Amidst the hustle bustle of Covent Garden, St Martin’s Courtyard offers a surprising oasis of calm from the hoards of tourists on their pilgrimage through Long Acre. In fact, until last year, I never knew this quiet pedestrianised square even existed until accidentally stumbling upon it after dinner one evening. If you ever find yourself in the area and need somewhere to duck off the tourist trail for a bite or a glass of wine, look no further than Dalla Terra, the newest kid on the block.
With its contemporary deco and rustic floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked brimful of wines, olive oils and other Italian produce, Dalla Terra has the feel of a Enoteca winebar that’s chic, stylish and smart. With a monster cellar boasting almost 200 different varieties from every corner spanning Piedmont to Tuscany to Sicily, the friendly staff here are on point to walk you through and demystify the best wines which Italy has to offer. Styles here vary from traditional, natural wines to the more modern, bio-dynamic makes. There’s a huge selection available by the glass (I counted close to 30), served straight out of state of the art, temperature controlled dispensers. Alternatively, if you see a bottle on the shelf you like, pick it up and hand it over to one of the waiting staff to open in-house (corkage is an additional £7.50).
To go with the arsenal of wines, Chef Araldo de Vitis, (formerly of St John’s) has created a concise menu of no-nonsense, small plate dishes for sharing, using the freshest of Italian ingredients and produce. 2 months since opening, the concept certainly seems to have caught on. The place was absolutely buzzing as Jo and I arrived for our 8pm booking with a Friday night crowd looking to let their hair down.
As far as Italian wines go, too often do I stick to my fail-safe favourites of Gavi di Gavi or Chianti Classico. Francesco, the sommelier who looked after us that evening however had other ideas. Keen to open our eyes, palate and senses to a whole new world of Italian wines, he suggested we start with a couple of mini 3x 50ml taster flights of whites and reds, served with swordfish carpaccio and ham respectively.
The selection of wines we were served up were wonderfully diverse, varying in strength, complexity, grape blends, regions and production processes. Francesco was brimming with enthusiasm, telling us the story behind each glass, also guiding us through the order at which we should drink each wine to fully appreciate them. Top of the whites for me was the Piedmontese St Marsan (2004)…. a rich, full-bodied wine full of the flavours of ripe peaches and apricots, with a complex, mineral-ey bitter note to round off. It was so good, I ended up buying a bottle to take home with me.
My favourite of the reds was the bio-dynamic Teroldego (2009), an Italian grape variety grown in the North-Eastern region of Trentino. Whereas I’ve often found single-grape, bio-dynamic wines to be a bit flat, this one in particular was full of fresh, red berries with a long, clean finish of light, natural tannins typical of a good Pinot Noir. The gorgeous Culatello ham that came with the red wine flight is also worth a mention. A refined variety of Prosciutto di Parma, it was packed with bagloads of Parma ham flavour… the texture a little meatier to the bite, but with that same velvety, melt-in-the-mouth finish.
Rosy from the wine flights, we soon turned our attention to the food, ordering a few of their small plates to share. Hake, served with Roasted Peppers, Broad bean, Mint and a good wedge of lemon was a winning combination of textures and fresh ingredients. My only gripe was that it was a tad over-seasoned which masked the delicate, sashimi-like flavour of the cured fish. The Baked Cheese, wrapped in Culatello ham was extremely comforting… like a ham and cheese toastie on steroids. Eat this dish while it’s oozey and hot though… as with any melted cheese dish, it can get a bit stodgy and heavy with time…
Left: Hake with Roasted Peppers, Broad bean & Mint, Right: Baked Cheese wrapped in Culatello Ham with Chicory and Toast
Packing a huge punch in the chilli department was the fiery ‘Nduja sausage, served on Ciabatta with Pecorino Cheese, Rocket and Blood Orange. I’ve had ‘Nduja a couple of times before, but this one was on another level in terms of heat (and that’s coming from my South-East Asian palate that can usually handle birds-eye chillies without any problems…). Although the dish had bombs of flavour, I found the combination of spicy sausage and sharp cheese a bit too full-on for my liking.
Best of the lot of dishes we sampled was undoubtedly the Puntarelle. I’m not one to rave about vege dishes usually, but this one was quite something. Served on a bed of rich chickpea puree that had been spiked with Bottarga (fish roe), the cooked Puntarelle leaves had a wonderful al dente bite to them, each successive bite unlocking layer after layer of bitter-sweet chicory and endive flavours. A real revelation of a dish that sets the bar for all vegetarian dishes out there to follow.
Pear and Almond tart, a daily dessert special brought proceedings to a happy end. The tart was light and moist – the flavour and texture of the soft, cooked pear went beautifully with the fragrant pastry casing and sweet crunch of the almonds.
On the whole, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. With such a great selection of wines and dishes that let the freshness and quality of the produce do the talking, what’s not to like.
It’s a bit of a shame that the austerity and real ale revival of recent years has somewhat overshadowed the joys a great wine bar can offer. I’m glad that Dalla Terra is still willing to fight the corner for wine and bring the Enoteca back into fashion.
25 Slingsby Place, Covent Garden WC2E 9AB | www.dallaterra.co.uk | Friday May 18th 2012
* theboywhoatetheworld was a guest of Dalla Terra