Thursday, 7 March 2013
The Clove Club, Shoreditch
In the beginning, three chefs, Ben Greeno, James Lowe and Isaac McHale, having trained at some of the most influential restaurants in the world (Noma, the Ledbury, etc.), began running special evenings under the collective name the Young Turks. Invariably wildly popular, and winning lavish praise from anyone lucky enough to attend, it was inevitable that they would attract the attention of the movers and shakers and before long Greeno was cherry-picked by David Chang to launch his Sydney outpost of Momofuku. By all accounts, he's doing very well.
So then there were two. Lowe and McHale, after gracing the rooftops of Peckham with a popup at Frank's Campari bar in the summer of 2011, began a residency in the newly refurbished upstairs dining room of the Ten Bells pub in Spitalfields, where the reviews were similarly salivating. I ate at Upstairs a couple of times and it really was very good indeed; don't ask me why I never wrote it up, I definitely should have done, sometimes these things happen.
And now there is one. McHale, now Lowe-less but accompanied by the two giants of front of house (in both senses of the word) Daniel and Johnny, has moved into an annex of the Shoreditch Town Hall once occupied by the disastrously ill-conceived Monsieur M (you know what an area of town blessed with lots of amazing Vietnamese restaurants didn't need? A mediocre Vietnamese restaurant). It's called the Clove Club, it opened on Monday and you should go as soon as you can.
OK, so I've long been a fan of the Young Turks' output and this was never likely to be a negative post. And I hesitate after the drubbing David Sexton got on Twitter for his not wholly upbeat writeup of the opening night in the Standard, because I was there the same evening albeit in the more informal a la carte bar area. But given the quality of the dishes we were served, the slick service and the generally positive vibes that chime through every element of this operation, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess there were other factors at play in that piece than a desire to be objective. Put it this way - if you ever read a restaurant review that grumps just as much about "hipsters and food bloggers" and a "yearningly aspirational diaspora" as the food, then take the star rating with a pinch of salt.
Anyway, it's about time I told you what you get for your £35 a head. A short list of house cocktails were all refreshingly unsweet and reasonably priced. "Clove Club Sprits[sic]" was a Polpo-a-like aperitif served in a wineglass, while an "Orange Gin Ricky" was an straightforwardly quaffable highball of fresh juice and gin.
Dishes, while vaguely distinguishable by price point, are only divided on the menu into 'cold' and 'hot' rather than 'starters' and 'mains', and arrive as and when unless instructed otherwise. This is, of course, how it should be on a bar menu designed for sharing, and at least prevents anything hanging around for ages under a heat lamp slowly baking. First thing we tried were some pretty fingers of sliced chicory, I think gently cooked somehow as they had none of that usual extreme bitterness of raw chicory, dressed in a light cream dressing and topped with toasted hazelnuts. Like Upstairs and his previous ventures, much of McHale's food has a masterful control of texture, used to often stunning effect.
If you were lucky enough to try the grouse sausages served at the Young Turks Frank's dinner, then you will love the pigeon variety served at the Clove Club. Whoever they've found to create these unctuous, gamey little beggars deserves a big pat on the back, and matching them with a powerful fermented chilli "ketchup" is inspired. The "ketchup", in fact (really a hot sauce in the Sriracha vein but actually far nicer) should really be available to buy - I imagine it would go with just about anything.
"Lemon Sole and Indian Spices" was the kind of thing that could either be a complete disaster or the highlight of an evening. Fortunately, this was the latter. A soft, light piece of fresh fish was coated in the most incredible complex, buttery coating and topped with toasted almonds, creating a dish that satisfied in every department. The raita-style crunchy dressing added a cooling touch, and lifting the flesh off the bone was a rare treat.
Having ordered savoury courses quite conservatively and buoyed by what we'd eaten so far, desserts were requested without a second thought. The single official dessert on the bar menu is an éclair, and bloody lovely it is too - all light and freshness and way more attractive than my murky photo suggests.
But we were also treated to a refugee from the tasting menu next door, a bowl of warm blood orange, sheep's milk and wild fennel which, like everything else, was a deceptively complex arrangement of flavours and textures, temperatures and techniques. It was great, and only reinforced my desire to go back for the Full Monty.
With three glasses of wine plus a very pleasant side of smacked cucumber I completely forgot to take a photo of, I think £71.80 is a very reasonable total for food of this standard. Service isn't added on, which is a lovely touch, but unfortunately water is - we had asked for tap, was told that the water from the bar was all tap even if we wanted sparkling anyway, but then were charged £1 for something called "Vivreau". So they lose a point for that. Oh and some of the window tables are a bit draughty. But these are niggles.
As I've been at pains to point out, these are very early days - the earliest day in fact - and only the bar menu not the full multi-course multi-sensory experience offered in the main dining hall next door. But you don't always need an exhaustive sampling of every corner of a restaurant's offering to know when you're onto a good thing. In fact, you very rarely do. Based on the all of the above, the pedigree of a chef like McHale and my burning desire to revisit as soon as possible, the Clove Club is a smash.