An Ideal Meal
It’s not often that eating out lives up to all one’s expectations and hopes, but a meal at South London’s hidden jewel RSJ last week was something close to perfection. I’d been there just once before, several years ago, where I remember being mildly impressed with the food and wine, and then seriously disappointed when a request to be moved from a crowd of Hoorah Henries busy kicking back the champagne was met with less than total co-operation.
But a combination of RSJ’s convenient location and stellar wine list convinced me to return last week for a celebratory get-together with old friends, and this time the stars aligned. Tucked into a quiet street corner near London Bridge, RSJ – the name stands for the Rolled Steel Joist that supports the two-story structure – offers a bright, loud and relatively informal atmosphere, appropriate for its comfortably international and reassuringly healthy menu. From the food standpoint, I was thrilled with everything I ordered: the artichokes in my salad were tender and generous, the truffle dressing my idea of perfection; the Risotto of butternut squash, goat’s cheese, pine nuts and sage was extraordinarily delicate, satisfying without being filling; the pecan pie dessert was similarly exquisite and gentle on the stomach.
My friends each ordered the same confit pork starter and braised beef main course. Though in my ideal world (the same one in which Steve Coppell would be England manager), we’d none of us eat animals, I supposed I should be happy for them that they declared these meat dishes among the finest they’d tasted: “like slicing through butter” is, presumably, as great a cliché’d compliment as you’ll find from a carnivore.
Service remains the weakest point of the British dining experience, but at RSJ it was competent. Though the waitress didn’t register my comment that I’d already studied the wine list online and knew exactly what I wanted to order – leaving us to study the hefty book for 15 minutes regardless – I’d have to engage in some serious nitpicking to come up with any other complaints.
As yes, the wine list. RSJ is known for having possibly the greatest selection of Loire wine outside the Loire itself. So good, in fact, that when I e-mailed three of my Loire-loving friends back in the USA and asked what they’d recommend, they each pointed to the same bottle – the 1952 Huet Le Mont Demi-Sec from Vouvray – which, they assured me, could not be found for love or money in the States. In fact, two of the three asked if I could possibly bring back an unopened bottle, and the other may have already jumped on a plane to try it for himself.
Given their enthusiasm, I had no choice but to order the wine; fortunately, my dining friends agreed to split the not inconsiderable cost. Both the label and cork were in superb condition – not a complete surprise given Huet’s reputation for ageing, but comforting all the same. The color was that of caramel and one of my companions did make the initial comment about it tasting more like a sherry than a wine. To an extent, he was right – after 53 years in bottle, this Chenin Blanc had developed all kinds of nutty, honeyed, toffee’d, caramel aromas and flavors; it was not, by any standards, your typical white wine. But it was extraordinarily complex, so intense in flavors and aromatics that, like a great port or whisky, the three of us stretched the bottle out over a couple of hours. These compliments aside, I’m not sure there are many years left in this wine before it tastes totally like sherry. All the more reason, my Stateside friends would surely insist, to taste it now.
Earlier in the evening, we had ordered a 1990 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine from Le ‘L’ d’or de Luneau. Just as only a handful of semi-dry whites last a half century, you don’t find too many dry white wines that merit 15 years in the bottle; but the Melon de Bourgogne grape is packed with so much acidity that in a good vintage, from a top producer, it’s worth putting down for a while. Indeed, the acidity in this 1990 was still so strong that one companion considered it “fizzy.” For my part, I noted that it had the mellow yellow color of a lively Sancerre, with notes of almonds, honey, lemon and some petroleum; a sublime texture that tingled on the tongue; and a long, delicately creamy texture. I recently put a Muscadet from Domaine la Pépière (reviewed here) into storage; if it turns out anything like this Le ‘L’ d’Or de Luneau ten years from now, I’m in for a treat.
The Loire remains the wine world’s great unsung region, regularly passed over by the so-called experts in favor of bigger, fuller, more pronounced, more rare and more expensive wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, California and Italy. In other words, it’s still a bargain. An absolute top-quality Muscadet rarely costs more than $13/£10 in the stores, and I just saw the 2002 Vouvray Huet Le Mont Demi-Sec in a shop for under £20. Obviously we didn’t get away with those prices at RSJ, but the Muscadet cost less than I recently paid for a 4-year old Chianti at a restaurant in the Catskills, and the 1952 Huet (which, remember, someone has paid good money to store for 50 years) was vastly cheaper than the American retail price for a cult Californian Cabernet or Barolo.
We were splurging on this meal, for sure. But if you just want a casual dinner on a sensible budget, there’s no reason not to visit RSJ. There’s a Fixed Price menu that offers two courses for £15.95 and three courses for £17.95. Throw in a perfectly good young wine for under £20 and there’s no reason two people can’t get in and out for £60-£65, including tip. In London, which never ceases to amaze me with its high prices, I would have to consider that a steal.