Rose 2009 is an incredible start to any meal – one of the classiest English sparkling wines, this was a surprisingly vivid vintage pink, with really good intensity of flavour and berry fruit. You can buy it from various online and independent merchants including Slurp or, handily, from Waitrose if they have stocks. The red was a wine I’ve never even heard of before – a fascinating Schioppettino di Cialla, an unusual red from the North of Italy. Probably not to be found at Waitrose any time soon, but definitely worth a try if you see it anywhere. All in all, a terrific send-off, I should really leave my job more often.

…not a lot.

There will now be a brief break in service. To use an anatomically confusing analogy, my stomach has gone tits up again. I am therefore eating solely rice cakes, chicken breast, avocado and yoghurt, and mainly drinking water and green tea.

 

I have no doubt that there are many writers who could make even this the stuff of gripping prose, but unfortunately the above diet combined with generally feeling crappy means that I can barely summon communication at the most basic level, so I will have to temporarily sign off.

 

Please check back in soon for either wistful reading round-ups or, I hope, actual drinking.

… like a wealthy wino

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I am currently living the life of someone with a different bank balance and a different digestive health. This has to stop. In the last two weeks I’ve eaten at Holbeck Ghyll and L’Enclume in the Lake District, The Ledbury, Le Caprice, and, to avoid any accusations of high-end bias, The Archduke in Waterloo, Dragon Castle off the Elephant roundabout, Tandoori Nights of East Dulwich and numerous Lakeland pubs.

Too many incredible drinks to mention in detail, but here’s a snapshot.

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Summer Pimms – Judging by how beautiful the bottle is, this should be delicious (IS THAT NOT HOW IT WORKS?). Sadly, it tasted like Red Bull.

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Coppi Sant Andrea Barbera 2010 – Judging by how beautiful the bottle is, this should be delicious. And it is. (HA! I TOLD YOU THAT WAS HOW IT WORKED). It seriously started me on a Barbera-fest, continued at the Ledbury and Le Caprice. And to be continued all the way into our cellar.

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Champagne outside Holbeck Ghyll – This was unreal. Sunshine in the Lakes is rare enough, but having a pre-prandial glass of champagne in the sun with this setting was just a massive treat. Lovely food here and a very old-school country house atmosphere.

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Wine list at L’Enclume – without exception, the best list of Wines by the Glass I’ve ever seen in any kind of restaurant. Every single thing is intriguing, not obvious, food friendly and the sort of thing you’d rarely see on a bottle list, let alone available by the glass.

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Gut Oggau Atanasius at L’Enclume – this was great. And a drawing of Andy Murray* on the front? Amazing.

*may not actually be Andy Murray

ImageGusbourne Chardonnay at L’Enclume – this, however, took amazing to another level. This is one of my favourite Chardonnays EVER. I have since tracked it down and ordered an entire case. It’s from England. It is an English Chardonnay. It’s proper cash, but I’ve tried English table (still) wines just a few quid cheaper than this and they never made me even want to finish the glass, let alone fill my wine rack.

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Tenacious Ted – just one of the astoundingly good local beers we drank, some on tap, some in bottle. Drank lots, photographed little. Apart from this, apparently after a few bottles of it.

Wines from Ledbury – another great wine list with surprisingly good value in the ‘interesting, quirky wines around the £30-40 mark’ for a London 2* restaurant. This was a fascinating Grauburgender and a delicious Barbera. (I HAVE TEMPORARILY MISLAID THIS PICTURE. MUST BE ALL THE DRINKING.)

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Cocktail at Caprice – Cucumber Martini to start. Because why not? Also, JUST the amount of dicking about that I can take with a cocktail, and obscenely refreshing.

On Wednesday, before some much needed health and sobriety, I thought I’d top it all off (and just top my liver) with an evening at the Great British Beer Festival. I go nearly every year with a group of friends AND one of them had just got engaged so it would literally have been rude not to.

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Phew. Please bear in mind that all of this is over the course of three weeks, and refrain from calling an ambulance / The Priory for me.

However, please don’t hold back from calling my bank and telling them it’s just a minor glitch. Thanks very much.

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