A wine bar??? That was a companion’s WhatsApp response – followed a moment later by a GIF of Del Boy and Trigger cradling their red wine spritzers in that immortal Only Fools and Horses scene – to the pre-tour details I shared on this week’s restaurant. And, well, putting the cheek (and waning gratitude to a free meal) aside among my friends for a moment, it was a reminder of the issues some people still have with that phrase. Wine bar. Even now, for some, the sound carries the Brut aftershave splashed scent of a very specific kind of 80s provincial naffness.
But of course, if you know your restaurants, then you will have noticed that, especially in recent years, the wine bar has been revolutionized and rehabilitated. In De Beauvoir, Hector’s wows fans with its artful spreads of canned seafood, serrano ham crisps and frosted bottles of producer champagne. In Soho, Bar Crispin adds oysters and fried chicken to the mix. And now I think this is Fitzrovia’s Carousel Wine Bar: a permanent first operation for the team behind the famous revolving door restaurant that brings neighborhood warmth, stealthy ambition and a certain youthful swagger to some of the city not easily associated with these things.
Of course, the title here is the swanky new home that Ollie and Ed Templeton, who founded Carousel and hosted more than 300 guest chef residencies during a seven-year tenure at their former Marylebone site, have migrated into. Located a few doors down from the Charlotte Street Hotel and accented with stone and pine and splashes of gleaming white, the entire complex spans three connected Georgian townhouses, including a main restaurant at the rear, a workshop upstairs, a more laid-back, contrarian “incubator” operation (currently inhabited by the hugely popular Goila Butter Chicken) and terrazzo-floored modernist wine bar space, where funk tunes are almost as strong as the flavors of chef Ollie Templeton. Homemade crisps, drizzled with some kind of canned tomato salsa and sprinkled with shredded anchovies, were reminiscent of English nachos while a brittle, deep-fried boat of sweet and sour onion crackers contained an outrageous, gushing load whipped Cora Linn cheese.
The founders of Carousel have clearly absorbed many of the international rock star class of chefs who have passed through their doors. But what’s so good about the food – whether it’s knotty fried chicken anointed with pickle, honey and habanero or a fantastically deranged mashed-textured melee, pink fir grilled and golden fried potatoes, brightened by an empirical hot sauce and strips of pickled onions – is that you get a studious, high-level technique without any of the faff, oppressive seriousness or endless gourmet tantra that sometimes accompanies a tasting menu.
Ultimately, these are full-throated hymns to the glory and reach of global drinkable food. And if you enjoy one of the bottles on the shelves that line the space, then I’d nudge you towards the beautifully refined Riesling from Alsatian producer Moritz-Prado. Could you say that those who just want a full three-course dinner might struggle with the supercharged couch approach? Or that some of the heartier dishes, especially the very rare cooked pork neck, aren’t as appealing? Maybe you could.
But I would note that one of the benefits of the relative levity of a meal here is this: it leaves more room for a high, sugar-dusted triangle of fried apple pie. Hot, warmed with cinnamon, nestled next to lemon thyme caramel ice cream and – yes, okay – vaguely reminiscent of burning the roof of your mouth at a suburban McDonald’s, this is a dish that sums up the irreverent and intensely thought-out approach to this little Fitzrovian wonder. It should be noted that my wine bar phobic mate ate every last bit (and his lyrics). The Templetons’ new fixed space may not swirl with the same attention-grabbing sense of renewal as other parts of Carousel. But, in its own small and deep way, this wine bar with a difference is a dizzying and awe-inspiring achievement.
19-23 Charlotte Street, W1T 1RL. Meal for two plus drinks around £140. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.; carousel-london.com