Max Graham’s new venture in Southwark is an unmitigated, Portuguese delight, writes Christopher Jackson
It might not occur to you until your first visit to Bar Douro that it’s possible to be in two places at once. As you depart the shadows of Southwark Cathedral, and walk away from the river and the Shard, you might think yourself soon to be lost in a certain Dickensian timelessness. But pursue a cheerful destiny down O’Meara Street, into Arch 35b Flat Iron Square, and make the right entrance and you will find yourself, like a human quantum particle, in London and Portugal at the same time.
Most people have their favourite Spanish restaurant or Italian hangout. But few can name their favourite Portuguese joint. Fortunately, I can – it’s Bar Douro. Here, where the gambas a guilho flame in an open kitchen, and where the authentically Portuguese white ceramics line the convivial bar, one can dream of Lisbon sunsets, quote the poetry of Francesco Pessoa, and perhaps gloat over the result of the War of the Castilian Succession. It’s the brainchild of Max Graham, the amiable scion of the family that brought the world Churchill’s Estates, a landmark English port company, in 1981. The Graham genes have bequeathed a hereditary passion to Max, who talks with vocational pleasure about all things wine and port, and is plainly one of those most fulfilled types: a man who has fallen in love with another country.
Henry James famously wrote about the simple joys of bread and cheese in France: great cuisine, he implied, must trust to the inherent bounty of things as they occur. Similarly, Max and his Bar Douro team know that nothing so spoils a meal like overcomplication. The opening snacks – or petiscos to use the Portuguese – include hake goujons, chouriço bread, and milk fed lamb roll. This last, served with cream spinach, was a succulent revelation, but it was still of a piece with the ethos of the place: each dish worked on the principle of not overloading the plate with the complexity of a fuss or an ill-thought-through elaborateness. These openers were accompanied by two wines by the glass– one from the Churchill’s Estate in Douro, an evanescent 2015 vintage. At the high end, came the mineral pleasure of an R4 Douro Family Mãos Reserva Branco: this wine remained on the palate afterwards, like a memorable witticism.
Switching to red for the small plates, we were not to be disappointed: the 2013 Campolargo ‘Rol de Coisas Antigas’ Bairrada had us in its light but firm grip – like the surprisingly strong clutch of a toddler – and soon the full grandeur of the evening began to dawn. The octopus with sweet potato, cooked in charcoal, the Bavette steak with confit egg, the classic Portuguese dish – Pork Alentejana – with clams, and a perfect artichoke purée caused murmurs of approval.
But Max – like a consummate magician who leaves his greatest trick until last – had a final surprise in store: a Churchill’s 97 Vintage Port taken together with a Monte da Vinha cheese from Alentejo. Here, the meal acquired its depth. One began to think of the mystery of things.
An experience like this is not a meal so much as a visit to a country. Portugal offers much more than the hysterics of Cristiano Ronaldo and unhappy risk premiums on government bonds: it’s also zippy wines and intense ports, well-executed foods, and above all, a love of life both Iberian but also peculiarly itself. And that’s what Bar Douro is all about.
Christopher Jackson is head of the Spear’s Research Unit