The boys at Hush have come up with an interesting way to sell more expensive wine. Fiona Sims reports.
NOW here's an interesting concept - a restaurant that has opened a wine shop-cum-private dining room. La Cave is the brainchild of Geoffrey Moore and Jamie Barber, owners of Hush, in Lancashire Court, just off New Bond Street.
You could have lived and worked in London all your life and not known of the existence of Lancashire Court - until Hush arrived two years ago. Versace now has a huge shop there, and perfumery to the stars Jo Malone has set up camp. The quaint courtyard is overrun during the summer months by Hush drinkers who spill out on to the cobbles, but now it could attract a higher calibre of drinker - one who might spend, say, £1,000 on a bottle of 1990 Richebourg, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Barber and Moore had been trying to find ways to extend their wine list at Hush, but kept coming up against the same problem - they just didn't have the room. Then Barber went to Italy and fell in love with the enotecas - the wine shops-cum-cafés that are all over the country. And so La Cave was born.
La Cave opened in January and business has picked up nicely since. The doors of the shop - sorry, "wine boutique" - open at 11am and close at 8pm, Monday to Saturday. Except, of course, when there's a private dinner on, which happens about three nights a week. Then, La Cave shuts up shop at 6pm so that Hush executive chef Henry Harris and his team can pull out the extension on the shop's heavy wood tasting table and lay it up with white linen. It seats up to 14. There's even a cushioned lounge area in which to sip aperitifs before dinner.
Managed by dapper wine consultant Mark Irwin, La Cave - just across the courtyard from Hush - stocks 250 wines, from £5 to £1,250 a bottle. The USP is its relatively rare wine list: the wines have been supplied by just two merchants, Bibendum and Enotria, and the wines chosen are those usually seen on restaurant wine lists.
The wines are bought at trade price and a regular retail percentage goes on top. Wines over £20 now make an appearance at Hush across the way, the rest are exclusive to La Cave. And here's another USP - diners using La Cave can pluck wines off the surrounding shelves but pay only shop prices.
But it's not quite the bargain you first think. There's a minimum spend of £800 a night and diners must choose from two five- or seven-course set menus, at £65 and £75 respectively. The dishes are chosen specially by Harris to complement wines, with no ingredients that fight. A typical menu might go something like this: salade chèvre-menthe followed by crab, avocado and lemon tian with saffron emulsion; roast fillet of spiced sea bass, potato, herb and chorizo purée, tartare of marinated wild mushrooms and chervil, salade mâche; cheese with walnut bread, finished with petit pot au chocolat equatoriale and cinnamon cream. Indeed, Harris himself will cook in the tiny finishing kitchen on certain nights, depending on who's in (Prince Andrew was dining a couple of weeks before).
La Cave diners also get the full attention of Hush sommelier Fabrice Leboulanger, who is on hand to guide them through the list. Though rather oddly, only a small percentage have so far opted to go to the trouble of selecting their own wines before dinner, which perplexes Irwin.
So far, most diners are sticking to a pretty well-worn route. Champagne is usually followed by white Burgundy, which is followed by red Bordeaux, with Sauternes to finish. But Irwin hopes to broaden their outlook somewhat with gems from the New World - such as Ric Forman's Napa Valley Merlot 1996 (£40) and Chain of Ponds' Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir 2000 (£15), which makes up 40% of the list.
The centrepiece is a EuroCave temperature-controlled wine cabinet that just happens to have the words "La Cave" artfully etched into its wooden doors - a happy coincidence for Irwin. It holds 280 bottles and includes the shop's most expensive bottles.
So, how many bottles of DRC have you sold? Is the La Cave concept really encouraging people to trade up? "Actually I've already sold all my bottles of Echezeaux to an Arab customer staying at Claridge's," grins Irwin. "And somebody else has drunk my Pétrus." But most customers, he says, spend an average of £25 a bottle, which is the same story for both the shop customers and diners, which is not a bad average.