This buzzing East Dulwich bistro, a champion of natural wine, has become a local hero for its inventive modern cooking and out-of-the-ordinary drinks selection.
The term ‘vin naturel’ – natural wine – was revived in France during the 1980s to describe a process of ‘natural’ fermentation, with minimal intervention in the viticultural process. The resulting products can be unpredictable. Critics have described them as tasting sour, farmyardy, like stale cider, and other far less polite epithets. But there are also enthusiasts who like their distinctively different character.
The first wine bars specialising in ‘vins naturels’ that caught the attention of the drinking public were in Paris in the 1990s; places such as Le Chapeau Melon became the toast of the city. Terroirs in London pioneered a similar approach in 2001, and soon had branches, as well as imitators. The key to this great success, however, was not so much the odd-tasting wine as its sturdy French food.
Toasted is the latest in the Terroirs tradition; chef Michael Hazelwood has worked stints at a couple of its branches before taking over the former Green & Blue wine bar premises in East Dulwich. With business partner and manager Alex Thorp, he has transformed a once quiet venue into a buzzing neighbourhood bistro that’s already a local sensation.
In a typical dish, fresh English peas are dressed with garlic butter and topped with raw egg yolk drizzled with lemon oil, then garnished with toasted almond. The result is dramatically colourful and savoury. Raw mackerel is soused with manzanilla sherry and white soy sauce, and topped with salmon roe, enhancing the Japanese effect. A finely diced tartare of rose veal sirloin, instead of tenderloin, is used for a chewier, more flavourful effect. The next dish was a setback in a near-perfect performance. A plate of roasted carrots was topped with lardo and garnished with golden raisins: the combination was a bit so-what. But dessert showed a return to form with a custard-like rice milk studded with prunes and white peach.
We tried a few wines by the glass, and can recommend the very affordable ones on tap from the stainless steel dispensing tanks – £3 for a great southern Rhône blend is a steal. Another, far dearer natural wine had ‘Brett character’, with the Brettanomyces aromas evoking sweaty saddle; fun for some, perhaps, but our glass remained unfinished. Swirl and sniff first before committing to any of the fancier natural wines.
Reviewed by Guy Dimond