How to party large style

(by peter)

The 40th birthday of a very good friend is always an occasion to relish.

But savouring the event took on new meaning at this particular party, which was held at the private dining room in The Square, the widely celebrated two-Michelin-starred restaurant in buzzing, glitzy Mayfair.

I’d been to The Square before – a La Conseillante lunch springs to mind – but I’d forgotten just how good it was.

Chef Philip Howard is an understated genius.

There’s nothing flash about his cooking, nothing self-consciously daring or outrageous. Very little foam too (not sure I’m either fiercely pro- or anti-foam, though these days I must say I’m tending to the latter – I just mention it for general interest).

The Square simply does absolutely sensational food, smartly presented and, while bone-jangling in flavour, it is in now way overwhelming. It leaves you wanting more and feeling, if not under-nourished, then certainly not over-full by the end.

And that, these days, is something to celebrate.

But this was not all. Apart from the birthday boy, what took centre stage at this event were the wines: all large formats, sourced over a 12-year period (I love that someone can plan a party so assiduously – what a fine example to all of us) featuring some quite brilliant wines.

I’ve written below a very brief recap of the wines and the food, because I think that both deserve comment.

Bollinger Grande Année 1996 (Jeroboam) – drinking wonderfully well. The 1996 vintage – initially acclaimed to the rafters – has a few more doubters now, but I continue to rate it extremely highly. Even in this large format, the wine had aged beautifully; Bolly’s trademark rich but elegant style perfectly suited to this high-acid year. Toasty, rich, honeyed and bready, it made for a brilliant aperitif. And even better with the squid ink and black cod balls with parmesan…9/10

Chassagne Montrachet, les Caillerets 1er Cru 2002, Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard (jeroboam) – from one of our favourite Burgundian producers, made by Caroline Lestimé, this is the wine we always wish we could afford (but can’t so have to buy their delicious Chenevottes instead). Mineral, stoney, nutty – superb. Real depth and savoury charm – it wraps you up and caresses your taste buds. Magnificent on its own, even better with the rillette of wild salmon and crab with crème fraiche and caviar. A match made in gastronomic heaven. 9.25/10

Chambertin Clos de Bèze Grand Cru 2002, Domaine Drouhin Laroze (magnum) – the one wine of the night that didn’t blow us away. It showed somewhat awkwardly, mute and slightly gauche on the nose. The palate was better – showing lovely silky tannin and brooding concentration – but it wasn’t singing. I’d like to see this in another five years. Meanwhile, the ravioli of sweetbreads with glazed cos lettuce and sweetcorn tripped like a gentle and delicious autumnal breeze over the palate. 8.5/10

Château Pichon-Lalande 1996 (double magnum) – wow. I was lucky enough to try this a year or so ago out of bottle, and now, served with food from a double magnum in the company of great friends, this wine came into its own. It’s a quite wonderful example of what I’d term old-school claret, the like of which, in this super-ripe, mechanically-enhanced era, we rarely see now. It’s edgy and vegetal as much as silky, savoury and refined. But it makes for a supremely drinkable, food-friendly red that just keeps you wanting more. Outstanding, benchmark claret. How did it go with the roast pigeon from Bresse with black rice and tarragon? Magnificently, in a quiet way. 9.5/10

Château Haut-Brion 1996 (double magnum) – if the Pichon was wowing, this was a mind-blower. The step up in concentration, complexity, sheer outrageous class and grace, made for a bravura performance. What a wine. And still so young! Each sip was a flavour sensation wrapped up in a silken embrace. The herb crusted loin of lamb with creamed potato, grilled asparagus and artichokes was deft and breathtaking on its own. But paired with the wine, when savoured together, everything went quiet and nothing else seemed to matter. Quite sensational. 9.75/10 (it misses out on a 10 only because it will get better).

All in all, this Haut-Brion reminded me of the fine words of the great thinker Bela Hamvas:

“Though every wine bears a social character and reveals its real nature when drunk in company, the wine of Somló is the drink of the lonely. It is so full of the oil of the ecstasy of creation that it is only to be drunk in devoted, definitely quiet, balanced loneliness. It is the wine of the wise, of those people who at last have learnt the greatest knowledge, serenity.”

Not sure I’ve quite learnt the knowledge of serenity just yet (especially given how excited I was after drinking this wine) but this was not just a wine: it was an experience and an education.

I left humbled.

But not before enjoying some wonderfully vibrant, harmonious, young and palate-cleansing Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Auslese 2005, Fritz Haag (en magnum, 8.5/10) with Brillat-Savarin cheesecake with strawberry and the heady Château de Beaucastel 2001 (en jeroboam, 8/10) with cheese.

Apparently, there was more large-format fizz enjoyed later on in the evening, but by then we were winging our way home in a minicab that seemed to float on air.