You know how sometimes you want to work up an appetite for dinner by being really bad at something in a really public way?
I’ve got good news.
Good news in the shape of Vinothec Compass, the Basque restaurant attached to the Greenwich Peninsula Driving Range. They offer ‘casual fine dining’, the website says opaquely, along with views from the floor-to-ceiling windows running along one side of the restaurant of the driving ranges – 60 of them, stretching out over two decks and edged by the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf on the horizon.
I’ve heard big praise for the VC food from a difficult to impress friend, who sends me lyrical messages about their gnocchi with a lot of uncharacteristic exclamation marks. And I’m sort of into the idea of the golf, in the way that I always am with sports I’ve never tried before and so I might unknowingly be amazing at.
So we’re booked for dinner, and we’re booked for golf first. Jethro, who knows how golf works but keeps saying things like ‘don’t call me an industry expert because I’m not’, is here as my industry expert. And my ambitions for the night are modest. Just looking forward to hitting a few balls, and I don’t really care where they go, and then: Basque food.
In retrospect my first mistake was pinning so much importance on actually hitting the balls. So old-guard, this obsession with connecting on every swing.
When my date hits a ball it peels off with a bullet-noise and smacks against the netting in the distance. When I hit the ball, which happens on maybe one out of four swings, it makes a quiet little crack and rolls to just out of arm’s reach in a leisurely way.
My date gets to wear a glove, because of the toll this sort of high-power impact takes on your hand. I don’t get to wear a glove, because not managing to hit the ball is actually really gentle on your hands.
Our on-hand golf pro picks out irons for us, builds a bespoke club for us to try out, just because, and gives tips that mean when I do connect with the ball it sometimes travels as many as four or five metres. And he says encouraging things about my improvement that my date’s laughing too hard to actively contradict. It’s nice. I’m hooked.
So I’m much, much worse at golf than I thought I would be, and inexplicably I love it a lot more than I thought I would. It’s weirdly exhilarated and with a frisson of totally unfounded optimism about my golfing future that I give back the clubs and head for the warmth of Vinothec Compass.
We do a quick tour through the restaurant with co-founder Keith Lyon, who pauses briefly in front of their wall of wine and casually drops more knowledge in two minutes than the sum total of everything I’ve ever known about wine. The collection stretches to over 400 bottles – eclectic but not elitist, with prices reaching from the stratosphere down to something you wouldn’t need a company expense account to justify ordering – along with a just as curated list of sixty lesser-spotted beers.
The food menu does the same mix of casual – burgers, mac and cheese, fish and chips – and carefully-wrought. Burgers come by our table, being carried out to the range and looking like every dream you ever had of a burger. But for tonight we stick to the Basque-r side of head chef Idoia Guzman’s menu, and whatever the collective noun for pintxos is, we make our way through a large one of that. Starting with Gilda – pickled chilli, olive and anchovy skewered together in a bite-size slap of salt and heat – and a plate of ceps.
There’s a pink tomato salad, and piquillo peppers, slick with dark green olive oil and roasted; padron peppers, fried and salted, and Basque black pudding , a pile of soft, sticky morcilla sausage on thick toast. It’s velvety, even if that’s not an adjective you want to hear about a sausage, and it’s incredible.
And when those sweet potato gnocchi turn up it’s with slices of Galloway onglet, the steak dense and rare, the gnocchi rich with truffle and making sense of all my friend’s exclamation marks. Of the wines Lyon matches to our dinner, two to look out for are the Come d’Incanto from the Apulia vineyards of Cantine Carpentiere – bright and rich at the same time – and the Equipo Navazos ‘I Think’ Manzanilla en Rama, powerful enough to stand up to the pintxos.
This restaurant could get away with being a lot less lovely than it is. The food’s great, the wine list’s drawing punters by itself and it turns out the golf’s strangely addictive – so yeah, you could get away without the candlelight and the skyline being lustrous in the distance, and Lyon’s evident, inclusive love of what they’ve created here and Guzman’s double-clasping your hands in greeting brand of warmth. Without any of that I’d still be planning my next visit and undressing other people’s burgers with my eyes. Just a nice bonus that it’s also one of the most relaxed, welcoming pockets of – alright, I get it now – casual fine dining you could hope for.
We wrap up with creme brûlée paired with a stirrup cup of Kwak beer – partly because Lyon’s really persuasive, partly because drinking from a stirrup cup makes you feel like a Viking warrior and after my performance on the driving range I really need that. And we trail back out into the night, a lot fuller and a lot more into golf and North Greenwich than three hours ago.
Vinothec Compass, Greenwich Peninsula Golf Range, Tunnel Avenue, SE10 0QE. 0208 8587448. Website.