Like vegan dining – or the pizza slice emoji – Corkage started out in a niche fashion, appreciated only by a few foodie insiders, but has suddenly rocketed into the mainstream. Six months on from its opening (originally just as a pop-up) this wine bar, bottle shop and small plates venue in Bath is being talked about at every dinner party, drinks bash or school gate across town. Unsurprisingly it has also just gone permanent, its owners Marty Grant (of Bath’s Gascoyne Place) and Richard Knighting (previously of the city’s Marlborough Tavern) having signed a 10-year lease.
With a blink-and-you-would-walk-right-past-it setting, in what was previously an (unrelated) wine shop on the city’s Walcot Street, Corkage is appealingly fuss-free. Scaffolding poles help prop up wrap-around timber boards and a row of simple wooden tables sits beneath sail-like linen sheets billowing across the ceiling. The overall effect is part ski bar, part Parisian bar à vins.
Small and intimate, with 50 covers at an absolute push, it doesn’t take much to get a buzz going here. And while our recent Saturday night visit was perfectly civilised, despite bottoms being packed into every inch of space going (if you’re planning a romantic night out, try to book the one table set on its own by a window at the back of the bar), we didn’t have quite as good a time as on our previous three visits here, each of which had been on quieter, Wednesday, evenings.
Food-wise there’s a small but imaginative menu of around 15 small-plate dishes, each costing between £3.50 and £8. Some dishes stay on for a few weeks (by popular demand the crab toast has remained on since the start), others change within the space of a single service and there are usually four of five tweaks each week. While the food is good (often great, in fact), it’s designed to accompany the wines rather than as the starting point of the venue.
There are no printed menus or wine lists, just one small blackboard that’s shipped, personally, around each table and gives only hints at what each dish might involve (‘spuds’, ‘cavolo nero’, ‘tomato’, ‘caponata’). With wine, you’re in Marty’s hands (or those of Jonathan Kemp, another local wine nut who runs a wine-tasting business at weekends but moonlights at Corkage during the week). That is, unless your eyesight is particularly good, or you’re brazen enough to peer at the labels dangling from each bottle behind the counter, reading the prices scribbled onto them.
An element of trust is involved here that some diners won’t like. On that busy Saturday night the formula only felt moderately successful. We had a long wait for the blackboard to reach us that wouldn’t have happened if we’d been given a printed menu. And with Marty busy at other tables and Jonathan not working that evening we were left in less expert hands, where we might rather have made a choice ourselves from a list.
On a quieter night, however, the charm of the set-up really shines. Having someone describe each dish to you feels helpful rather than intrusive – and there aren’t so many dishes, or so many cheffy tricks, that you can’t remember what is in each one.
Served on an Instagram-friendly collection of mismatched china, the six dishes we ordered ranged from so-so (the ‘tomato’, lightly curried and baked, and served with toasted bruschetta, had been outstanding the last time we’d ordered it but on this visit it lacked the depth of flavour we’d remembered, and while a jewel-like salad of ‘lentils’ served with new-season asparagus, a raspberry vinaigrette, grilled halloumi and toasted seeds looked pretty it was too chilled and uptight to let its components sing) to great (an order of ‘chicken ‘ras’ was our dish of the night – a pillow of warm, richly seasoned white beans beneath a chicken thigh marinated in ras el hanout and cooked until it was perfectly peach-like inside but crisp as Tom Hiddleston’s consonants on top).
Big flavours were also in evidence with a dish of roast, cumin-dusted cauliflower, its crisp, burnished edges a lovely contrast to the sweetness of the vegetable (though the tahini yoghurt dressing it came with was, again, slightly too cold, leaving it as a delicious but solid topping rather than an unctuous drizzle).
Octopus marinated in pinot noir and served on a lemon-infused hummus was another hit, the smokiness of the hummus the perfect foil for the octopus’ tender tentacles. And worth the trip alone was a gorgeous salad of cavolo nero flecked with creamy feta, crunchy toasted almonds and beautifully fresh, sweet pear.
At this point we ran out of space, our stomachs finally as full as our eyes, but on other visits we’ve enjoyed expertly cookedpork belly with beetroot-dyed giant couscous, and next time we’re definitely trying the brisket with red cabbage slaw and the bream with broad beans and pickled lemon dressing.
Food here is only part of the story, however. There may also be a carefully chosen selection of craft beers and artisan tipples (any evening that doesn’t now end with a Somerset Pomona or an organic rhubarb vodka is a wasted one in our book) but the real impetus behind Corkage’s launch was a desire to show punters that there was more to be tasted than the usual sauvignon blancs and riojas – and many small, independent wine growers to discover.
Without being stuck to a list Corkage changes its stock regularly, and offers a wide range of bottles at reasonable prices. Of the 70 bottles on the shelves at any one time around 45 are directly imported from small European estates and, with 48 of the 70 wines available by the glass, there are also six different ways to drink most of them – a 50ml glass, a 125ml glass, a 175ml glass, a 250ml glass, a 500ml carafe or a bottle. With the smallest glasses starting at just £1 to £2.50 it’s a great way to spend an evening trying really nice wines for a few pounds. Tasting flights of six wines are also on offer and, if you eat in, you get an extra discount on bottles to go from the on-site shop.
In fact, ordering a bottle to go with your meal is almost a waste here. What’s great about the wine is that you can taste everything before you order it, even if you’re only ordering a glass. We loved our Wednesday night visits, when Jonathan was on hand to talk us through our likes and dislikes and made some standout suggestions (a coffee-ish Montepulciano was such a hit that we returned a few days after our first visit to buy a bottle). Try a few different wines in small glasses and you leave feeling informed rather than simply inebriated.
The element of trust is crucial to Corkage’s success. We’ve never specifically stated our budget on any of our visits but they’ve never suggested a really expensive wine without telling us and the bill has never been an unpleasant surprise.
Which is probably because, while Corkage isn’t perfect on busy weekends, it’s a heart-and-soul, human kind of place in a city that has more than its fair share of chain restaurants. It’s not pretending to be something it’s not. It’s not trying to show off. It’s simply two men with a passion for wine and food putting their energy into creating a place where other people can share and enjoy those things as much as they do.
Written by Rhiannon Batten, June 2016
Photos by Victoria Yates and Corkage
Main image courtesy Mike McNally firstname.lastname@example.org
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