It’s adjacent to The Don restaurant, but offers a less formal and more affordable dining and wining experience than its corporate-clientèle-oriented older sibling.
Having said that, this is the City we are talking about, and even though on our first visit we observe a pretty relaxed atmosphere in the upstairs bar, the bistro downstairs feels quite serious and destined for the great and the good of London’s financial service sector.
The menu offers British cuisine with Spanish and Portuguese flavours, but we are mostly impressed with The Sign of the Don’s wine collection.
The Sign of The Don’s owners Robyn and Robert Wilson have hand-picked 30 wines, many from their private cellar.
Some of the wines can be admired directly from our table, as they are stocked right in the bistro and available by the glass using the state of the art wine preservation system.
The selection features Spanish and Portuguese wines and options from the Wilsons’ vineyard, Trinity Hill, in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.
The cocktail menu includes classic drinks and signature Sherry and Port cocktails, such as The Trader (Sandeman Sherry Pedro Ximenes, Carpano Antica Formula, Angostura Bitters, £13).
Port, Sherry and the figure of The Don with his traditional Portuguese flat black sombrero, have been integral parts of 20 St Swithins Lane since 1798 when the young George Sandeman took over the site as the cellar for his Port, Sherry and wine company.
The wines were shipped to London from Oporto and Jerez on the Iberian Peninsula in wooden casks, that were rolled directly from the river Thames through a Roman tunnel and ancient vaults that stretched down to Cannon Street.
The tunnel no longer exists, but a 30 metre section of the vault that led to it has been restored and wine tastings and other events are now being held there.
The bistro’s interior also pays homage to The Sign of the Don’s Iberian heritage – we are sitting on banquettes crafted from Sandeman Port casks, iron hoops of ancient barrels decorate the ceiling and a Portuguese cork floor complements the historic brickwork.
My guest Lina and I start with a glass of Barbera d’Alba, Pio Cesare, Piedmont 2011 (£7) and Grilled octopus with Chorizo and chickpeas (£8) and a Trio of Mrs. Sandeman’s croquetas (Jabugo ham, salt cod, mushroom, £6).
The croquetas are delicious and the octopus is good too, but the dish is more about chickpeas than seafood. I choose Veal steak with fried egg, potatoes and Romesco sauce (£17) for my main and Lina goes for the Venison Wellington (£17).
My friend has made a better choice – the Wellington is really tasty, but I’m disappointed with the veal, which is a bit dry and suddenly I don’t feel like eating the egg. “The menu did say the veal steak comes with a fried egg,” Lina says. Of course she is right, so no one to blame here, but me.
A beautiful glass of Pratt & Symington Quinta de Roriz “Chryseia”, Douro 2009 (£17) cheers me up and after that I manage to order the best dish of the evening – Dark chocolate pot with salted caramel (£6), that is so good, I feel I’m in sweet culinary heaven.
We are in a place where Port and Sherry ruled for 200 years – the wines were matured here, bottled and stocked, so we decide we can’t leave The Sign of the Don without trying some port.
A drop of Taylors 10 Years Old Tawny Port NV (£8) is classic and sweet and leaves us dreaming about sunny holidays on the Portuguese coast and the pleasures of summer.
For help with advising on and booking your restaurants including The Sign of The Don, or indeed to help plan that getaway to Portugal, contact Bon Vivant to ask about our services.