No, it’s my superb taste when it comes to alcohol and my subsequent imbibing of said liquid that draws most gasps of admiration* as I stagger and weave my way, through the brash neon glare of many a London evening, hair tousled, shirt tails flapping, eyes unfocused, headed home like a particularly slow, unsteady and dumb guided missile to the refined** shire of Essex….
So, imagine my delight when I received an invite from the rather excellent Soho Institution, Bob Bob Ricard to attend a Vintage Vodka tasting. Delight, yes…. but tinged with a small degree of wariness. A previous delegation of foodie types had attended the same event the previous week and the ensuing carnage was supposedly something to behold… falling over, crawling in gutters, veritable rivers of vomit, tears, talking in tongues…. in addition, counted amongst their number were a infamous Irish drunkard*** and a journalist – so we’re quite patently talking off the chart drunkalism for livers of that calibre to struggle.
I couldn’t wait.
Arriving at BBR après work, by way of the pub and feeling rather sharp set, having had no time to line my svelte snakelike belly**** with some food to soak up the vodka. My natural apprehensiveness as I stepped through the door, gave way to wide-eyed, mouth agape admiration at the obvious ‘no expense spared’ lustre of the interior. I’ll say this now; Bob Bob Ricard looks utterly superb. A sublime picture of limed oak, marble tiled floors, beautiful lighting, incredibly expensive looking wallpaper and the infamous champagne buttons. Much of it monogrammed with the BBR initials. And that’s before I even set foot in the toilets, which frankly, have to be seen to be believed…. and that’s not something I say often about lavatories. Basically, the whole place looks like it’s been subject to the kind of attention to detail, pride and extravagance that the Victorians delighted in lavishing on their interior design. It’s very nice to see.
Shown through to a Private dining room, and greeted by a smiling Bob himself (Or Bob-Bob…. there’s only one Bob despite the name of the restaurant), I took my seat at the table with my fellow diners and sipped on the proffered BBR Signature cocktail of Pink Rhubarb Gin and Tonic, which was gorgeous. A great start.
Bob (Now joined at the table by a grinning Ricard) then proceeded to explain a bit about the format of the evening, firstly – after the previous weeks drunken shenanigans…. there would be more food (Yay!!), but less booze (What?!!).
Secondly, it was then explained what makes a good vodka. (Bob being Russian, and therefore somewhat of an expert on the subject). Believe it or not, the purer and hence, less taste the Vodka has, the better it is. The sign of good vodka being how smooth it is with the lack of any discernable aftertaste.
Which is quite a strange concept to grasp, especially when drinks manufacturers quite often emphasise wine tasting style attributes (eg: “notes of aniseed and pepper” ) in vodka to appeal to western consumers when these ‘flavours’ are in fact the result of impurities. When it comes to Vodka – less is more.
So, with that said – we were treated to out first glass of chilled Vodka…presented in beautiful little crystal glasses, to be drank Russian style with our meal. The trick being to prepare a fork full of grub, down the alcohol in one and immediately eat. The vodka, accentuates the taste of the food.
The first Vodka was one of the more expensive of the evening, and in Bobs opinion the best, but in part only because he is a self confessed snob – there being a far cheaper option available (which we’ll come to later) which is pretty good.
So – glasses charged with Vodka Kauffman Special Selected Vintage 2006 and the food, a beautifully presented Jellied Ox tongue with creamed Horseradish poised on forks…. down the hatch it went, swiftly followed by the food.
Superb…. it surprised me how smooth the vodka was and how good the food tasted following it – downing spirits combined with eating being quite an alien concept to me…. I could get used to this. By the way, The Ox tongue in aspic dish was beautiful, old school Edwardian style – I’ve never seen the like on a menu in London before.
Next up came caviar, blinis and sour cream…. a tin each, served on ice and our glasses were filled with Vodka Kauffman Private collection luxury vintage 2003. Bob encouraged us to deposit about half a tin on single blini, with a dab of sour cream before once again shooting the vodka and immediately following with the food. To be honest, I’ve only really tried caviar once before and despite it being quite pleasant – I can’t see what the appeal is, when you consider cost versus taste. Perhaps my palette just isn’t that refined. But seeing as I wasn’t paying for this, I put all thoughts of cost from my mind and enjoyed. The Vodka once again being very smooth, and working well with the food, but I think I preferred the previous choice.
Next – a food Intermission, designed to soak up some of the alcohol we’d consumed. Bob and Ricard still being extremely anxious not to repeat the fallout from the previous tasting.
An array of dishes were laid out in front of us:-
Wafer-thin cured Orkney Beef with a crunchy celeriac salad, fresh blueberries and roasted hazelnuts.
Wafer-thin pickled beetroot and goats cheese salad with fresh mint.
And finally, Rabbit, Foie Gras and date terrine.
At this point, I cheekily started to ask Bob for second shots of Vodka, which he graciously agreed to as long as we didn’t start rolling around under the table etc. Things started to get a little bit livelier from this point onwards, but in a good way.
The next vodka we were offered was Vodka Beluga Gold Line, apparently only 900 bottles of it are produced a day, so pretty expensive. This was served with Meat Pelmeni, which were delicious. I can only describe them as being like a Russian version of Dim Sum. The Vodka was good, but not as nice as my favourite from earlier in the evening.
Bob had saved the two worst examples for last, being contemptuous of Stolichnaya – these were the premium examples of the brand, Gold and Vodka Elite – both retailing at nearly £100 a bottle.
Happily, the food we were served alongside the booze, Salo on rye bread (cured pork fat) and Malosol Cucumber was delightful.
As a finale to a really memorable evening a superb looking Beef Wellington was brought out and served with truffle gravy and vegetables. Followed by desserts and coffee.
Full, and more than a little unsteady….I staggered off into the dark London night, my vodka addled brain slowly coming to the conclusion that I’d learnt a few interesting things that evening.
Russian food, when cooked well is really rather good.
Bob Bob Ricard as a venue for drinking or dining is truly fantastic, really worth a visit. (do check out the toilets!)
The combination of food and vodka, in particular the taste enhancing effect with small forkfuls eaten in the Russian manner after downing a shot is really interesting. If you ever get the chance to try it, do.
Pricier doesn’t necessarily mean better – Russian Standard Platinum costing almost ten times less than some of the vodkas we drank that evening was one of my favourites (and is also, a bit of a favourite with the residents of Russia as well apparently) – if you’re going to buy Vodka, I urge you to forget about the dubious pleasures of Smirnoff or Absolut and try Russian Standard Platinum instead, it’ll be revelation, I promise.
Finally, I’d like to thank Bob and Ricard for being such extremely generous hosts. I had a wonderful evening, truly first class.
*** It’s true I tell you.
**** Sorry Niamh
Bob Bob Ricard
1 St James Street
Telephone: 0203 145 1000