Words: Chris Zacharia
All good wine bars share similarities.
And in some ways, 28-50 is your classic wine bar. It’s in Mayfair, which is to wine bars what the favela is to Brazilian football. The lights are so beautifully dim, you could probably deal a bit of gear between courses without arousing suspicion. And there are wine bottles everywhere, a legion of decorated veterans guarding the windows, the walls, the tables.
So 28-50 knows the formula, and is unashamed in its adherence to it: that dim lighting, a horseshoe bar, stacks of rustic wine crates and a smooth nu-lounge soundtrack. I eavesdrop on the conversations around us; yep, they’re all about power or the rising value of African art.
But in other ways, 28-50 is not your typical wine bar. Far from it. Icelandic chef Aggi Sverrisson, who has a Michelin star to his name and a slick repertoire of Icelandic dishes, adds a Scandinavian edge to the food.
The wine list is shorter than you might expect. Fifteen red, fifteen white, and a special ‘Collector’s List’ that I daren’t even look at. A good mix of Old World and New, with several natural and organic wines in there too.
It’s accompanied by a food menu that’s equal parts bolshy bar bites, Icelandic staples and French flair. That’s how a hotdog can find itself jostling for attention with a truffle and cepi lasagna. Or why a plate of immaculate gravlax is given equal credence to chicken wings.
One key wine bar edict has been contradicted: prices are surprisingly fair. You hear, ‘wine bar in Mayfair’, and you wonder how many weeks you will spend washing dishes in their kitchen to recompense the bowl of peanuts you regrettably assumed would be within your financial reach.
Yet the menu is even-handed. Wine can be bought at 75ml, allowing you to try otherwise exorbitant wines for way under a tenner. The food menu is similarly equitable. Some of the mains push and exceed the £20 mark, but that’s what you get for ordering a steak or a lobster. Others are much closer to half that amount, meaning that you could enjoy a couple of glasses with your dinner and still have enough for a cab home. It might also explain why Maddox St is 28-50’s third opening in London.
Enough about money. If you’re in 28-50, it’s not because you want to save cash. This is a place where people go to luxuriate, to watch the Lambos roll by in the night. The ‘workshop’ element of their name refers to an important aspect: learning. As much as everyone pretends to be an expert on wine, the truth is that most of us don’t know our Riesling from our Ribena.
A true wine bar depends on the quality of its sommeliers; on this metric, 28-50 are doing very well. A great wine pairing should bring you a glass that intrigues on the first taste, before unfolding into something greater and more complex after a bite or two of the paired dish.
The sommeliers at 28-50 know this. Of course, you could just walk in and attempt to navigate the wine list yourself. But for the full experience, order two or three dishes from the menu and ask them to be matched.
So my smoked salmon smørrebrød is preceded by a luscious, fruity Albarino, with the kind of nose that makes you spend far too long with your nose buried in the wineglass. Once the smørrebrød arrives – an open-topped sandwich of juicy salmon covered in dill, sour cream and pickled cucumbers – the Rias Baixas Albarino spreads its wings, its flavours deepening, the minerality cutting through the salmon’s fattiness.
My partner can’t resist the special, a nod to the kitchen’s French techniques: a cheese souffle, whose richness is made palatable by the light texture. A full bodied South African Marsanne, macerated and fermented with the pulp, balances out the lightness. Great teamwork.
But before it gets too French, the Icelandic origins of 28-50 emerge. The butter is mixed with skyr, an Icelandic yogurt that’s justly growing in popularity. It adds a sourness to the butter, and I’m scooping it onto the rye bread like jam.
There’s more. The ‘Icelandic Pylsur hot dog’ comes with enough cultural complexities to inspire a sociology faculty. A blend of beef, lamb and pork, our waitress Beryl assures us that it’s been voted the best hotdog in the world. Its arrival on a kind of plinth raises our expectations still higher, as does the hedgerow of fried onions and remoulade mustard decorating the bun.
Hold it aloft and take a bite. It’s good. It’s very good: coarse-ground meat is made sweet by the onions and ketchup, made sour by the mustard. But it is still a hotdog: those expecting some haute-cuisine makeover will be disappointed. Those wanting an excellent frankfurter in a bun, delighted.
The sommelier bravely pairs it with a feisty, fruity Nero d’Avola from Sicily. ‘It feels weird drinking red wine with a hot dog’ notes my partner. Get used to it, baby.
This playful combination of popular and high culture is detectable throughout 28-50, intentionally or not. The truffle popcorn, available as a bar snack, combines everyone’s favourite mindless silver screen treat with the luscious aristocrat flavour-rainbow of truffle. The predictable-yet-stylish exposed brick, distressed wood pannelling and blue leather barstools is refinement, but the pictures of champagne bottles in close-up and random shots of light bulbs are reminiscent of stock imagery.
If you’re reading this thinking, ‘I’m not going to eat a hot dog in a wine bar!’, don’t worry. You can still eat caviar, foie gras and, if you’re really hungry, your own inflated sense of entitlement.
Meanwhile, back on the tabletop, my mushroom and truffle lasagna is teaching me a lesson in richness. A crucible of molten cheese, silky pasta strips and meaty cepi mushrooms, it’s the kind of dish you’d base an entire day around, so robust and strong are the flavours. With a push, I almost finish it, but it’s just too rich. A tannin-heavy Merlot does its best to tease out the earthiness of the mushrooms.
Except, once the dessert menu pops up, I’m suddenly feeling ready to eat. My partners madeleines are fluffy and light, yet another reminder that the French are simply unbeatable in the domain of pastry and cake.
My baked sky is more surprising. It’s a kind of cheesecake in components, an edible flat-pack of perfectly judged mouthfuls. A blob of baked skyr is creamy, rich and sweet, pulling away like taffy. Then there’s a sky sorbet, blowing a cool sour breeze to cut through the sugariness. A shock of purple: rhubarb, as viciously tart as any you’ve ever tasted, slashes through the palette like a meteor across the sky. And beneath it all, a buttery rubble of granola.
A Pacherenc du Vinh Bil is that rare thing: a dessert wine you can drink mouthfuls of, without being assaulted by saccharine sweetness. It helps keep dessert light and bouncy a good thing after that powerful lasagna.
Wine bars aren’t for everyone. No matter how much neo-oenologists go on about wine being democratised by Lidl’s great range of Vinha Verde, wine will always retain that patrician edge. It’s part of wine’s mystique: the idea that you’re drinking something so complex that your puny tastebuds and still-punier breadth of knowledge are insufficient to appreciate it. But with their hotdogs, down-to-earth sommeliers and reasonable prices, 28-50 deserve big credit for getting closer than most to bringing wine to the masses. The Mayfair masses, anyway.
17-19 Maddox St
Tel: 020 7495 1505