Unfiltered: Ciarán Bagchus, Pied à Terre
The head sommelier of long-standing Michelin-starred Pied à Terre in Fitzrovia, talks to Douglas Blyde about experiencing a change of vocation, a particularly embarrassing service mistake involving beetroot jus, and his ambitious plans for the historic wine list.
What have you enjoyed from your birth vintage?
1994 was not the best of years, though 99-100 point Ports have proved exceptional, and I have a decent amount of Taylor’s in reserve.
What was the first wine to move you?
Two bottles come to mind. Valbuena 5° Ano 1995 while I lived in Spain, and Walter Massa’s Derthona (Sterpi) 2017. I credit Sterpi for being the first wine not only to excite my palate, but to lead me to the place of intrigue about what wine can be. Valbuena sits as the most sentimental as I had it with very dear friends having lived in Spain for almost a year – a country which captured my heart. The ‘95 itself was amazing, made more important by the place, the company, and the setting. In Ireland, we say a good conversation is always preceded by a drink – this was certainly the case. It’s the companionship that wine invites that puts this wine here.
What bottle would you reach for if the nuclear button was pressed?
Krug 1982, which I had at the restaurant. The freshness that not only jumped from the glass, but persisted through the depth of brioche was amazing. My standout Champagne.
What was your vocation before Pied à Terre?
“Vocation” being the operative word. I trained for three years, studying Philosophy/Theology in order to become a priest in the Catholic Church. Growing up in a Catholic family, discernment of vocation was always encouraged, and while it didn’t prove to be the right timing, I certainly gained a lot of self-knowledge and experience to draw on. I spent part of my studies in Valladolid in the very heart of Ribera del Duero. This allowed me to experience food and wine in a different way. Here I met the part owners of Vega Sicilia, visited Hacienda del Monasterio, and Domino de Aguila. Needless to say, my love of wine deepened in what I now feel to be my wine heartland. I began to consider that there might be something of a career in this area. And almost two years later, here I am. It has been a whirlwind. However, I think there is some connection between the two. In hospitality, there is the sense of entering into the occasion with someone and helping them to create memories which will stand the test of time.
What is it like working with Pied à Terre’s owner, David Moore?
David and I have an amazing working relationship. I think there is something in me that reminds him of himself. I remember hearing the story of how he started with Raymond Blanc, and I think it is fair to say that the charm of the Irish landed us in roles that at the outset we were under-qualified for. That being said, it is safe to say, qualified or not, for someone now so esteemed and established as David, it gives me some sense of justifiable pride that he has, and continues to take, such a chance on me. Not every relationship includes a three-to-four bottle lunch every so often to “catch-up”. Wherever I end up, I owe him a greater debt that can ever be counted.
What phrase does he use most often?
“TipTop” or “Tiptastic”, “Where is the Sparkling Vouvray?” and “Shall we go to the office?”
Describe an embarrassing service mistake?
My goodness you are ruthless! There were two young couples dining on a relatively busy Saturday lunch service. They had taken two of my favourite bottles of wine. The ladies arrived in anticipation of their respective partners, and we struck up a conversation about two jars of fermented rock samphire at the back of the restaurant. The lady was disappointed this ingredient wouldn’t be on her menu today. Feeling characteristically generous, I asked chef to add in two portions of the dish which normally contains the fermented rock samphire into their tasting menu. Chef Asimakis being his usually agreeable self, obliged. The dish consists of beetroot, stracciatella cheese, beetroot jus, and fermented rock samphire. Champagne poured and canapés served – off to a flyer. White wine on the table, and first starters served and we continued to soar.
There is always an excitement which builds within me, knowing you are giving a surprise to someone which they are going to love. Starters cleared and set for the next course. As the commis brought the rock samphire plates up, I went to the table. This plate is notoriously “slippy” and can weirdly retain water in the bottom as it is hollow inside. As I serve water comes out, goes over my hand, plates slips, smashes water and wine glasses, with beetroot jus going all over the pristine tablecloth! Quick change of table, fresh glasses and top ups done, and we moved on. A little gift of a sweet wine from myself and a good chat and we laugh about it at the end. They ended up rebooking one of my wine dinners. As I always say at briefings – it’s not in the messing up, but in the resolution…
Describe the cuisine of the head chef, Asimakis Chaniotis?
Flavour driven! What I appreciate in Akis’ cooking is that each element of a dish will have enough flavour by itself to drive the dish – together it’s a harmonious sensation.
Is it true he makes his own wine?
He does, and I have tried two white vintages and the recent red vintage. I think it is safe to say that, at present, it is not my favourite. However, I was impressed with the quality improvement from year to year: there is definitely potential. When someone is as driven as Akis, I have no doubt that in five-to-seven years it will be one of the top wines from Kefalonia.
What has been a standout wine and food match?
Domino de Aguila Blanco (Albillo) VV 2019, with chef’s salted sod skordalia. This is a wine that I discovered while living in Spain. Seeing what they do with the Albillo grape is phenomenal. This amazing smoked element adds an extra lift to the dish. Nutty notes to pull out the Imperial Oscietra caviar, and an amazing laser lemon acidity to mirror the flavours of the ceviche.
And what do you pair with the vegan cheeseboard on offer?
With the Veganzola blue I like to be playful. A nice sweet and salty contrast ensues. Let’s go with Markus Molitor Zeltinger Sonnenuhr 3* White Cap Auslese Riesling 2011. This little bit of residual sugar with its beautiful, honeyed, nutty sweetness, cuts through the salinity while also combating the creaminess with its acidic backbone.
What are you bringing to the wine list?
I like to bring myself to it. By that I mean I will bring my loves and passions, while ensuring that the quality I know from my favourite regions persists. If it doesn’t meet that standard, it doesn’t go on the list. We have a vast wine list, but it still must be quality first.
What of a premium nature do you pour via Coravin?
Raveneau 1er Cru “Foret” 2008 and J.F. Mugnier Clos de la Maréchale. In the past I have cheekily served Coche-Dury Meursault by the glass which was fun.
Which wine regions would you like to visit?
I have a trip to Georgia coming up and I am doing harvest with Alberto Orte in Jerez. I would also like to go to Margaret River, Dundee Hills, and Piedmont. Plus, a return to my homeland of Ribera.
What is your favourite digestif?
Being Irish, there is only one way that the end of an evening can go. Whiskey! The “e” for excellence is crucial here. Recently, I was introduced to the Taoscán which is certainly hitting the spot, or a little glass of Middleton Vintage releases doesn’t go amiss.
How would you handle a spectacularly inebriated customer?
I am reminded of a recent event where a wine supplier who is becoming a very dear friend showed up with two friends… late in the evening. In they arrived, a portion of dessert was ordered and I paired it with a wine from my discovery flight – Hundred Hills Signature Rosé 2018 – the perfect accompaniment to a fraise de bois mille-feuille. After dessert, five negronis were ordered. The three of them, plus one for me and David. Then… a bottle of Chartogne-Taillet 2004… at which point, my friend fell asleep on another table. (Yes, the restaurant was empty at this stage). Myself, being the ever obliging host, helped them finish the Champagne while he slept. Unfortunately, this probably wasn’t the best idea as this meant that a deep sleep had ensued. After the consideration of a Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995, I had to sadly play the sensible host card. Friend woken up by placing both fingers in pressure points and screaming his name… helped into an Uber, a final hug goodbye. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Probably.
What was the last concert you went to?
I went to the Palladium to see a blues/Jazz band called the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Music is certainly my second favourite love after wine. I am heading to the proms to see Mahler’s Ninth. I had a very fun evening with regular customers recently where we challenged ourselves to come up with a composer for each wine which was served.
What qualities do you seek in sommelier hires?
What a pertinent question, having just completed the search for a junior! Firstly, not experience or knowledge – these are things that, respectively, can be gained and taught! I look for things I cannot teach – work ethic, personality, passion/desire!
What are your hopes for the future?
Pied sat at the top of wine lists in the UK and further afield for many years. While it certainly hasn’t lost that reputation, under my guidance, and working with those who are in my team, it will return to where it belongs. It is a significant aspiration – a huge task – but there is no point in seeking small things! On a personal level, I would certainly say that MS has to be the long term goal, to be in that company would be an absolute honour.
Pied à Terre – 34 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 2NH; 020 7636 1178; firstname.lastname@example.org; pied-a-terre.co.uk
Throughout October, Pied à Terre is participating in “Sake Seafood Sensations”, a campaign showcasing the harmony and compatibility of sake with seafood.