the don

The Don

in The Chap Dines by

Gustav Temple lunches at a reopened City dining institution and descends into the ancient network of tunnels and cellars at its core.

According to folklore, whatever the weather on St Swithin’s day (15th July) will determine the same weather for the next 40 days. While we did not visit the Don, a reopened restaurant in the Sandeman’s Quarter, on 15th July, the eaterie is situated on St Swithin’s Lane, above an ancient Sandeman’s port cellar in the heart of the City of London.

19-23 St Swithin’s Lane is also called Sandeman House, where there is also a Sandeman’s-owned Portuguese wine bar called 192. George Sandeman relocated from nearby Birchin Lane to St Swithins Lane in 1805, as the voluminous cellars in the new location were ideal for ageing and storing the wines he was importing from Portugal. An underground passage led to the cellars directly from the Thames, the barrels rolled off the ships and up the passage to the cellars. We were invited to take a tour of this historical process during lunch.

But our descent into the catacombs came later. First there were extensive victuals to order at ground level, with my dining companion gourmand, journalist, biographer and bon vivant Alexander Larman. St Swithin’s Lane is tucked away off Cannon Street near the railway station; in fact the former tunnels that rolled the barrels into the cellar are now partly occupied by the station. The Don resists the lack of natural light offered by its location with bright, colourful dĂ©cor and a long, airy, sweeping bar. Private dining rooms with more primary colours can be glimpsed from the main dining room, where Larman and I were seated at a corner table.

The immediate appearance of head sommelier Max Cohn, a slim, dapper Brazilian fellow was reassuring. He immediately suggested we take Portuguese red wine with our main courses: aged fillet of beef, Bordelaise Sauce for Larman and new season lamb, sweet bread, pommes anna, spring vegetables for me. The vino he recommended was a 2018 Quinta do Noval Reserva, and we felt compelled to agree. For the starters it was concluded that a Gavi di Gavi ‘Montessora’ La Giustiniana from Piedmont, Italy would be just the ticket.

Once the formalities had been completed, we were offered a glimpse at the cellars. Steep iron steps led down damp brick walls to the first of several private dining rooms, one of them in the original mediaeval cellar, unchanged since 1548 except for the signs showing the fire exit. The cellars all remained in use for storing wine until 1967, the last vintage of Sandeman Port being bottled here in 1955.

The tour didn’t end there; with a distinct drop in temperature we were led through a narrow doorway into the thirty-foot tunnel once used to roll barrels of wine directly from the Thames off the boats just in from Portugal and Madeira. The surface upon which they were rolled had been turned into a very long bar, which unfortunately cannot be used for service until they devise a method of escape for customers in the event of a fire. Larman and I looked at each other, shivered, and recalled that our table upstairs would soon be groaning with the weight of our own personal cellar.

The starters were both excellent; Larman’s Cured Norwegian salmon, pickled cucumber, horseradish cream and bronze fennel gleaming on the plate like a lost treasure; my golden beetroot and Rosary goats’ cheese, elderflower and Champagne dressing the perfect light accompaniment to a glass of Gavi di Gavi. Mr. Cohn insisted on decanting the Quinta do Noval Reserva, and who were we to argue? After its time in the cellars we had just emerged from, it fully deserved to receive a decent airing. A study of the wine list showed that, while Cohn and David Gleave, chairman and founder of Liberty Wines, had ensured that the 600 wines filling their cellars contained plenty from Portugal, they had also been generous with those from France, and Spain, as well as a modest selection of New World wines, including a couple from Uruguay. It was also nice to see that their champagne list, selected by Simon Stockton, included two English sparkling wines, a Blanc de Noir from Rathfinny and a Nyetimber, 1086 Prestige CuvĂ©e, both from Sussex.

The main courses were well worth the wait for the Quinta do Noval Reserva to breathe, head chef Toby Lever, formerly of Lutyens, having presented both beef and lamb in uncomplicated dishes that allowed the choice cuts of meat to shine through. Our waiter had recommended a seemingly unusual side dish for red meat, Butterhead lettuce with ranch dressing, crispy shallots and soft herbs, but this proved an ideal dose of green to balance the heavy reds adorning both plate and glass.

Larman and I had entered the Don with the sense that port would be at least mentioned, if not actually delivered to the table at some point. We were not disappointed. Having both ordered cheese for pudding, Max Cohn promised us a fine selection of four ideal progressions through the many flavours of fortified wine. Starting with a 2018 Tokaji Edes Szamorodni from Hungary, a Madeira-like golden fortified wine, this led to a 10-year-old Sandeman Tawny to a blended Ruby Port made from blended 10 and 20-year-old vintages, finally a 2013 Vintage Quinta do Seixo from Sandeman. This exquisite vintage rounded off the quartet with a taste of what George Sandeman must first have sampled in Portugal in 1790, inspiring him to find a way to deliver such fine fortified wines all the way from their source to a tunnel under the Thames.

The Don, 19-23 St Swithins Lane, London EC4N 8AD

The Chap was founded in 1999 and is the longest-serving British magazine dedicated to the gentlemanly way of life, with its own quirky, satirical take on a style that has recently entered the mainstream.

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