In Paris Les 110 de Taillevent has the city to itself when it comes to being a fine dining restaurant specialising in wines by the glass. In London. It is just one of many. But its unique approach of offering a choice of 110 wines by the glass means it is in a field of its own.
Les 110 de Taillevent has had to work hard to understand what the UK diner is looking for from its wines by the glass offer after it opened its first London restaurant last year.
Pick up a magazine, or walk in to any major book shop and we are constantly being tempted with 101 ways of doing something wacky or different.
Now pairing a glass of wine with a dish of food is neither of those things. It’s not new, it’s not different and it is far from being wacky. In fact for a lot of diners it probably does not come in to their minds what wine they are going to drink as they decide what food to order.
But for those that do care, and are interested in food and wine matching, there is the equivalent of Disneyland to discover at Les 110 de Taillevent.
This is a restaurant that’s entire model is based on pairing wine and food by the glass. In fact, as the name suggests, there are 110 glasses of wine to choose from at any one time. But that’s only half the story.
What’s fascinating and ground breaking about Les 110 de Taillevent is that it is taking food and wine matching to whole new levels. Whilst promoting the concept of wines by the glass at the same time.
It’s not just as simple as having 110 different types of wines by the glass to choose from.
The very clever part comes in that for every dish there are four wines from that 110 selection that the chef and the wine team believe will work specifically well with that particular recipe. Two whites and two reds that cover all the price points from good value to premium.
It is one thing having a concept for a restaurant. It is another delivering it to quite this level and attention to detail.
Les 110 de Taillevent opened its doors on London’s Cavendish Square in October 2015 and has been quietly turning heads both in the trade and from its growing customer base of discerning diners and wine lovers.
But its origins could not be more different. It first started life just after the end of the Second World War when the restaurant, Taillevent, named after the iconic French chef, and for many the founding father of French gastronomy, first opened in Paris in 1946. It has been one of the landmark Paris restaurants ever since, and now carries two Michelin stars.
It started the Les 110 de Taillevent concept in Paris in 2012 before opening in London last year. A pretty brave move considering how little the wine by the glass concept has developed in the city.
The wine operation across the Taillevent group is overseen by Pierre Bérot, who now travels between Paris and London to keep on top of its three restaurants, and its shop Les Caves de Taillevent.
Interestingly he says when it first started out in London Les 110 had the same concept as in Paris, with the same dishes and choices of wine. But over the last year it has become clear the London diner is looking for different things than their counterpart in Paris. It has meant, for example, offering a wider choice of New World wines and changing the menu and wine pairings more often.
“We have taken our time to understand the London market and the London customer,” explains Bérot.
It has also been a case of understanding the British approach to wine, compared to the French. “French people think they know a lot about wine, when in most cases they don’t,” he says.
“But in Britain they don’t have the same history with wine. It means people are more curious. They are more willing to try different things. Whereas the Italians tend to drink Italian wine. Spanish drink Spanish wine. Interestingly in France they are willing to try a different wine if it is cheap, but when it comes to expensive wine they buy Bordeaux,” he explains.
“But every day I am learning something new about the UK.”
The different approach in London does not always go down well with its customers visiting from Paris. “Some like the fact it is different, others don’t,” says Bérot.
Wine driven business
What is particularly striking about how Les 110 de Taillevent works is that it is very much the wine part of the business, that is driving what is happening in the kitchen. Not the other way round.
Bérot concedes that whilst the fundamental concept of Les 110 de Taillevent has not changed. A choice of 110 wines by the glass. How it is presented and delivered to the customer has. For example, having four different wines specifically paired against one dish is fine as a concept, but the difficulty comes in how you then present that in a clear way to the customer, says Bérot
“We had the concept in our head, but how do you make that work visually for the customer?” he asks. “Now it looks like the most logical way of doing it, but we tried many different ways.”
The answer is a very different kind of menu. One where all the dishes are laid out in the middle and then the wines are presented alongside down a left sided and right sided menu. That way two wines are shown on the left hand column alongside each dish, and two wines feature on the right hand side. Each at different prices.
Just to make things even more challenging for the sommelier team, Les 110 de Taillevent concept means there are never two wines from the same vintage, producer, region or country as part of the pairings suggested.
It is a constant exercise in re-tasting, re-appraising both the food and the wine to ensure it has the right match. “We have to taste all the dishes every day. I come to London every two weeks. We taste and then are able to choose the right wines for every dish,” he explains.
It is also trying new ideas on its menu. Like with its cheese course. Rather than have a single wine match it is offering a selection of cheese with three 30ml mini pours of wine.
When it come to selecting the right wine to go with the right dish, Les 110 de Taillevent is better placed than most as it must have one of the largest private cellars available to a restaurant group. With some 6,000 references and 250,000 bottles.
The idea, says Bérot, was to originally have its own cellar so that it could buy and age its own wine. But it has simply grown and grown. “We always ensure all the wines on the list are perfect to be drinking now.”
Its focus on wine – and its ability to sell it to the right kind of people – means Bérot and his team have built up strong relationships with winemakers and producers all over the world, but particularly the Old World, to ensure they have access to the wines they need.
“We have a very close relationship with our winemaker partners. I will go and visit them during harvest, talk to them about how the year is going. We are travelling and visiting producers all over France, the Rhone, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace, and then in to Italy, Spain and beyond,” he explains.
Demand for UK specialists
But the demand from customers at its London restaurant for more exclusive and interesting wines from around the world means it is also having to work closely with a number of UK wine distributors. Bérot says he and his team are very much in the market for specialist wines, particularly from the New World. “We have found that UK distributors are also a lot more specialised in the wines they sell,” says Bérot.
When it first opened Bérot says it started working with over 40 suppliers to taste and understand their wines. It now has a group of around 14 suppliers, both big and small, that it works with on a regular basis. “We do a lot more tasting in London of different wines. But every time it is with the same focus, the same discipline to find wines that will match with our food.”
With such a focus on wines by the glass it is no surprise to hear how important the arrival of the Coravin system has been to Les 110 de Taillevent. “It has changed the way sommeliers work,” says Bérot. “It has also opened up wine to so many more people. It’s a dream for us. ”
Coravin has also changed the wine offer that Les 110 de Taillevent is able to provide. “When we first opened we did not have Coravin. One year later and we did. It has meant we are now able to put the most fantastic wines on our list.”
Bérot likens Coravin to having as big an impact on the life of a sommelier as the introduction of digital scanning machines that can select the right grapes for the top winemakers.
For those suppliers that are not yet working with Les 110 de Taillevent, there is plenty of time. It has taken out a 25 year rent on its Cavendish Square site and is here for the long term, stresses Bérot.
Let’s raise a glass (never mind 110) to that.