The site of The Don restaurant has a rich history stretching back to 1798, when George Sandeman began using the cellars for his port, sherry and wine company. ‘The Don’ refers to the iconic image of the Sandeman’s brand, a mysterious black caped character dressed in the manner of the Spanish Caballeros de Jerez, in a Portuguese student’s cape and wide brimmed hat – history seeps from the walls at every turn.
The wine list remains one of the big draws here, and I have my own happy memories of it when selling wine to them a few years ago. The strong wine focus is strengthened by owner Robert Wilson also owning Trinity Hill, a winery in Hawkes Bay in New Zealand’s North Island, and the winemaker’s son was in sommelier mode, busy pouring wine on our visit.
You’re confronted with some of the history immediately as you enter, the original Capital Patent Crane that lowered barrels filled with wine and port into the cellars, beautifully preserved and a reminder of what was considered a great feat of engineering at the time. These stairs lead down to one of the most evocative dining spaces in London, the Bistro and private dining room using the space of these original cellars, a journey back to another era.
The Sandeman Room downstairs
We dined in The White Room restaurant upstairs, decked out with abstract art from John Hoyland, a smart space with the Wine Study tucked in the corner – no escaping the vinous influence here.
Matt Burns has been heading up the kitchen for long enough to be practically considered ‘family’ at The Don, and the menu reads well with plenty dishes clamouring for attention; Oak smoked salmon with homemade soda bread; Steak Tartare with quail egg and Parmesan crisps; Burgundy braised rump of Salt Marsh lamb; Breast of Essex hen pheasant stuffed with confit leg, wild mushrooms and chestnuts.
Terrine of confit pork, smoked bacon, shallots and green lentils
Pressed terrine of red mullet, crab and pickled radish with a caviar and vodka dressing
A starter terrine of confit pork, smoked bacon, shallots and green lentils (£9.95) was a gutsy slab of pig, and pressed the right buttons. Another terrine of red mullet, crab and pickled radish (£9.95) was the delicate partner in comparison. It arrived with an echo of ‘sushi roll’, held in place by a piece of Nori seaweed. Another grind of seasoning would have helped things along, but there was a smear of caviar and vodka dressing to bolden things up.
Grilled lobster with garlic butter and béarnaise
A classic grilled lobster with garlic butter and Béarnaise sauce (£32.50) is a dish that probably flies out of The Don, the kind of dish that the City Boys down the road embrace with gusto. Excellent hand cut triple cooked chips were just right for scooping up any remaining Béarnaise.
Loin of New Zealand venison with roast smoked bacon, celeriac and pear
Loin of New Zealand venison (New Zealand is part of the gig, so we can forgive this) with roast smoked bacon, celeriac and pear (£26.50) is the soul warmer you can crave in late November, and here was some beautifully cooked, rosy pink venison. Bold, strong flavours, no excess faff.
That wine list. First thing to say is that Friday night is ‘Wine Night’ at The Don, with every bottle over £50 offered at half-price; this is the way to take full advantage of a carefully sourced list that has some absolute pearlers all the way through it. We had a glass of Trinity Hill Chardonnay 2011 (£4.25 a glass), judicious use of a small percentage of French oak adding complexity and more than a whiff of Burgundian style. We also tried the joint venture between Trinity Hill and Sancerre winemaker Pascal Jolivet, ‘Metis’, a suitably restrained Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blanc. Trinity Hill’s ‘Gimblett Gravels’ Syrah (£7 a glass), delivered a whack of smoky blackberry fruit, before an impromptu treat from the sommelier, the iconic Henschke ‘Mount Edelstone’ Shiraz 1995 from Eden Valley, an open bottle from the previous night’s wine dinner allowing us to have a sip. Still alive and kicking with more gears to shift into over the coming years. As well as superbly chosen wines from around the world, the rest of the list tip-toes through some of the greatest hits from Burgundy, taking in Louis Carillon, Etienne Sauzet, Marquis d’Angerville, Patrick Javillier, Domaine Ramonet, Domaine Faiveley et al, while Bordeaux hounds will be kept happy with the classic Châteaus.
Cheese board served with walnut bread, celery and chutney
The cheese board had been taunting us throughout the meal, as we caught the scent on the air every now and again of Morbier, excellent Brie, or the pungent funk of a ripe Epoisses. We waded in and found everything well kept and served.
The Don is a restaurant which many Londoners still may not have heard of, despite its history, tucked away as it is in St Swithin’s Lane, just seconds from Bank station. They have a longstanding loyal crowd of City workers who have been coming here for what seems like forever, and dining here always feels distinctly homely. Book on a Friday for that generous wine discount and raise a glass to the black cloaked gentleman who has been raising his own glass for a long, long time.
The Courtyard, 20 St Swithins Lane, London, EC4N 8AD
Booking available here