“May we have a bottle of the Pinot Noir, please?”
“Of course, Sir. Though, you do know it tastes like beetroot, don’t you?”
“Er, no. Shall we have something different?”
“No, no. I mean, I don’t personally like it. But some people do. You know, it is interesting, and we just like to make sure everyone knows it tastes like beetroot.”
“Uhm, OK. Well, er, the beetroot juice is fine.”
It’s always an odd start to a meal when a waiter half dissuades you, half dares you to order a particular bottle of wine. But I suppose that’s natural wine* bars and restaurants for you: much of the wine is ‘interesting’ and there’s a subtle (but friendly) air of ‘if you don’t like that, then there’s an All Bar One serving Jacob’s Creek round the Corner’).
What they didn’t tell us was that the beetroot juice was also a bit fizzy and smelt of rising damp.
We were, by the way, at a place called Soif, which is both literally and metaphorically at the top end of Battersea Rise. Though the name is all about being thirsty, really, this is a restaurant, and we were mostly there for the food, so there was no need to head elsewhere. We ploughed on with the purple stuff in any event; in spite of everything, it was surprisingly drinkable.
Soif is a sister restaurant of the good Terroirs near Charing Cross and the excellent Brawn on Columbia Road. Like its brethren, Soif specialises in natural wine and simple French cooking. There’s no point building up to a conclusion here – we may as well be upfront with each other from the start: Soif is busy, chatty, and enjoyable, it serves pretty great food, good wine, and it is generally very proficient at what it does. If Soif had been open for the last 7 years, I would have understood more why half of my friends live in Clapham and seem unable to venture elsewhere. Maybe I would have grumbled less too. But I doubt it.
The place is split into two rooms on different levels. The first houses the bar and a few tightly packed tables; the second is down a few steps and seats people at similar proximity to each other and within touching distance of the open kitchen. Like I said – busy and chatty but fun. We had a bit of a wait (“sorry, the people at your table just won’t leave”) but the six of us were eventually shown to our table in the downstairs bit by one of those waitresses who, had she not been French, would have seemed aggressive and controlling, rather than just really, really attractive.
We shared some salty Padron peppers (I’ve still never had a fabled hot one), fresh bread and very good olives whilst choosing our food. Our waitress, in typically feisty style, chose a second bottle of red for us because she didn’t like the beetroot one. We were offered it on the house because of the wait (without prompting – nice touch) and I couldn’t tell you what it was. But it was excellent. Red, fruity, low tannins and, erm, I’m afraid that’s the extent of my tasting notes.
The starters were well received. One friend loved his battered sweetbread and cutting salsa verde. A posh boy’s alternative to a box of chicken nuggets and sachet of HP sauce. I thought my plate of chicken livers and onion was spot on – them being just cooked through, soft and obviously fresh. There was also a good platter of charcuterie, an excellent slab of brawn, some cuttlefish rice balls that were silky black and salty inside, and a plate of creamy burrata with a fresh lemony radish salad. All good stuff.
The same can be said for the larger dishes. These included a warm tête de veau (calves head wrapped around a tongue – don’t boak, it’s great) and petit salé (slices of cured then boiled pork belly with lentils). I enjoyed seeing traditional, rustic French dishes and my friends seemed to enjoy eating them. I don’t think these are available as well done or for as such a reasonable price in many other places in London. A meaty bit of skate in classic beurre noisette and some hake with delicious cheesy peas were also good. Being hyper critical, they were both a tiny bit overcooked and underseasoned, but it was nice to simply have the option of these dishes. There were many other items on the menu and on the tables around us that looked tempting.
I thought that, by comparison, the dessert menu was a little lacklustre, and those we plumped for were not on the same level as what had gone before. A chocolate pot proved too bitter for my companions and, lets face it, is not overly inspiring anyway. My pavlova was stale and chalky and topped with mango and passion fruit not yet at their tastiest. I suspect we all felt we should have had some cheese or just another bottle of cloudy wine instead. But we weren’t too aggrieved – the starters and mains were enough cause to be happy. And, anyway, we would also have been made to feel like dirt if we’d shown any displeasure. GAWD, I love the French.
Nothing is complicated at Soif and that’s an attraction. It serves simple and rustic, but good food. Another quality is the fact that the menu offers so many appealing things. What is on offer is enough to entice people from beyond the Common as well as being varied enough to keep the locals coming back. I’d happily go again.
*Natural wine is wine that’s been made with as little interference by the maker as is possible. That means small vineyards, low yields, hand picked, minimal additives, little or no fining and filtering and so on. In reality, only a minute number of the world’s wines are ‘natural’; it’s artisanal, not mass market. But there’s a growing movement of people who swear by the methods and results. There are, of course, also detractors. I’m somewhere in the middle – some of the wines that I’ve had really haven’t been very nice, but plenty of others have. Generally I’ve found they’re not the kind of wine you knock back quickly; they tend to have a bit of character and for that reason I enjoy drinking them. Even the ones that smell like damp and taste like fizzy beetroot.
If you want to try this type of wine, I recommend necking a few glasses at places like Soif, Terrroir, Brawn or 40 Maltby Street. Ask questions when you’re there. If you’re already a connoisseur, you might be interested in going to the RAW wine fair on 20 and 21 May. Organised by the indomitable Isabelle Legeron, about 200 growers will be showing their wares and various talks have been organised. It looks like a good couple of days to me.
Soif in 3 words
Rustic. French. Chatty.
Very reasonable. £40 per head for three courses and wine.
no website atm – 27 Battersea Rise, SW11 1HG – 0207 223 1112