Top-end Mexican food and low intervention wines from Central and Eastern Europe are perhaps not the most obvious bedfellows, but they certainly work beautifully together. This will be confirmed by anyone that's been lucky enough to try KOL's signature dish of langoustine, smoked chilli and sea buckthorn taco with an intensely aromatic Rkatsiteli-based wine from Georgia's Kakheti region.
Orange and other skin contact whites such as this are particularly apposite foils for Santiago Lastra’s creative dishes, which often to combine acidity and tightly-controlled chilli heat. The wine list at KOL - which was opened by Lastra and Casa do Frango operator MJMK restaurants towards the end of last year in Marylebone along with its standalone bar KOL Mezcaleria - is overseen by Matt Varona, who knows Lastra well having worked with him at guest chef restaurant Carousel when the former Noma Mexico chef was testing out the British ingredient-led concept that would eventually become KOL.
While wines from central and Eastern Europe are becoming increasingly fashionable, they still offer great bang-for-buck and give KOL an opportunity to challenge preconceived notions about what lesser known wine producing countries such as Slovakia, Croatia, Georgia and the Czech Republic are capable of.
Such a novel approach to wine sourcing and the fact that most customers won’t be particularly knowledgeable about styles, grape varieties and producers requires a novel layout for KOL’s 80-bin wine list. Whites - for example - are divided into categories including rich and complex, and crisp and fresh, while skin contact wines are split into light amber, medium orange, and full-on skins.
As you’d expect, KOL also mixes a mean (mezcal) margarita and offers an extensive selection of niche Mexican spirits. Overseeing this aspect of KOL’s drinks programme is Germany-born bartender Maxim Schulte. The American Bar at The Savoy was named the best bar in the world by The World’s 50 Best Bars in 2017 when he was head bartender there so his appointment is something of a coup for KOL.
Schulte largely follows Lastra’s policy of only importing a handful of ingredients - including corn, dried chillies and chocolate - and oversees KOL’s cocktail offering as well as its downstairs bar.
Restaurant caught up with the pair behind KOL’s drinks program earlier this year.
Why did you decide to focus on wines from central and Eastern Europe?
Matt Varona: I favour small, interesting producers that aren’t that well known, and there’s no shortage of them. I guess I’ve been movingly steadily eastward from the classic wine producing countries of Western Europe over the last few years. To pick out one example, Georgia makes incredible wines. Its history of wine making goes back 8,000 years so its very much entrenched in the culture there. It’s no surprise the wines are so beautifully made. We also have quite a few wines from Spain because my father is from there. Spain can also provide wines that are beautiful as well as being great value for money.
What’s it like to be offering customers such unfamiliar wines?
MV: Overall it’s going well. There are some familiar grapes such as Grüner Veltliner, Reisling and Syrah so people aren’t too flummoxed by the offering. But when you’re dealing with unfamiliar stuff you need to be willing to let people taste before they commit. I don’t like the term try-before-you-buy but a little preview can be great. These wines can be quite costly, but only because they’re among the best these countries have to offer.
Tell us about the by-the-glass side of things...
MV: By-the-glass is a mix of Central and Eastern Europe alongside some more familiar places including Spain, Italy and France. If there’s any part of the offering in which we need something familiar it’s by-the-glass. But with the set menu pairing - which a lot of people are going for at the moment as we're new - I like to mix things up with some less familiar wines. The Eastern European wines go really well with Santiago’s food, and he has also fallen totally in love with these wines.
Given the levels of spice in some dishes, are you serving wine with residual sugar?
MV: Being a Mexican restaurant, it is understandable that people ask us what wines we have that pair well with spicy food. There are obvious grape varieties and wine styles out there for that but I did not want to go down that route. I’d rather play with aromatics - something with some skin contact and a good juiciness to it can work really well with the more spicy dishes.
Tell us about the bar program at KOL...
Maxim Schulte: Upstairs at KOL we offer cocktails that are very closely related to the classics but with our own spin. They are designed to match with the flavour profiles in Santiago’s food. For example we have an old fashioned which is made in the normal way but has a splash of mezcal for extra smokiness and that Mexican touch. We have eight drinks in total, taking in everything from aperitifs to more dessert-y after dinner drinks.
What about downstairs?
MS: At Mezcaleria we offer a huge list of agave-based spirits and other Mexican spirits - the country also produces some fantastic rums, gins and whiskey. At any one time we offer five flavour profiles. For each profile, we have one drink made with Mexican spirits and another made with spirits that are more familiar, so 10 drinks in total. Mezcal and other Mexican spirits are still a bit unknown and we want to be accessible, especially as a relatively new place (Mezcaleria launched in December but was only open very briefly). It might be called Mezcaleria but we're not going to force mezcal on those that don't want it. It’s not as simple as just switching the spirit, they’re completely different drinks.
What about fresh produce, are you importing anything at all?
We’re largely following the kitchen in that regard. Margaritas are made using verjus (the pressed juice of unripened grapes) rather than lime, for example. We do use some ingredients from outside the UK but they are shipped over, we have access to all the amazing dried chillies the kitchen uses.
Your background is top-end hotel bars. This seems very different...
Yes. It's refreshing to be working very closely with a kitchen team. We work with the seasons and use lots of the kitchen's offcuts. This project has also opened up a whole new world of spirits. I was a fan of mezcal before KOL but with Santiago's contacts I now have access to lots of new producers. My brief from Santiago is to run Mezcaleria as my own place. We welcome guests that are dining or have dined at the restaurant but we want people to come in just for the drinks.
The dining room at KOL