With a decidedly wintery chill in the air, and a husky breeze blowing across the seafront, my family and I watched the annual Southend firework display ripping the blotted night sky with streaks of vividly flashing colour and glitz, an appreciative awe descending on the collected masses clustered on the prom. After ten minutes and with growingly numb fingers, the eruption of dazzling and booming brilliance finished, so we headed back towards the high street in search of some warming grub. My Southend native sister had booked us a table at the nearby The Pipe of Port; a Dickens’ style wine bar and dining room that she had had her eye on for a while. Serving homemade classic British food with a nod to the occasional contemporary twist, we knew the food would suit my classic diner dad, whilst also hitting the creative taste buds of my foodie mum.
Upon entering, we went down some stairs that seemed to lead us into a basement, where the restaurant was situated. The very first thing that struck me was the absolutely mouth-watering scents that seemed to lace the air; the smells of richly roasting garlic, seared and plump meat as well as the undercurrent of beautifully freshly baked bread all seemed to combine and sit laden in the air, waiting to be consumed by my eager sniffs. Instantly impressed by the wonderful aromas, I couldn’t wait to get seated, as we were shown to a quirky alcove table.
With an old world feel and a nod to a bygone era, The Pipe of Port is extremely well decorated – thoughtful but not try too hard. Decked out in floor to ceiling wood panelling, the mahogany tables are neatly dressed with fine dining tips, such as small white side plates, housing a paper napkin and cutlery for each plate setting. A wide based green champagne bottle innovatively acted as a taper candle holder, the white wax racing diligently down the side of the empty bottle creating a gorgeous dripping lace effect, reminiscent of old Italian eateries. The slate flooring is generously scattered with lashings of sawdust, shelves holding row upon row of wine bottles, faded paper luggage tags offering insights into the names and flavours contained within. Blackboards adorned almost every wall, reeling off an abundance of information. The one nearest our table usefully informed us of Paul’s favourite wine, which intriguingly had chocolate as well as blue and black berry notes. I must say, the board did its job as I was getting increasingly curious about what the wine would taste like, as I imagine a chocolate and fruity red would be right up my street.
Coat rails hung cosily from the walls for us to drape our winter wrappings on as we headed for our alcove, the large table having a wooden two seater high backed bench tucked round the back, with low slung wooden dining seats dotted around the other sides of the table. Slipping round to hog the fancy bench seat with my sister, our parents sat opposite, while Jess’s other half took the head of the table. Nice and snug in our corner, we were tucked rather out of the way, but this worked well for us being a bit of a larger group than the other guests. It also gave us more privacy and we didn’t feel overlooked at all. The atmosphere was quite a mixed bag – in parts it felt sophisticated and grown up, whilst there was also a talkative buzz and chatter, a delicious hint of fun, laughter and having a good time. It felt like a mature gastro-pub; it was time to grow up from the alco-pops and get serious about our wine and food.
It was completely evident from the outset that this is a serious wine venue, not only by their ‘Merchant’s Corner’ where they display an eclectic selection of wines for you to sample and drink in house or even buy to take home, but every single dish on their food menu comes with a personalised wine recommendation. Taking the tome of a wine list, you can tell how much thought has gone into it, as it is divided up into flavours and colours, so even a novice wine drinker could navigate their way to a beverage they would enjoy. I instantly looked under the ‘Aromatic, Light and Fruity’ white wine section, as I knew this was my type. I skipped the ‘Crisp and Refreshing’ options as I dislike those, although I was intrigued by the ‘Light and Elegant’ red choices, although my dad seized upon a Rioja under the ‘Intense and Spicy’ red category. Wine wise and liking it sweet, I settled on a Riesling, which turned out to be full-bodied and a deep yellow shade, with tangy citrus notes and a husky punch for the aftertaste, although no bitter dryness which was good.
Starters wise, I decided to keep it light, as I am much more of a dessert girl, so I wanted to save myself. I went for the typical ‘for the table’ option of bread and olives with balsamic vinegar and oil. When it arrived at the table, I must say, it looked so good. Served on a long and thin rectangular white divided plate, the right hand section housed a neat pool of Italian olive oil, a tidy square of black balsamic sunk to the bottom. Next, overflowing from a small dip dish were a selection of green and purple olives; wonderfully juicy and lip-smackingly salty, they were really moreish and not overpowered by any additional flavourings. I think one of the olive types was Kalamata, but I can’t be sure on the others.
The bread was clearly homemade and truly divine. Large, rustic quarters had obviously been sawn from a fresh loaf, one chunk a traditional white, the other a mildly grainy whole wheat. The crusts were pliable yet that wonderful challenge where you have to get your teeth stuck in and tear sideways to rip your mouthful off. The bread itself was so soft and fluffy it was like eating lovely carby air – so delicious. Covered in a thin layer of marg and dunked in my oily dip it was really tasty yet not too filling, so this really hit the nail on the head for me. Jess, my mum and Andrew all went for the mussels, artily scooping the fishy morsels from their shiny shells, whilst my dad went for the odd option of fingers of toast topped with stilton cheese and anchovies. Served on a square of black slate, it definitely looked the part of posh gastro pub.
As soon as I saw duck hiding under the meat category on the main course menu, I knew it was a done deal. Served pink with a gooseberry and red wine sauce, it sounded ideal and was definitely something that I wouldn’t prepare at home, giving me all the more reason to pick it. It came on a bed of curly kale, which tasted like spinach really but with an interesting crunch and a more substantive texture, which I actually really enjoyed mixed with my sauce. Although the dish came with mash, I opted to swap this for the more elegant dauphinoise potatoes, as again this is something I wouldn’t have as often at home. This arrived at the table in a separate side dish, a delicate stack of single slices of potato, the creamy, milky sauce collecting between the layers and dripping tantalisingly down the sides. With a nice crisp layer on the top, I slid the potato pile onto my main plate, again so I could smother it in the sauce. The potatoes were cooker perfectly and tasted so buttery, so that was lovely, especially with the rich sauce.
The star of the show though was naturally the beautiful duck and that unique sauce. The duck portion was much larger than you would receive in other establishments, with four lovely large slices that were thick and topped with bubbling skin. The meat was moist, soft and squidgy, served pink and incredibly tender. My knife sliced through it simply and it literally melted in the mouth. The red wine and gooseberry sauce had that punch of fresh fruit that always works so well with duck, the green gooseberries rolling around in the sauce adding a more pungent punch of flavour when squashed onto the duck with my fork. The red wine reduction was light and rather thin, yet still flavoursome and rich, the depth of the wine working wonders with the game meat. The gooseberries were peppy and a vibrant splash compared to the rich meat and sauce, so the combination together was just lovely, especially when matched up with the crunchy kale and the buttery potatoes too. Every component was perfect just as it was, so when they were all put together, it was a harmonious plateful that I thoroughly enjoyed getting stuck in to. Needless to say I polished this off nicely, leaving a very clean plate.
The great thing about the meal so far was that the portion sizes were spot on. They were decent enough to fill you up and give you enough of a plateful to work through, yet they didn’t overfill you. This meant I still had plenty of space for dessert, so I happily ordered the chocolate truffle torte, deciding to have it with vanilla ice cream instead of cream. When it arrived at the table, I was pleased to see that it was a much bigger slice than I was anticipating, served with a swish of cherry compote and a single scoop of the slowly melting ice cream in a little clear dish. Taller than the average cheesecake, the torte had a thick, ganache style topping that was basically a soft layer of scrumptious chocolate. The torte filling itself underneath was soft and like a mousse, but with an intensely rich chocolate flavour, which was amazing considering how light and fluffy the mousse was. Thick, a bit sludgy in texture but oh so perfect to eat, I literally sighed happily with every mouthful of this deliciously decadent dessert – it felt so opulent but really was the ideal mix of textures, delivering a powerful and potent chocolate flavour but with a mix of consistencies that was a real pleasure to eat. Really yummy.
Undoubtedly the food was top notch, in terms of the creative and thoughtful menu, the quality ingredients and the careful and considerate execution. This was reflected in the prices however, with my main course costing £15 and my dessert hitting £6.30. My starter was £2.90 and I’m not sure how much the wine was, but since the restaurant is famed for its wine, I don’t think this is an area they would scrimp on. As a table, we shelled out just under £200 for five people so fabulous for a treat night or a special occasion, but I’m not sure how suitable it would be for a regular date night at these kinds of prices. The service was good as well, with the waiting staff being very diligent. We had a problem at one point when all our main courses had been brought out save my sisters, so since hers came out late, she was given a drink on the house for which she chose a gin and tonic. Her meal came out probably when we were all halfway through ours, but since she is a quick eater it luckily didn’t make too much difference to the atmosphere or pace of our meal, which is a relief.
On the whole, I would say The Pipe of Port is a fantastic venue, very original with gorgeous décor that makes you feel comfortable yet feels swanky and like a trip back in time. The owners clearly know their stuff with regards not only to local produce and quality ingredients, but with that fabulous array of wine – I don’t think I have ever seen a wine list so detailed or categorised that way before, and I actually really liked this. It made choosing a wine easy since you could search based on what flavours or types of wine you liked, and it made the whole notion of the ‘wine list’ approachable, so you didn’t have to know every style of wine available to pick something you would enjoy. Well worth a visit if you happen to be visiting the seafront for a festive day out day, although this is definitely one for the grown-ups so leave little family members at home!