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Vinopolis - City of Wine
More than a mere tourist attraction!

Vinopolis is one of the most exciting projects that have revitalised Bankside, the area on the South Bank of the river Thames around Southwark Cathedral. In Shakespeare's day it was the entertainment centre of London, safely outside the jurisdiction of the City and the Bishop of London. The ancient history of the area is given a sharp focus by the very first exhibit, Roman wine amphorae, discovered virtually under the floor of Vinopolis itself. Recently, the centre of attention in Bankside has been the success of the Tate Modern art gallery in its brilliantly converted riverbank former power station - other attractions include the Globe Theatre, the Elizabethan explorer Sir Francis Drake's ship The Golden Hind, the original jail known as The Clink and of course the Cathedral itself which is just completing an extensive refurbishment.

Visitors to the area need sustenance, just as Chaucer's pilgrims did as they set off for Canterbury from the Tabard Inn. Nowadays there are still the old pubs but also new restaurants springing up. Two of the best of these are to be found within the Vinopolis centre, but you don't have to go into the exhibition to get into them. For a quick, inexpensive but excellent lighter meal, I recommend the Wine Wharf. It's done out in modern industrial style, with lots of honest girders and exposed brick, but the culinary mood is more Spanish - the tapas I tried at lunchtime recently are excellent, just enough to fill that lunchtime gap. As you would expect, the wines are really something as indeed they are at the Cantina - not only an excellent selection by the glass (one of the best in London), but there are also "tasting flights", where you can try a number of wines linked by a certain regional or varietal theme.

The main restaurant is called Cantina Vinopolis which is operated by two prominent London restaurateurs, Claudio Pulze and Trevor Gulliver. The culinary style is mostly modern Mediterranean with a bit of fusion, so expect to find ingredients such as rocket, tuna, mozzarella, polenta and wasabi. I began with an excellent beef carpaccio which was dark (properly hung) and marbled with fine threads of fat, just as it should be. I wondered if the blue cheese dressing wasn't a bit strong, as the rocket salad and pickled shallots were already interesting and flavourful enough. It being close to Hallowe'en, my American companion chose the ultra-smooth pumpkin and parmesan soup, laced with lime creme fraiche, a combination that sounded bizarre, but which he thought was a great success - though whether it would catch on back home he wasn't too sure. (Americans guard their culinary traditions very closely!)

Main courses included rump of lamb with polenta cake, spinach and girolle jus, or a 10oz rib eye steak (meat at the table still comes in ounces!) with parmesan potato wedges and field mushrooms. My friend's confit duck leg was extremely well prepared, with very crispy skin and tender slow cooked meat inside that fell off the bone. I settled for roast cod, which was soft and very flakey, just how I like it, with crushed potatoes enhanced with black olives and tomatoes, served as a round cake on which the fish perched, seared side up - very proper! We really didn't need any side orders, but they are there for very hungry people if required.

Cantina Vinopolis Trifle is a cleverly made dessert, bearing little resemblance to a real trifle, having been made with jelly which my late mama said was extremely vulgar. I don't think she knew much about food, but she certainly had very definite ideas! The iced honey and hazelnut parfait with caramelized pear was in an altogether different league. The ice cream was excellent, but the pear was superb, beautifully but simply presented - a classic dessert dish.

Like the rest of Vinopolis, the Cantina is under the railway arches by London Bridge Station. These arches are a feat of Victorian engineering - they are vast, and the vaulted spaces are like a Romanesque nave. In spite of the lack of windows, the feeling of space is uplifting, and the cleverly lighted wine displays add to the atmosphere. Cantina Vinopolis was very busy at lunchtime when we visited, prior to an afternoon tour of the exhibition.Service was informal and helpful.

You need a good two hours to go round the wine tour, but it's worth every penny and every moment. The whole concept is quite brilliant and imaginative. I learn something new every time I go, and I've taken 4 different groups so far. Do go along, you won't be disappointed!

The cost of your meal:
Starters 3.95 - 5.50
Mains: 8.50 - 13.50
Puds: 3.95 - 4.75

Cantina Vinopolis
1 Bank End
Southwark SE1
Tel: 020 7940 8333

Clifford Mould - November 2000

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