Friday, 30 January 2009
The Clerkenwell, Clerkenwell
In a typically eloquent post a few months back, fellow food blogger Silverbrow confessed to what he called his "Dirty Secret" - the use of the Square Meal restaurant review site. I know how he feels - as a foodie there seems to be an attitude that you should just somehow know where's good and where isn't from tips handed down from the Food Gods, rather than doing anything so common as looking it up on a website. For whatever reason, to say you visited somewhere because a friend recommended it is perfectly fine, even if said friend knows nothing about food, but to say you'd made a booking based on the highest score on TrustedPlaces is inviting ridicule. It's absurd, of course, but such is the elitist world of restaurant dining.
So perhaps now it's time to confess to my own dirty secret. In the same way that some people obsessively track their eBay collectibles or their Facebook feed, I am addicted to the Toptable Special Offers page. It's constantly updated, includes some of the best restaurants in the country and occasionally lists offers that seem too good to be true. Recently, Michelin-starred Knightsbridge eatery One-O-One had a "50% off the food" offer - astonishing when you consider the quality of the cooking there and that this included all a la carte menu items with ingredients such as lobster, truffles and caviar. And on Monday, searching for somewhere new to visit that evening I spotted a similar deal at The Clerkenwell - a restaurant with a stellar pedigree and yet one which has quite a low profile in the capital. With a couple of clicks, I made a booking.
The one thing that does let Toptable down is the user reviews - sometimes it's hard to believe you're eating on the same planet of some of the more eccentric reviewers, never mind the same restaurant. I had been led to expect poor service ("we had a clumsy waiter"), and yet service on the night was never anything less than charming and super-efficient. The room was intimate without being oppressive ("tables are too close together"), and I liked the long entrance corridor with the uplighting and plush carpet ("hallway carpet really needs to be replaced"). I also enjoyed a glass of white burgundy in the bar area without being rushed to my table ("the minute a glass or plate was left unattended it would be wisked[sic] away by a waiter keen to get us out of there and get the table back").
The food wasn't a letdown either. An unlisted amuse of parsnip soup was pleasant and set the tone nicely, but the fireworks really started with the arrival of my Steak Tartare and Truffle Cream. The steak itself was served on a cigar-shaped sliver of polenta crisp, topped with a cute quails egg yolk in a half shell. With it were two medallions of polenta which had great texture and were only slightly too oily, and a superb dollop of earthy, truffley mousse.
Main course was a very fresh fillet of wild sea bass, with good firm flesh and lovely crispy skin, sat on top of a potato rösti. Surrounding it was a warm and silky crab sauce spiked with some mixture of herbs that I couldn't quite place but which had great, fresh flavour. Again, the only mild complaint was the rösti which could have done with losing about 50% of its oil content, but it did its job well enough.
Finally, we shared a chocolate tarte thingy and white chocolate ice-cream. As is so often the case in these places, desserts seemed like a bit of an afterthought - I don't have much of a sweet tooth but I could tell the ingredients and preparation in the dessert menu was toned down in comparison to the savoury courses. The chocolate itself was bordering on stodgy and was hard to get through, even with two of us attacking it, although the white chocolate ice-cream was good.
Overall I was very pleasantly surprised with The Clerkenwell. The kitchen showed a confidence not to muck about too much with good ingredients, and perhaps with a slightly lighter touch on the fried goods they would be worthy of attention from the Michelin boys. Is it possible that all the weird reviews from Toptable were just a clever exercise in lowering expectations so the reality would be appreciated in sharper relief? If so, it certainly worked on me. And now my dirty secret is out, I commend the Toptable Special Offers page to you - just remember, whatever the user reviews say, the opposite may well be true.