In an unassuming spot on Charlotte Street, we're meeting a woman on a mission. When you take your first step into Bubbledogs, it doesn't look like a Champagne bar. It doesn't really look like somewhere you'd go for hot dogs either, but that is precisely what's on the menu here: American dogs with a twist, and artisanal grower Champagne.
Sandia, the founder and head chef, doesn't seem like the typical Champagne bar owner either. "I've always hated those Champagne bars where it's really stuffy and pretentious. It's so cheesy, all the velvet couches, the crystal chandeliers and the flutes that are like this tall…" she mimes a five foot Champagne flute in disgust.
"I was going to open a Champagne bar that made people feel comfortable, that didn't really look like a Champagne bar"
Which brings us to the mission statement for Bubbledogs. "I said I was going to open a Champagne bar that made people feel comfortable, that didn't really look like a Champagne bar, and that sold the most amazing Champagne you could ever find."
Sandia's enthusiasm for unusual combinations comes from a youth spent working in top New York restaurants that she couldn't afford to eat in. "Me and my friends worked in three Michelin-starred restaurants, and we used to get all of these great wines – through work – but we never had the money to eat out at nice places, so we always ended up at the local pizza joint with amazing bottles of Bordeaux or Barolo."
"That'll never catch on…"
An idea began to germinate in Sandia's mind. "I remember there was this restaurant in New York that served mussels and fries. I was with a bunch of friends and we had a great 1991 Nicolas Holy Savennieres Coulee de Serrant. We were eating mussels and drinking this wine saying, 'This is the most amazing thing I've ever had.' I think I even said at the time, 'One day, I'm going to open a restaurant that serves Champagne and hot dogs.'"
"We have one of the greatest Champagne lists in London, even in the whole of England, I can actually say."
Bubbledogs opened its doors in 2012. Did the notoriously skeptical British public jump on board right away? "I think a lot of people in the beginning came for the novelty of, 'Does this really work?' or, 'What is this about?', then more and more people realised that we have one of the greatest Champagne lists in London, even in the whole of England, I can actually say."
On that Champagne list, there are no big names to be seen – and that's by design. "A lot of the big brands produce about 28 million bottles a year, and buy their grape juice in. They contract out a lot of farmers to grow their grapes. All of the Champagne producers on the list at Bubbledogs are farmers who farm their own grapes and make their own Champagne. They'll produce anything from 4,000 bottles to 15,000 bottles a year. It's different when somebody creates something on a smaller scale – it's strictly artisanal."
Get ready for hot dogs at their highest aspiration.
Bubbles taken care of, let's talk dogs. What made Sandia pick the humble hot dog? "I personally love Champagne with charcuterie and cheese, but French Fries is my absolute favourite thing to pair it with. Anything salty and greasy goes well with Champagne – it's the saltiness and oiliness of caviar that makes Champagne and caviar a classic. Hot dogs have all those elements: the sausage, the cheese, the greasiness and the saltiness – so it seemed like the perfect match."
First up, the Fourth of July – created for Independence Day, the perfect way to celebrate hot dogs, the high life and all things American. "Everyone always has a barbecue on the 4th July at home – so we put the barbecue sauce over the hot dog, then we put the coleslaw on top to give it a nice fresh crunch, and then we added bacon bits on top so you get all the porky stuff."
Next up, my personal favourite – The MacDaddy – a mac and cheese hot dog that has brightened up many lunchtimes and been the cause of many unproductive afternoons. But it seems I'm not the only one, "It's everyone's favourite. It's mac and cheese – we make our own cheese sauce, and load it with all sorts of cheese – then smother the hot dog with it, and top it with crispy onions and bacon bits – again. Pretty heavy." Heavy is right, but the good kind of heavy – like watching the complete series of The Wire from start to finish. It's totally worth it.
"They're working in a Michelin Star restaurant kitchen making fancy food, and all they really want to eat after work is a hot dog."
That throwaway comment over mussels and fries in NY in 2004 turned into something that took off in a big way, and when it came to getting more variety on the menu Sandia's first thought was to get her chef friends in on the action. "A lot of them find that opportunity to create a hot dog so amazing – because they never get to do things like that. They're working in a Michelin Star restaurant kitchen making fancy food, and all they really want to eat after work is a hot dog."
It means that every time you return to Bubbledogs there's something new to get your teeth into. "For our regular guests, it's something exciting. The Fat Duck team did a hot dog for us in January – The Chippy Dog. It's probably the most complicated hot dog we've ever made here. The sausage was battered in Heston's fish and chip batter, so it was so hard and crunchy. Then there was minted pea ketchup, a pickled quail egg, and triple-cooked chip crumble on the top. They had a little atomiser of a chip shop odour in an atomiser to spray at the table – it was awesome."
There is one question that has been on our lips since we sat down with Sandia. What about the tater tots? It takes one person to whisper about the impending arrival of Bubbledogs' tater tots, and the Deliveroo office descends into an uncontrollable, Lion King-esque stampede. If you're unfamiliar, get familiar. You won't regret it. "It's a very rare thing in the UK, but it's like a staple from everybody's childhood in the US – you always have tater tots in your freezer and at school. It's basically a hash brown in croquette form – coarsely grated potato, deep fried so it's crispy on the outside. Amazing with Champagne!"
"I always say there is no perfect wine for a particular food, everybody's got their own palette, everyone has their own likes and dislikes."
That really gets to the heart of Bubbledogs philosophy – an openness to trying new things, to being creative in your approach to finding your own favourites "I always say there is no perfect wine for a particular food, everybody's got their own palette, everyone has their own likes and dislikes. There isn't one formula. All that matters is that it goes well together, and that it brings you a moment of joy – not that it sounds right or that an expert has approved it.
Sandia tells one last story from her time in NY that stayed with us because it embodies this attitude. "When I was working at Per Se, we had to do a food and wine pairing for guests. One of the courses was this amazing lardo – cured pork fat. So I decided to pair it with a Riesling, and this Italian guest calls me over and he's like, 'You know what you should pour with this? Prosecco.' This guy was mega rich, and in my head I always had the idea that prosecco was cheap, but he said, "No, in Italy when we have charcuterie and fatty things like this we just drink prosecco. The spritz and the acidity in there is perfect for salty pork fat.' And he was right – I was like, "That's amazing!'"
It's a willingness to accept wisdom that bucks the rules that makes Bubbledogs what it is. All you have to do is leave your dogma at the door and say, "That's amazing!" too.