When I speak at conferences for the day job, I am often sent a post-hoc bouquet of flowers for my trouble. But sometimes the budgets are bigger, and the gifts more elaborate. Once I got handed a briefcase in an alarming colour. Another time, a stylish diamante keyring sadly too heavy for me to use. It lives hopefully in its box; I take it out from time to time, weigh it in my hand, sigh, and lay it gently back in its reinforced steel cradle. Not to sound ungrateful, but what I actually always hope for from conference organisers is wine. This puffed up expectation comes from being spoilt early on in my public speaking career, when I was on a panel chaired by the BBC’s chief political correspondent, the very witty and wise Nick Robinson. In the days that followed, I was already having the time of my life being able to say that last sentence to myself, and then a week later, and quite unexpectedly, a case of wine arrived for me. A CASE OF WINE. I thought to myself – this is not a bad hourly rate, not at all. Maybe I will do some more public speaking. Little did I realise that I had Britney-peaked too soon, and that years later this would remain the only case of wine I had ever been given. But it does mean that a case of wine is ennobled in my mind as a very fine thing indeed.
So when a restaurant calls itself The 10 Cases, and the cases refer to cases of wine, my instinctive reaction is to think that this is ten times a fine thing. And however wonky (I prefer ‘non-linear’) that logic, The 10 Cases is, truly, a very fine thing. It’s styled as a ‘bistro à vin’, at the unpretentious end of the bistro light spectrum – simple chairs and tables, chalk boards, classic harlequin floor. I read elsewhere that there are 32 covers but it’s hard to believe. The restaurant feels like your mate’s kitchen, before he did a refurb and it lost all its haphazard character. And that’s not just because of the small size of the space, but because of the warm, wide smiles of the staff. As in companies, so in restaurants – the happy culture of the place flows from sane and appreciative management, in this case from the owners Will Palmer and Ian Campbell. I was struck by their tolerance and friendliness as I lurched irritatingly around the busiest square foot of the restaurant (just outside the kitchen and by the till). I was also struck by their surprisingly lush Heseltine hair and the distinct impression that they were enjoying themselves.
Given the press buzz about the place, you may well already know that the ’10 cases’ in question refers to the fact that they buy only 10 cases each of 10 reds and 10 whites. Like that really great jacket you passed in the window of Zara last week, WIGIG – when it’s gone, it’s gone – and new wines will be brought onto the list. So there is a hand-written wine list and a constant sense of experimentation. Wine is between 4 quid and a tenner a glass, between about £20 and £40 a bottle. The most expensive wine on the list on my visit was a 2008 Gevrey Chambertin for £36. If you’re thinking you’ve misread that, it’s because the mark-ups are much smaller than the 300% that is typical in London restaurants. I had a glass of Gigondas, the other C had a glass of South African Cabernet Franc – each a great example of their type. So this is ‘fast fashion’ Jaeger style, not Zara style.
Some critics have written sniffily about the food. I think they are missing the point. The menu is simple, and an effective foil for the wine. Take my mustardy bit of rabbit. True, served without ceremony, on a small, simple white plate – but moist, piquant, delicious. A bowl of sautéed gobstopper potatoes on the side. It’s what good French cooking is like when it’s done without fanfare or pomp. If you want a ceremonial dinner, this is not that. If you want a tasty bit of meat or fish or risotto cooked well, a bit of pear tart, some crunchy radishes to nibble on whilst passing the time and drinking delicious wine, this is that.
So, anyone want to buy a briefcase or a keyring for £36?
The 10 Cases is at 16 Endell Street, London WC2H 9BD, 020 7836 6801. www.the10cases.co.uk