Unrecognisable from its past as a Thai Square site, Stem is Mark Jarvis’ Mayfair gem lit by gold strip-lights, with a popular chef’s table for six guests and an engaging, reasonable list.
Sommelier and GM, Emma Underwood worked at “straight talking chef” Gary Usher’s Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle and then Hispi where she wrote the wine list. “My best mentor, Gary is a legend – we’d share a nice bottle of white Burgundy at the end of the week,” she recalls. Underwood also worked at Sam Buckley’s Where the Light Gets In, a tasting menu only experience matched with wines by the glass – but never a single bottle. “Sam feels sticking to one bottle of wine like is like having the same dish all over again,” she says.
Combining aspects such as suppliers from all the venues she has worked in, Underwood’s balanced, accessible and, for Mayfair, notably reasonably priced list at Stem is also nicely spaced, set in an attractive font called “PX Grotesque”.
At heart a Francophile, Underwood notes she “has to be comprehensive” nonetheless, hence Grosset Pinot Noir, mature Luciano Sandrone Barolo, the particularly popular Thracian Pinot Noir (Miroglio SOLI) and Czech Blaufrakisch (Tomas Cacik) rub shoulders with 20-year-old Alsatian Riesling (Rolly Gassman), Domaine Henri Gouges Nuits-St-Georges, the second vintage of La Folle Berthe, a Chenin Blanc made by “Parisian journalist turned biodynamic Saumur winemaker, David Foubert,” and following a recent visit to the producer, Champagne Charles Heidsieck by-the-glass.
Begin with South African vermouth, Caperitif and tonic. Then succumb to dishes by head chef, Sam Ashton-Booth (formerly of Orrery, Gidleigh Park and Story) which may include succulent aged beef tartare with king oyster mushroom and pickled cucumber matched with an aromatic, indie orange Slovakian (Slobodne Vinárstvo) which wears an avant-garde label showing a cockerel’s head bolted on a suited man, “lifting the dish’s garlic mayonnaise.”
However, pairings are not always vinous, hence the bergamot-infused Siren Yu Lu Berkshire Pale Ale with gnocchi with Romanesco and lovage.
“I’m inspired by the craft beer scene which I found in Manchester,” notes Underwood of Britain’s renaissance in craft beer. Finish with a sparkling Loire Chenin Blanc with rhubarb, jelly cheesecake and ginger. “Bubbles lift at the end of a meal when sweet wine and sweet pudding can be overpowering.”
When training her team, Underwood prefers to emphasise a wine’s backstory, the pleasure it confers, and its food-friendliness, rather than specific technicalities.
When not at Stem, you are likely to find Underwood at Joleen, The Laughing Heart and Naughty Piglets; otherwise she’ll be finishing her PhD on “Women, love and anarchism: the relationships of the British counter-culture, 1968-73″.