Unfiltered: Bradley Tomlinson
The playwright, stand-up comic and genuinely unforgettable, impassioned sommelier at Leroy, Shoreditch talks to Douglas Blyde about how he “swung wildly between failure and success”, a mistrust of “natty juice parties” and sapid encounters with a “storm in a teacup”…
Where are you from?
What is your vintage?
I thought it wasn’t polite to ask a lady her age – let’s say that any single year Champagne from the early 80s would be a go-er… And if you find a dusty 1983 Jacquesson & Fils Signature at the back of the cupboard, good luck!
What is the story behind the restaurant’s name?
When we first opened, the restaurant was called Ellory. It sat at the ground floor of the Nettle Building when Hackney was still a little shifty. Not shifty in an 8-pounds-for-a-loaf-of-effing-bread kind of way, but shifty in a fun/exciting/dangerous/sexy/high-crime/lower-class/2-pounds-for-a-load-of-bread kind of way. No matter our efforts or our success or our many charms more often than not mugs would call the restaurant or cross it’s glass doorway and ask, ‘Is this Leroy?’ and we’d say ‘No. This is Ellory.’ And so… like the great Ray Kinsella (expertly played by Kevin Costner) in the cinematic opera that is Field of Dreams once surmised ‘We’ll always have Paris.’
Where did you work before?
I worked for and ran the cellar for an overly successful steakhouse chain in the great empire of Britain whose name I dare not utter for fear of retribution and so as not to further upset the vegan cart. Before that I moonlit as a sommelier and occasional playwright in Sydney for most of my twenties. And before that I swung wildly between failure and success in the outdated and out-of-touch antipodean public school system.
What was the first wine to impress you?
Castello di Nieve. A Barbaresco. I don’t remember how old it was, but I was young (and handsome) (and happy) (and the world was near my feet if not at them). And it moved me. I’d never tasted or met or been bewitched by something that so married prettiness and power, that so enthralled the senses and tugged at the heart. It was strawberry and smoke. It had flowers and grit. It was ugly and beautiful all at once. And I was hooked.
Describe your list?
Like so many of us it lives. It moves and breathes. I’m a firm believer that wine is a grocery and as such it moves and breathes. We buy and sell a lot of wine at Leroy and the program much like the juice in the bottle moves and breathes. Our by the glass list changes every couple of days. If a guest likes a wine we can crack it and serve it by the glass, no sweat. There’s a flexibility here that I’ve not experienced anywhere else, from either side of the bar, and it’s a lovely thing; a thing that lives and breathes and (rightly so) might even die one day.
What style do you find it hard to get along with?
Natty juice. I think the cider-ised natural for natural’s sake celebration needs to stop. I’m not a purist. Or a classicist. I like biodynamic as much as the next overworked, underslept sommelier. I like wines that are unencumbered by addition or subtraction. I like the natural movement. I’m an advocate for it. But, enough with the natty juice parties and the proliferation of bad wine sold as brave agriculture. Enough with wine that shows nothing of place, of craft, or of person. Enough with natty piss.
What has been a standout drink and food match at Leroy?
We were running a delicious foie gras parfait over the winter/xmas period last year. It was amazing. The folks in the kitchen hand-made brioche. They piped a mountain of the pinkish, brownish, flesh-coloured mousse onto it. They scattered fragola grapes over it. It was classy and gross and morish and everybody loved it. And I’d always bash out a splash of Tokaji to go with it. Sweet. Livery. Liberating.
Do you take your experience of performing stand-up comedy onto the restaurant floor?
I think it’s taught me to treat every table like a little audience – able to throw heckles on a whim and unappreciative of my genius as they may be.
How does music influence the enjoyment of wine?
I used to play music in the cellar at my old job. People always thought I was playing it for myself even though I’d play it all day, every day. I always told people I was playing it for the wine. Which I was. I like to think it made a difference. I like to think the old bottles were less lonely and more delicious because of it. Because they’d felt something, because they’d learnt something. Puccini. Iggy Pop. Rufus Wainwright. Rachmaninov. Bob Dylan. Brahms.
At Leroy we spin the eclectic vinyl collection of our fearless leader Ed Thaw. It’s one of the many drawcords of our little corner of the world. And it’s more important than it seems. A playlist can make or break a service. A good one can lift the guests enjoyment of each other, of the grub, of the grape. A bad one can kill it.
Are you excited by spirits?
I’m an old vodka hag. I love, love, love Tsipouro which is the best version of brandy you’ll find anywhere. Just stay clear of the unnecessarily anesthetised versions. You want a tall glass and bright sun and the nearby sea and second-hand cigarette smoke swirling about you.
What moves you most, coffee or tea?
Well, coffee actually moves me, but I’m much more a tea drinker. Fortnum & Mason original house blend Earl Grey had a little lapsang souchong in it for good measure which they today sell as Smoky Earl Grey. It is an actual storm in a teacup – if a storm were perfect – and the most satisfying (non-alcoholic) thing to ever pass your lips.
What have the critics said of Leroy?
I remember reading somewhere that someone once wrote about naughtiness and noise. It was some years ago, before my time. Though those things prevail, they prevail alongside a classy old-fash menu and a massive cellar of nothing but bangers. It was probably Grace Dent. It was probably The Guardian.
Who should prospective team members contact if they want to join Leroy?
A health care professional.