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Canary Wharf: How Humble Grape is raising its food to the level of its wine offering

The Canary Wharf wine bar and bottle shop in Mackenzie Walk has a fresh focus on its dishes

Humble Grape executive chef Dane Barnard
Humble Grape executive chef Dane Barnard

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There’s a subtle shift taking place at Humble Grape.

The bottle shop and wine bar, which has its Canary Wharf branch at Mackenzie Walk overlooking Newfoundland and Middle Dock, will always be focused on supplying bottles and glasses you just can’t get anywhere else.

But the venue is also increasingly focused on the variety and flavours of the food it serves to its customers.

The man whose blue eyes are tasked with overseeing that operation across the company’s five locations is executive chef Dane Barnard.

“I started off as the head chef at the Battersea branch and, back then, there was no executive chef or a real food identity across the business,” he said.

“Each branch was doing its own thing. To an extent we still do, because you should be able to taste each head chef’s personality on the plate but as we’re becoming more and more about food – it’s about coming up with that identity.

“Now we know what we are and where we’re going – to really drive that side of Humble Grape.

“We’re not food-led, but it’s about half our business now, which is where we want to be.

“Humble Grape is a place you can come with friends or colleagues to enjoy wine along with something to eat.

Humble Grape is located in Mackenzie Walk in Canary Wharf
Humble Grape is located in Mackenzie Walk in Canary Wharf

“Our founder and CEO, James Dawson has done such an amazing job finding all these niche wine suppliers that you can’t find anywhere else in the UK.

“My vision is to bring the food in line with that – to use as much free-range, organic and sustainable produce as we can and to really try to mirror what we’re doing with the wine.

“That starts with our suppliers – it takes a long time to find the right ones and to build that relationship.

“For example, we use Donald Russell, which is a big one but they source produce from individual farms. We go to them with a detailed spec and they come back if they can help us.

“We certainly don’t know everything, so if they give us an ingredient then we can always try to do something with it.

“Even though I’m executive chef, I’m learning from my head chefs every single day – we have people from Spain and France and we’re constantly teaching each other. There’s a lot of passion and knowledge.

“We meet up for menu development and swap ideas – that’s what we’re looking for here and we’re always looking for talented chefs.”

Octopus carpaccio at Humble Grape (£14.50)
Octopus carpaccio at Humble Grape (£14.50)

That process has led to a menu of small plates at the Canary Wharf branch, including baked Camembert with sourdough bread, octopus carpaccio with compressed cucumber, stem broccoli with a lemon dressing and crab on a flatbread with chilli.

“My style of cooking is more about flavour than delicate presentation,” said Dane.

“A lot of my training was with a chef from America and we used the whole animal – that’s something we are teaching our teams at Humble Grape.

“For example, if we get a whole pig we take it apart, cure the legs use the cheeks and render the fat down to use when cooking.

“Every part of it has something to offer, you can even use the skin. You can see it on the menu where we’re using lamb neck for a small plate, served with freekeh.

“That’s more of a common cut but it has loads of flavour and you’re starting to see the upper echelons of the restaurant world jumping on that bandwagon.”

Stem broccoli with lemon dressing at Humble Grape (£8)
Stem broccoli with lemon dressing at Humble Grape (£8)

Dane, who joined Humble Grape in 2018 following stints at The Lockhart and Shotgun BBQ, is also keen to showcase vegetables.

“Spring is amazing,” he said. “If you can’t cook in this season, you can’t cook – there’s such a range of flavours and we try to use English seasonal ingredients.

“Vegan food had already come along big time before the pandemic hit – back then it was about 10% of diners and now we’re looking at perhaps 30%.

“We don’t go down the route of using products that look like meat – we’d rather use vegetables that look and taste like vegetables and try to enhance those flavours.”

With around 400 wines available at Humble Grape, the majority exclusively available through the business, the emphasis is on accessibility rather than prescriptive pairing.

“We regularly taste the wines,” said Dane.

“It’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it and it really helps when we’re developing new dishes.

“Our staff will be on hand to help with suggestions, of course, but we don’t tell people what wine to have with a particular dish – this is a place where people choose.”

Lamb neck with freekeh at Humble Grape (£13.50)
Lamb neck with freekeh at Humble Grape (£13.50)

The venue, which offers bar snacks, sharing boards, sweets and a range of meats and cheeses, also serves more substantial dishes such as herb-crusted chalk stream trout with Jersey royals, steaks and a spring pea and asparagus pasta.

“The Sunday roasts are probably the best place to start here,” said Dane.

“We serve lamb, chicken, pork, beef and nut roast – all sustainable and organic – as something traditional but more in a sharing style with Yorkshire pudding, grilled cauliflower cheese, roast root veg and gravy for £18.

“We used to do a bottomless brunch, but everybody does that, so now we do a bottomless lunch on Saturdays.

“I didn’t become a chef to cook eggs for people, so we thought it would be better to showcase our small plates

“You get three plus unlimited Prosecco, red wine, white wine or beer for 90 minutes for £35 between noon and 4pm.

“Our intention is, when the summer comes, that we will expand the food offering a bit more.

“We’ve got a massive grill in the kitchen, so when it’s sunny and people are on the terrace, we’ll be looking to maximise the use of that and really make it a place to come and sit outside.”

Herb-crusted chalk stream trout with Jersey royals (£20)
Herb-crusted chalk stream trout with Jersey royals (£20)

To go with the food, Humble Grape boasts plenty of regular wine offers including Retail Monday (our favourite), where bottles can be drunk at takeaway prices, Tasting Tuesday – a mini flight of four wines for £15 per person, and Icon Thursday And Friday, where more expensive bottles are sold by the glass.

Booking is not required to participate in any of these events – just drop in and place an order.

  • The Canary Wharf branch of Humble Grape is also launching an Express Lunch menu from Wednesday–Friday with a main course for £14, two courses for £19 or three for £22.
Humble Grape sells around 400 wines

Read more: Market Hall Canary Wharf opens its doors

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Deptford: Why Bluethroat in Deptford Market Yard wants to make a name for itself

Bar and restaurant run by brothers Ari and Landi Mucaj is keeping its focus on quality drinks

Landi, left, and Ari Mucaj of Bluethroat
Landi, left, and Ari Mucaj of Bluethroat – image James Perrin

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Deptford Market Yard’s arches are typically filled with magic. It might be the ramshackle ephemera of Little Nan’s, the slick seafood of Sharkbait ‘N’ Swim or the wholesome cafe cuisine of Dirty Apron.

All of theses businesses pulse and buzz with the passions of the people behind them. It’s why the area draws ever increasing numbers of people seeking independent places to hang out.

It’s also why Bluethroat’s owners thought their idea could work.

Brothers Landi and Ari Mucaj had been talking about starting a business together since 2013.

“I’ve lived in Deptford since 1997 and I’ve worked in many central London bars,” said Ari.

“I started working as a kitchen porter and then got a job as a chef, which I did for about three years.

“I’d finish work about 10.30pm and then go behind the bar and wash glasses for fun. I fell in love with being behind the bar and that’s what I’ve done ever since.

“I’ve worked mostly in central London in places like the Cuckoo Club and Chinawhite and I ran the bar at Maddox for about six years.

“Every time Landi would come to see me in central London he would always say: ‘We should do this ourselves’.

“That was really my plan all along, at least for the last 10 years, trying to save up and do it.”

In 2018 Ari quit his job and teamed up with Landi, who had been in Deptford himself since 2001, to look for premises.

Guests at Bluethroat in Deptford Market Yard
Guests at Bluethroat in Deptford Market Yard

“We were searching and then we thought, what better place than Deptford?” said Landi.

“We’d seen a lot of changes in the area over the years, so when we saw an opportunity here, we thought it would be the best place to build something.”

The brothers took one of the larger brick arches at Deptford Market Yard, more or less next to the train station itself, and set about doing just that.

“Instead of doing it somewhere else, we thought it’s just around the corner, we can walk home and it’s the perfect place,” said Ari.

“We found this fantastic space here – it was a shell when we got it and we’ve built it from scratch.

“It took about a year to build it – we didn’t know anything about doing that so the fact we have this location and that we’ve created it from scratch is crazy, but it feels amazing.”

Landi added: “I fell in love with it really – the whole experience of setting up a business. It’s had its ups and downs and it probably took us longer to open than most other places, but we learned a lot in the process.”

Landi Mucaj pours a drink
Landi Mucaj pours a drink – image James Perrin

Unfortunately things didn’t go quite to plan. Just days after Bluethroat opened its doors, the first national lockdown came into force and they slammed shut.

Like many hospitality businesses, the brothers have since been riding a rollercoaster of uncertainty, most recently closing at Christmas as the responsible thing to do, despite the lack of official government direction to do so.

With restrictions lifted, however, both Ari and Landi can’t wait to run their cocktail-focused establishment unfettered. 

“This is the first chance we’ve had to run in a normal market, there’s been a lot of opening and closing,” said Landi.

“Our plan remains very much the same and it’s about refining our formula.

“Firstly, we’re really passionate about our drinks, delivered with great service. We’re also a very good restaurant.

“We are a place where people can come and chill out and have some really good cocktails.”

Bluethroat also serves food
Bluethroat also serves food

Walk into Bluethroat  and that focus is unmistakeable. The bar’s shelves are laden with spirits, ready to be whipped into a multitude of alcoholic concoctions.

“This is where my brother’s experience comes in,” said Landi. “We have about 11 drinks on our menu, all of which we’ve created for Bluethroat.

“There are boozy ones and lighter drinks, some that are bitter, fruity, bitter, sweet and sour – something for every taste.

“We are constantly working on the list and evolving it, but we really enjoy asking customers what they like and then building something for them.”

Bluethroat – named for a small member of the thrush family with a distinctive blue collar and a powerful song – also develops seasonal drinks, with two of its four spring specials already in hand.

“Customers will always find something new,” said Landi. “We’re getting ready to launch one made with Haku Vodka from Japan. 

“We just love the taste of this spirit, made completely from rice, and we mix that with a bergamot liqueur and blackcurrant to make a sweet drink with a hint of spiciness. We think people are really going to like it.

“The second cocktail we’ve created for our spring menu is based on whisky with a fig liqueur and mulberry syrup. 

“We make pretty much all our own syrups in the bar using a range of techniques such as sous vide and hot and cold infusion.

“The drink has a creamy taste and we also infuse the whisky with violet leaf to give it a beautiful aroma when you’re drinking it.”

Ari added: “When we opened, I gave Landi a crash course and now he’s a genius behind the bar. One of our challenges since opening has been finding bartenders with experience.

“But I think local bars are taking over in terms of quality – you can find cocktails that are as good here or in places like Hackney, as you will get in Mayfair.

“I worked in central London for 20 years and the quality here is no different. 

“You are seeing people who are going out locally to get this, instead of making the journey in.”

Bluethroat is locate in Deptford Market Yard
Bluethroat is locate in Deptford Market Yard

While its extensive collection of bottles, rich brown hues and speakeasy vibe mark Bluethroat out as a haven for drinkers, the brothers hope that its food offering will be a welcome surprise for those ordering.

“We change the dishes all the time, but we serve Mediterranean and modern European food,” said Landi.

“There’s always something new, but we love seafood. There are a lot of Italian influences because our chefs are from Italy.”

Ari added: “We serve a lot of fish – black cod, king prawns and salmon – and we do specials every week.

“I think people are a bit shocked that the food is as good as it is because of the way the bar looks.

“We started off serving smaller plates, but we’ve extended the menu because people wanted more food.” 

The primary focus remains the liquid though, and, having worked widely on the city’s bar scene, Ari is keen to build the bar’s reputation in the capital.

He said: “Ultimately we want to be known as one of the best cocktail bars in London. That’s our ambition. 

“We’re taking things slowly and we haven’t really promoted ourselves yet. We wanted to grow organically and for people to find out about us that way.”

Bluethroat is open Weds-Sun. Cocktails typically cost between £10 and £11. Small plates are £6-£11 and bigger dishes around £14. 

Read more: New team at The Pearson Room deliver fresh flavours

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Blackwall: Black Rock brings its reinvention of the whisky bar to east London’s Republic

Co-founder Thomas Aske talks flavour profiles, fresh approaches and clear and present pricing

Black Rock co-founder Thomas Aske
Black Rock co-founder Thomas Aske – image Matt Grayson

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At Black Rock there’s whisky in the cupboards, in the bottles, in postable pouches and even buried in a special glass channel in the enormous oaken table that dominates a raised portion of this recently opened bar.

If there were jars in the place, they too would doubtless be filled with the stuff.

Long in the arriving, thanks to the pandemic, Black Rock has finally opened the doors to a significant chunk of space at Republic in Blackwall as the regeneration of the business estate gathers pace. 

Visitors can expect red white and black murals recalling both shogunate Japan and some of the brands of spirit on sale, spare bamboo panels and that blockbuster table, fashioned from the trunk of a tree that was probably 250 years old.

Significantly more expansive than Black Rock’s first site in Christopher Street, it showcases the tipples it sells without deifying them and that’s key for co-founder Thomas Aske.

“When we designed the blueprint for Black Rock, we knew interest in whisky was on the up and up, but we recognised there are a lot of barriers to trying the drink – it can be considered quite elitist and quite exclusive,” he said. 

“We wanted to create something that would simplify the category for people and become the gateway to the spirit.

“It’s no longer this male-dominated drink consumed in a gentleman’s club environment with someone sitting in front of a log fire sipping a single malt from a cut crystal glass and smoking a cigar.

“That’s part of the history of it, of course, and the way it’s often been marketed and presented. But we look at whisky in terms of its flavour and its accessibility.

“We recognise there are lots and lots of people out there who want to taste these drinks – but it can be an intimidating category, so where do you start? 

“People will say they want to try whisky but if they don’t find one they enjoy that doesn’t mean much.

Whiskies at Black Rock are displayed by flavour
Whiskies at Black Rock are displayed by flavour – image Matt Grayson

“What my business partner Tristan Stephenson and I decided to do was flip it on its head and ask what the barriers were to understanding whisky – one is flavour, another is price and the third is presentation.

“First and foremost we want people to come into the bar and have a good time.

“The biggest part of that is the ambience – the lighting, the music and the atmosphere.

“We want to change the way whisky has been viewed for a hundred years. Our design is very minimalist with an almost Japanese feel to it.

“We play hip-hop because that’s what people want to listen to. 

“That’s not something that’s been explored previously so it can catch people off guard but you can sit there listening to Jay-Z while sipping on a 20-year-old single malt.

“Secondly we present all of our whiskies batched into six different flavour categories – balance, fragrance, sweet, fruit, spice and smoke.

“When we talk to guests, we ask them what type of food they enjoy – if someone may says they like smoked meats, salamis and smoked cheeses, we’ll guide them to the whiskies in the smoke section, where they’ll find maybe a dozen whiskies in the cabinet featuring that flavour.

“We also ask people if they’ve tried something they like before and we can introduce them to similar whiskies that they might also enjoy. 

“I think people genuinely like to discover things rather than be told what to have.

“If you’ve chosen a whisky and you really enjoy it, you become almost an ambassador for that liquid – you’ll recommend it to others.

“It’s also an experience that sticks in the memory – it’s more emotive if it’s something you’ve picked out.

“Thirdly we have price – whiskies come in four categories indicated by beads glued to the neck of each bottle. 

“If there’s one, it’s £7 for a 35ml dram, two then it’s £9 and three then it’s £11. If there’s a golden bead the drams start at £12 and the price will be on the bottom of the bottle.

“We do hold a small selection of higher priced whiskies but we want people to know exactly what things cost so they know what they are buying is in the budget they want to spend.

“The idea is you’ll know what the whisky you’re buying roughly tastes like and what you’ll be paying for it.

The main bar at Black Rock
The main bar at Black Rock – image Matt Grayson

“We want people to walk away going: ‘Hey, I found that whisky, it was perfect for what I wanted to pay and I’ve had a great time doing it’.”

Thomas and Tristan know what they’re doing.

Both have more than two decades working in the drinks industry, co-creating consultancy business Fluid Movement that ran bars such as Purl and the Whistling Shop and offering advice and services to the hospitality sector.

“Having spent nearly 10 years developing concepts, both for ourselves and for other people, we felt we wanted to focus on one thing in terms of bars and Black Rock was the one that worked best,” said Thomas.

“Our site at Moorgate worked on all fronts – financially, commercially and reputation-wise. We won top awards for it four years running and we really believe it has legs. 

“We opened one in Bristol in June 2019 and we had about six months trading before the pandemic hit, which wasn’t the best for us from a cashflow perspective. 

“We’d put everything into this so it meant we were in the hands of our landlords and sadly we’ve had to close Bristol.

“But we’ve had incredible support from our landlords at Republic and in Moorgate and we’ve just signed a five-site licence in China for Black Rock, with the first due to open in Shanghai in about six weeks.

“The key to business is persistence – seeing it through whatever happens. We’re incredibly excited to get Republic open. It’s been two years in the making and a lot has changed in the area since we first took the lease on. 

“For us that feels quite fortunate – the occupancy of the buildings is a lot higher, which means you’ll get a snowball effect for the businesses trading here as the estate becomes busier and busier.

“You also have an ever-increasing number of residential properties in and around this area and the people living in them want a variety of places to go and enjoy themselves rather than having to travel all the way into central London.

“This whole area, with Canary Wharf as well, is evolving and will become an even greater hive of activity.”

Black Rock includes a giant wooden table
Black Rock includes a giant wooden table – image Matt Grayson

Thomas and his business partner will be busy themselves, having recently won investment for one of their other businesses from three investors on BBC show Dragon’s Den – a tasting subscription service called Whisky Me.

The club sends out monthly dram pouches of spirit to its members packaged to fit through letterboxes.

The idea is subscribers get a regular flow of new drinks to try while the brands get to grace the mouths of a group of engaged consumers who will, presumably, purchase bottles should they enjoy the contents of the recyclable, postable containers.  

As for the newly opened bar, it’s not just about whisky. Black Rock also offers wine and beers on tap for those who prefer to sip something different with their hip-hop.

Then there’s the cocktail in the table, dispensed from a little brass tap hidden under its LED-lit lip and currently featuring Johnnie Walker Black.

Food is also in the pipeline – customers can expect slow-roasted pork with an Americana flavour to sit alongside the drinks.

Like the whisky, this is a place to try on for size, then investigate further if the fit is right.

Read more: Sharkbait ‘N’ Swim seafood restaurant opens its doors in Deptford

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