By Gary Rose
When I was a kid in SE London, there was an off licence near my house called Bubbles Food and Wine. As well as booze, it sold malted drinks, popping corn, dried fish, Japanese noodles, creamed coconut, palm oil, monosodium glutimate and something called “cocoyam fufu”. And it had a brilliant 1980s shop sign, with bubble writing surrounded by Champagne bubbles.
It was exactly the sort of sign that today’s east London joints love; the sort of places that are too hip to bother replacing the knackered old sign from the previous business. Wine shop and occasional restaurant P Franco, on Lower Clapton Road, sits under the sign for a Chinese cash and carry called Great Wall. And why not; it’s a good look.
I’ve always felt it takes a certain level confidence to bite your thumb at traditional ideas of graphic design like this. This is a place that knows its own mind — and it likes to think it knows what’s good for you too. Here’s what I mean…
After a sticky Friday-night trek across town, I decide it’s rosé o’clock. “What do you have on offer?” I ask. “Oh we just pour wherever’s open,” comes the reply. Hmm, ok. I’ll have that then.
It’s not the response I’m expecting, and what arrives is something I admit I wouldn’t normally order: a deep-salmon coloured Austrian Blaufrankisch. Aged on the lees and with no discernable fruit character, this is stern, flinty, almost austere drinking. It’s the kind of wine that frisks you roughly and demands to see your papers.
The 2014 Austrian sauvignon blanc I try next is much on the same lines. Serious stuff; it’s like the Wagner’s Ring Cycle of wines. I’m enjoying it but it needs food, so I order some “dramatically blowtorched” mackerel with gooseberry and coriander. Tender, light, fragrant — nicely complementing to the wine.
By now the place is so full that people are eating standing up, using the shelves as tables. The food comes from, as I only discover when I venture downstairs to the toilet, a kitchen that’s literally a couple of camping stoves set up at the back of the room. And it sticks with the “you’ll get what you’re given” theme. Each little sharing plate comes out conveyor-belt style… when it’s ready. This works fine, but does mean you benefit from (as recommended) ordering the entire menu to ensure a steady flow of dishes.
After I’ve polished off a subtle peach and almond gazpacho and a very approachable 2014 Domaine Valette Macon Villages (ripe pear with steely minerality), I ask if they’ve any pinot noir. They don’t, and what they give me instead could most diplomatically be described as “interesting”.
It’s called Punk wine, and it sure has attitude. It’s a cloudy, rusty orange colour and occupies an area of the tasting wheel I’ve not previously encountered: animal. Specifically, horse. I wonder if it’s off, but the staff seem to know what they’re doing so I don’t like to ask. On the palate, it tastes like scrumpy cider. “Ancestral” is how it’s described.
Hmm… well, just as you can’t force a grape to ripen before it’s ready, it’s clear you can’t impose your will on P Franco. You have to accept what comes your way. Most of the time you’ll be in sync with them; occasionally you won’t. But whatever you get, you’re guaranteed an enlightening experience.
107 Lower Clapton Rd, E5 0NP