The Laughing Heart
Food Type: International
Glass Price: £ 5.50 (125 ml)
Phone number: 020 7686 9535
A minimal intervention wine-focused restaurant, you say? Named after a life-affirming Charles Bukowski poem, you say? Whose wine list begins with a stanza from Ode to a Nightingale, you say? That serves fantastic, freewheeling food, stays open till two in the morning, and where wine is priced with some of the most generous mark-ups in London, you say?
Is this the figment of some wine lover's fantastical dream?
No – it's The Laughing Heart on Hackney Road, a real place in a real road in a real city. It was launched by Charlie Mellor (Brawn, Elliot's) late last year and prompted one reviewer to describe it, quite sensibly in my view, as possibly the only good news to come from 2016.
The food is brilliant. Not cheap, but brilliant. They do what they want, but they do it with skill and understated flair. If they want to put Peking duck on the menu, they will. If they feel love for prawn fried rice, for whatever reason, that will be added too, and will be the best prawn fried rice you've tasted.
Singingly clean and fresh oysters with buttermilk and horseradish granita – simple but inspired. Deep-fried olives stuffed with... but wait there, mon enfant, this is supposed to be a wine list review. Let's just say the food will satisfy.
To anyone who thrills to names like Joly, Robinot, Foradori, Bini, Tschida, Radikon, etc, this is a very fine list. All the more so when one looks at the price column. This is a cherrypicked collection of some of the best natural, minimal-intervention wines in the world. Such wines don't come cheap, yet Mellor has shown a bold commitment to making these wines more accessible by setting margins almost as low as 60% for the bulk of what's on offer (London average is 70%), with a basic £30 cash margin for the most expensive stuff.
This is, frankly, brilliant, and a rarely seen instance of on-trade magnanimity in London. That there is a wine shop in the basement from which you can buy these stellar wines is yet another reason to cheer, to woop-woop, to do a small celebratory dance, and to wish Mellor and his team every success in the world.
You'll find a great section of wines by the glass (around 30 of them), changing frequently, as does the main list. This gives you a great chance to dabble in what is a very varied field. I dabbled with a deliciously poised and nutty Limoux, followed by a nicely structured, floral Frapatto blend roasto from Sicily. That was before moving on to a stunning bottle – Tscheppe's Green Dragonfly. That this could be purchased for less than £60 made me feel like a winner.
A regular winemaker focus will allow diners to get to know some of these talented natural-focused vignerons more intimately – eg, at the time of writing, there's a selection of more than 20 wines from various vintages and in various styles and formats from Le Coste, a producer of wild, finely detailed wines from volcanic soils in Gradoli, Lazio.
There's reams of high-quality gear from the likes of Les Caves de Pyrene, Tutto and Dynamic Vines, among others, and staff seem sufficiently well versed in what's on offer to be able to say a bit about where the wines comes from, how they are made – and to warn you if a wine is particularly odd, as can be the case with natural wines.
This is a restaurant worth discovering – with wine prices which make such discovery all the more attractive. I hope it's around for a long time.
By Darren Smith
• St Laurent Ancestrale 2015, Claus Preisinger, Burgenland, Austria - sparkling - £52
• Savagnin 2012, Ludwig Bindernager, Jura, France - white - £56
• Green Dragonfly 2013, Andreas Tscheppe, Südsteiermark, Austria - white - £58
• Serragghia Fanino 2012, Gabrio Bini, Pantelleria, Italy - rosé - £90
• Montebuono 1990, Barbacarlo, Pavia, Lombardia - red - £81
• Nerocapitano 2015, Lamoresca, San Michele di Ganzaria, Sicily - red - £43