Editor's note: This restaurant closed in June 2019
The latest extension to Jason Atherton’s burgeoning restaurant empire, (his sixth site in London alone) Social Wine & Tapas opened in June 2015. Seating 70 at capacity, the dining area is mainly in the basement, with a few seats at ground level, which also houses a wine shop. The head chef is Frankie van Loo, who was sous chef at Social Eating House and worked before that at Pollen Street Social. Tapas as a format is not new to Mr Atherton, with for example the very successful 22 Ships in Hong Kong.
The wine list has been put together by the knowledgeable Laure Patry, the long-time senior sommelier in the Atherton empire, and prior to that was head sommelier at Maze. The list had over 350 labels, ranging in price from £23 to £3,990 with an unusually high median price of £86, presumably reflecting the affluent target market. The wines in themselves were interesting and in many cases unusual, with several German red wines, and bottles from Turkey and Croatia. The list was 60% French, 13% Italian, the rest spread around the world with labels from Slovenia to Syria. Unfortunately the mark-ups were hefty even by the demanding standards of central London. Kreydenweiss Pinot Blanc 2013 was £46 for a bottle that can be found in the high street for £13, Tenuta Guido Guidalberto 2012 was £85 compared to a shop price of £28, and even the somewhat obscure Coche Niepoort from Duoro 2013 was £235 for a wine with a retail price of £76.
Usually wine lists price less popular areas more gently to encourage sales, yet here the gorgeous yet often overlooked Riesling Abstberg Kabinett Maximin Grunhauser 2011 was £50 (plus service) despite being a wine that you can find in the high street for £13. Similarly the Portuguese Redoma Rosé, Niepoort 2014 was £50 for a bottle with a shop price of £14. The prestige wines had similarly chunky cash mark-ups: Rioja Alta 904 1985 is a lovely wine and retails at £167 yet here was listed at £495. De Fargues 1998 was a baffling £460 for a bottle that has an average retail price of £41. This was not a fluke: the 1995 vintage of the same wine was £490 yet it currently retails at £62.
Back on the subject of food, there was a selection of Spanish ham and mostly British cheese available. Chargrilled carrots, burnt aubergine, miso and walnut pesto (£6) had undercooked carrots: a steak knife would have been an appropriate implement to cut them. The pesto added some flavour but the aubergine did not. Not a good start to the meal (10/20).
Tomato salad (£6.50) was better, coming with burrata notionally flavoured with truffle, as well as basil and a gazpacho vinaigrette. This dish was pleasant enough, though to be honest the tomatoes had limited flavour, especially compared to some superb Italian ones that I ate last week (11/20). Ham croquettes (£4) were pleasant, fried evenly (12/20).
The meal stepped up a gear with raw Orkney scallop (£7) with yuzu, radish and cucumber. The scallop was pleasantly sweet, and although I am not sure that slicing it up before putting it back in the shell was a good idea, the yuzu added freshness (13/20). Norfolk suckling pig (£12) with roasted pineapple and sherry caramel had reasonable flavour, the crackling not as crisp as it might be, and although pineapple did provide acidity I can thing of other more obvious garnishes (12/20).
Rose veal and foie gras mini burgers (£12) came with pulled pork and were served with avocado dip and pickled cucumber. The little buns were not good, and the pork was rather dry; I am puzzled as to why avocado would be thought to pair well with this combination of meat (11/20). Chocolate tart (£5) had decent chocolate but a poor base, served with Madagascar vanilla ice cream that needed a lot more vanilla (10/20). Coffee was pleasant, as well it might be at £3.50 for a small double espresso with no petit fours.
Service was good. The bill came to £41 a head with just water to drink; as ever with small plates formats, the bill always climbs higher than you expect. If you shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical cost per head would come to about £65, which to be honest is an awful lot of money for what we tasted. This place is seemingly intended as having the wine list as its centrepiece, a place to have some cheese and ham while drinking wine. That is fine, but the pricing of the wine list means that it is not a tempting place to splash out, even though there are some interesting growers. The location is central, but down the road in Mayfair you can eat a Michelin starred lunch at Alyn Williams for £30, effectively the same price once you add coffee and water. Admittedly this was early days, and The Atherton name means that this place will doubtless do fine anyhow, but it was the least impressive of his places that I have tried.