As of September 2019, the Tasting House’s decor has changed significantly from that described in the review and the food offering has changed a couple of times (Bench Rest briefly took over the kitchens at weekends, but they’ve also packed that in). So although Tasting House hasn’t closed per se, this review is no longer representative. I’ve left it up for posterity.
The real challenge with Tasting House, as a reviewer, isn’t what you would think. The real challenge is explaining exactly what it is. It works rather differently to all the other places I’ve reviewed because it is, fundamentally, a wine shop. It’s a wine shop that also lets you taste a variety of wines and dishes up platters of charcuterie and cheese should you get hungry (“Sample. Stay. Shop” is how the website sums it up: alliterative, abrupt, accurate). It’s been open since September last year and I’ve been meaning to review it for ages, so I dropped in one drizzly weekend to give it the ER going over, even though I knew this would involve making the ultimate sacrifice: drinking at lunchtime.
The “sample” element of Tasting House is served by the “Enomatic” (a machine described as a “wine vending machine” by the chap behind the counter). It’s a self service system where customers buy a prepaid card, pop it into the slot at the top of the machine, grab a glass and dispense some wine. There are sixteen bottles hooked up to the machine (seven white, eight red and, if you’re feeling especially frivolous, one rosé) and you can pick a tasting measure (25ml), a small glass (125ml) or a large glass (175ml) depending on whether you want to taste or drink. The cost of each measure depends on the bottle in the machine with a taste starting from about 50p. Along the bottom of the machine is a card for each wine giving information about the grapes, the taste and what food they’d pair well with – another indication that this is as much about taking it home as having it with the food on offer.
I won’t go into the wines in any detail because by the time you read this they may well have changed. In total we tried four wines between us (drinking sensibly, honestly) from riesling to shiraz and really enjoyed the whole ceremony of button pressing, glass swirling, sniffing and pretending to know what we were talking about. Actually I really enjoyed most of them but somehow that’s not the point, because you get to try things without committing to a whopping glass and bad choices aren’t so disastrous. The staff were clearly very passionate and knowledgeable and full of recommendations for people who feel unsure about what to pick (though I’m ashamed to say that I pretended to know what I was doing – much like I do writing reviews, in fact).
For the “stay” part of the visit Tasting House does four different boards, either in singles or doubles, with an array of different charcuterie and cheese. I won’t go into the permutations (because there are a lot: I love a list as much as the next person but that would stretch even my patience) but you get some of five different meats on the one hand and six different cheeses on the other. Depending on what you order you also get various other bits and bobs – sundried tomatoes, chutney, cashews, olives and/or cornichons. This means that picking a board involves a bit of horse trading and can seem needlessly complex – it might be easier if they just let you pick a certain number of elements and get on with it. As it was, we ordered two different platters and tried to get as many different ingredients as we could, something which might have been easier with a spreadsheet.
I’m not going to list everything that passed my lips, either. Instead, let’s talk about the big hits and flops. In the first camp: the Waterloo, a gorgeous, creamy, buttery local cheese a lot like a very good brie; the salami which was rich, salty and almost crumbly; the chorizo, soft and lightly piquant; and my favourite, the coppa which was dense and dry with a hint of fennel seeds and black pepper. I also loved the houmous – thick and delicious – and the tomato chutney, which went beautifully with a crumbly chunk of Montgomery cheddar (and hats off to Tasting House for picking such a top-notch cheddar, too).
And the let-downs? The bread, for one: white, fluffy, soft-crusted and unremarkable, served in giant hunks for dipping in the olive oil rather than going with everything else. This was a particular shame for me because I’ve always thought good cheese really needs good bread or a decent cracker. The other big disappointment was the prosciutto which felt flabby, shiny and supermarket-soft. I wasn’t expecting pata negra carved by hand in front of my very eyes – although I wouldn’t turn it down, don’t get me wrong – but I did want something on a par with the salami and this wasn’t it. England does some great hams of its own (Cumbrian air-dried ham, for example) but if Tasting House isn’t going to dish up something of that quality maybe it should stick to the other charcuterie on offer.
Also, if I’m being picky I prefer my cheese to be at room temperature so that the flavours open up more: both cheeses were chilled if not chilly. Maybe this is something to do with health and safety but it did mean they weren’t quite as delicious as they could have been. Still, despite the misses if you wash it all down with a glass of shiraz you have a very pleasant (if not terribly light) lunch.
Service was friendly and laid back without ever committing the cardinal sin of overfamiliarity. A bit too laid back, if I’m honest – the boards took a while to come, although that might be because they seemed a bit short staffed when I went. As it happened I didn’t mind, it fitted in with the feel of the place, it was a weekend and I was in no hurry to go anywhere. They played an interesting range of music, some I’d heard of and some I wanted to Shazam, and we sipped our wine and waited. It felt a bit like visiting a cool friend while they rustled up lunch for you from all the cool things in their cool fridge. (Did I mean “cooler friend”? Does this make me cool or uncool? I’m so confused.)
It’s a shame the furniture doesn’t make you want to linger more – it’s hard and basic, black metal tables and chairs around the room and wooden high tables and stools in the windows. Again, I felt a bit confused by Tasting House – they’ve extended their opening hours recently to 10pm but it doesn’t feel like a bar. I suppose it could work as somewhere to have a quick drink before heading on somewhere else, although you could stay there all evening if you’re suitably upholstered yourself.
I didn’t try out the “shop” part on this visit, though I was quite tempted to pick up a bottle of the riesling. The website states that they have over 200 wines in the shop which range from “everyday drinking” (under £10) to one I saw on the top shelf which clocked in at just under £400 (I suppose that might be everyday drinking too, but only if you’re the Sultan Of Brunei: even John Madejski probably wouldn’t drink that these days).
My bill came to seventeen pounds for two platters and I put twenty pounds on my card for wine – though there was still a fair chunk of that left (honest!). I do think that it’s a little unfair that diners can’t have wine with their lunch without having to make that upfront investment, although it’s canny on the part of Tasting House I suppose: it locks you into going back so you don’t let your money go to waste. So yes, I will go back. I can see myself popping in after work one evening and trying a few tasters or glasses of wine for what feels like no money at all. Maybe that will lead to another charcuterie board, maybe I’ll go on and eat something bigger somewhere else. Maybe next time I’ll stay long enough to figure out if it really is a bar, a restaurant or a shop. Actually I’m not sure I’ll get to the bottom of that, but it might be fun trying.
Tasting House – 6.8
30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX