Food critic Richard McComb goes over to the dark side during a unique Champagne lunch.
It is, without doubt, one of the most challenging food and wine combinations I have got my palate into.
Diagonally to the right of my place setting is a glass of Dom Pérignon’s supreme 2003 vintage, tipped by renowned bubble-watchers as an iconic Champagne of the near future.
Directly in front of me, where the food should be, is a second glass. This contains Japanese matcha green tea, which we have been advised to bolt back in one, like a shot of tequila, albeit a very large one. The trick now is to re-taste the Dom Pérignon, which is hardly a chore, to see what different aspects of the wine emerge as the effervescent, light gold liquid swills around the mouth.
This is where I encounter a slight difficulty because green tea, as the third course of a tasting menu, is – what shall we say – unorthodox?
And green tea followed by vintage Champagne? Isn’t that plain weird? Indeed it is, and it is no less weird than the next course to be paired with this most aristocratic of grand Champagnes. This turns out to be a scoop of tumbling, salty St James caviar, which is marooned like a dark, blobby volcanic island amid a sea of sharp hibiscus jelly.
Such is the surreal world of a Dom Pérignon “Dark Dinner,” for which the setting could not be more appropriate. We are sitting in a newly decorated black dining room at Simpsons. Everything is black. The walls are black, the ceiling is black, the chandelier is black. The menus are black. The company though is reassuringly bright.
The restaurant has been chosen as one of five in the UK, alongside stellar venues such as Claridge’s, to showcase the 2003 vintage to food-lovers. The participating restaurants have been tasked with creating special menus, so Claridge’s has designed a four-course “Dark Encounters” menu, the dishes becoming darker in colour, from white to black, as the meal progresses.
Simpsons’ special eight-course “Dark Revelation” tasting menu comes closest to the extraordinary dishes and food-pairings devised by Pascal Tinguad, Dom Pérignon’s chef de cuisine, who was challenged to develop dishes that would bring out the characteristics of the 2003 vintage, creating a sensory journey (did I just say that?) through five different colours: from white, yellow, green and red to dark.
The concept was inspired by Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, in response to the peculiar challenges of making Champagne in 2003, when the weather played havoc with the growth and harvesting of the grapes. After an exceptionally cold, dry and harsh winter, the initial warmth of spring proved deceptive and severe frosts laid waste to the region’s chardonnay crops. There then followed a summer heatwave, the ferocity of which had not been experienced since 1976, resulting in an unusually early harvest.
The wild climatic conditions mean pinot noir dominates over chardonnay, comprising 60 per cent of the blend, for the 2003, mainly due to the decimation of the white grapes in the frosts.
Despite the handicaps, Geoffroy has created a stunning wine, characterised by “singularity and persistence” and what he calls a “darkness,” which is code for saying the 2003 was nightmarishly hard to pull if off. Dom Pérignon’s finest has done it, and done it with aplomb.