James Street, a bustling drag off Oxford Street, is a funny place to open a good restaurant. It’s packed with chains and clip joints for tourists, where hustlers actually stand outside trying to solicit custom as if they were in a gruesome holiday resort like Agios Nikolaos.
Yet at the top end it almost reaches the sophistications of Marylebone, Wigmore Hall and Daunts bookshop, and it’s here that Jason Atherton has launched his most pleasing concept yet — a perfection of the wine bar of old, serving tapas-style food, managed by his chief sommelier Laure Patry, with Frankie van Loo, formerly producing such enjoyable food at Social Eating House, as head chef.
The design, which incorporates a wine shop and displays of bottles, is by Russell Sage — and it’s superb. There are 70 covers, 30 on the ground floor, 40 in the basement — but it’s no relegation to be down there: it has great atmosphere and moody lighting, even on a summer’s day. The paint on the walls baffled us at first — ochre? Umber? Sienna? — until, leaving, it became clear in the daylight that it’s a very old, subdued gold. The seating, comfortable glossy leather chairs and banquets, are in green leather upstairs but rich red below, used against heavy, rough wood in the bar and staircase, while on-trend copper gleams everywhere in fittings and accoutrements. It feels perfectly like an earthy old bodega.
Tapas remains a perverse concept in London, where it is commonly taken as the whole meal, rather than, as in Spain, a standing up, not to say walkabout, activity. For one thing, if you’re going to share these small plates you need to be on easy terms with your companion (maybe even with what Nabokov, in Transparent Things, calls “the revelatory sans-gêne of the Past Tense”. For another, it’s not necessarily the most balanced way to put together a meal, you may feel afterwards.
Knock-out: Chargrilled Carrots, Burnt Aubergine, Miso with Walnut Pesto Yet when it is this good, who cares? We had a series of knock-out dishes, all stylishly served in handsome ceramics. You can stay fully Spanish, if you like. We skipped the more predictable offerings, although doubtless good here (pan con tomate, £2.50) and struck out a little. Szechuan fried chipirones, togarashi, ink aioli, lime (£6.50) was a huge serving of delicious tiny squid, crisply fried, judiciously seasoned (togarishi is basically Japanese for chilli), hardly needing the visually striking jet-black gloop of mayonnaise.
Seafood & rabbit Spanish rice (£9) was the star, enough for a meal in itself: richly savoury rice (a fish stock?) with pieces of rabbit, more of those chipirones, some mussels, a hint of chorizo, beautifully saffron-suffused: like a paella gone to heaven and refined before being returned.
Heirloom tomato (I’m thinking of offering myself as an heirloom journalist soon) salad, truffle burrata, basil (£6.50) was fabulous: different coloured and tasting toms, divine soft cheese richly scented with truffle oil. Simple! It made it seem so. Likewise, salt-baked beetroots (£5.50), of pleasingly different hues, in a red wine and pine nut dressing, enhanced by some sweet, reduced almost to jam, beetroot mush, came with chunks of yummy “sairass” — which is to say, a light sheep’s milk ricotta, or “you” cheese, as our handsome waiter (the guys wear funky leather-trimmed aprons) tried hard to explain to us.
The pièce de resistance we had to try was rose veal & foie gras burgers, pulled pork, avocado, pickled cucumber (£12): two natty little burgers, transfixed with a little skewer, sitting on a board: the different meats had been cunningly combined, the foie gras melted in for richness rather than as an identifiable separate texture, to make a micro-hamburger of delight.
All this food is very high impact, rich tasting and, therefore, even if not over-fatty or salty, quite an overwhelming proposition taken together, although the sourdough bread and oil (£2) helped. We tried a dressed green salad, fresh citrus (£4.50) for relief, which was happily not over-sharp or oily but had so much crunchy salt in it as to be barely edible — just a beginner’s mistake at the pass, maybe.
After a mysterious delay, we shared a version of strawberries and cream, expert beyond fêtes and cricket matches: “mascarpone ice-cream, English and wild strawberries” — the latter peculiarly frozen, perhaps the cause of the delay? (£6.50).
It goes without saying that the drinking possibilities here are fantastic — the wine, obligingly always offered for tasting first, served in 125ml portions, rather than the super-sized quarter-litre doses now favoured for massive chardonnays and malbecs in pubs. You might even want to study the wine list online before going.
Pudding: Creme Catalan with orange We sat next to a display case taunting us not just with magnums (1983 Leoville-Lascases, £990) but jeroboams (1989 Talbot, £1,650, 1989 Latour, £6,500) and worse. A Salmanazar contains nine litres, did you know? These Old Testament guys lived it up. Then there are grossly unfair temptations such as “flights” (three 75ml glasses of different Savennières, a bargain at £21, three 2000 clarets, Montrose, Haut-Bailly, Troplong-Mondot, £105).
Yet the cheapest wines are chosen with the greatest care too. The starter red, Corbières, Petit Fantet d’Hyppolite, Ollieux-Romanis 2013, is a really vibrant Languedoc at £4.50 a glass — and the Pollen Street Social house wines, Clos de L’Elu, Anjou, at £6.50 a glass both red and white, have always been good value.
Atherton — also opening a Japanese place at the former Turnmills on Clerkenwell Road soon — has long seemed to me to excel his mentor Gordon Ramsay, in professionalism and perfectionism, yet I’ve always preferred his relatively informal restaurants (Little Social in Poland Street) to his grander establishments (I admired, rather than enjoyed, his fine dining flagship City Social in Richard Seifert’s horror Tower 42 in Old Broad Street). Social Wine & Tapas is, to me, his most enjoyable creation yet: the wine bar in excelsis. Let’s just hope we don’t have to queue too long.
39 James Street, W1 (socialwineandtapas.com, 020 7993 3257). No reservations. Open Tue-Sun noon-10.30pm (9.30pm Sundays). £80 to a long way upwards, depending on what you drink, for two.