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.

8/10

Clerkenwell Dining Room on Urbanspoon

13 comments:

Anthony Silverbrow said...

Toptable? That's not dirty, it's perverted.

I've never really looked at their offers before and there are actually some pretty good ones, places like Foliage and Pattersons are on there. I will keepy a wary eye on it and could well be lowering my filth threshold accordingly

Douglas Blyde said...

Some of their 50p/c off offers add up to 100p/c misery. I refer you to 'Charlie's Dead' and their Italianised Pierogi...

Browners said...

Sounds like a super meal. Anything involving steak and truffles can't be bad!

Our best 50% off offer was at Tentazioni which was excellent. But at the other end of the spectrum we've had some utter shockers such as the Essex Serpent.

These offers are great when one pops up where you actually want to go. But they have a tendency to be symptomatic of somewhere that's got something to hide...

Caveat emptor.

Chris said...

Silverbrow: Good luck. Foliage at least is well worth a punt.

Browners: You're absolutely right - you usually need to know whether you like a restaurant before searching for its special offer. I don't trust their reviews. But from personal experience whether a place has an offer on has very little to do with the quality of the food served. There seems to be a good "spread" of restaurants across all categories and price ranges.

Douglas: As ever, I'm not quite sure what you're getting at... what's Charlie's Dead??

Helen said...

Chris and Browners - talking of 'utter shockers', The Georgetown http://www.georgetownrestaurants.co.uk/london/index.htm near london bridge is probably the worst restaurant in the world, I am convinced of it. I had a piece of salt fish in luke warm, watered down coconut milk - served in half a cold pineapple. Say no more.

Lizzie said...

I use toptable offers, I went to Pattersons and had a nice meal there. But I agree, they're to be used when a restaurant you know of comes up, otherwise you could be in for a rough ride.

Gourmet Chick said...

I used toptable for 50% off at Sake no Hana which was great value. Although I agree with the other comments, appearing in top table top offers can be a signal of a restaurant on death row so best to just stick to using offers for restaurants you actually already have on your short list.

mysterycreature said...

I agree with you that often restaurants forget to put much effort into dessert. I feel it's a shame, as whilst I tend to focus on the savoury side of a meal-out (despite my crippling sweet tooth), I find that often a perfectly crafted dessert can be nothing short of sublime. I had an excellent one in restarant 23 in Leamington the other day - organ choclate mousse with ricotta sorbet - only let down by the somewhat odd and limp slices of mandarin served by the side!

Piggins said...

Don't you think that the more you read customer feedback on sites like toptable, the more confused you get about where to go for dinner? I'm not sure that more information is always helpful. Don't you think that less is more when it comes to reviews..?

Nicky E said...

Hi there,

I read your review of The Clerkenwell and found what you said about toptable.co.uk really interesting. I'm currently researching an article I'm thinking of writing on how reviews by bloggers are affecting the restaurant industry and wondered if I could ask you a few questions about your experiences?

If you wouldn't mind chatting to me for a few minutes, please send me an email and I'll give you my phone number.

Thanks and sorry to bother you!
NE

Matt said...

It's possible, of course, that they had replaced the hallway carpet...

Chris said...

Helen: Thanks for the tip. I shall make sure to order the salt fish.

Lizzie/Piggins/GC: As I say, I would never use the TT reviews to help me decide where to eat out. I took a bit of a punt on the Clerkenwell, and came good, but it could just as easily have been awful.

Matt: An excellent point. Perhaps they had.

Douglas Blyde said...

Well Chris, it's not exactly criptic-crossword. 'Charlie's Dead' is the name of a restaurant. Pierogi are Polish dumplings. The venue has modernised / bastardised them into a kind of ravioli...