Monday, 22 July 2013
The Dairy, Clapham Common
It makes sense to describe Clapham Common as an "unlikely" location for an impressive new restaurant, but actually, all the ingredients are in place (attractive parkside location, moneyed local population, good transport links) for a slew of decent places to eat. So it shouldn't be an unlikely area at all. But for whatever reason, it is. Trinity aside (which has never been my favourite place but is at least trying), every licensed establishment within spitting distance of the tube station is either a godawful loud chain in the All Bar One mold, a dodgy sports pub, or one of those worthy cafés where you pay £5 for someone to mix some cucumber chunks into cous-cous.
So the Dairy doesn't have to try to hard to succeed. Next to the competition, even if it had been only halfway decent it would outclass everything else in the area. But the meal I and a friend enjoyed on Saturday lunchtime showcased what is surely some of the very best food in the whole city, possibly even the country, so much so that labelling it "good for Clapham" is undeservedly cruel.
Having decided on the tasting menu with matching wines (which saves having to actually make the effort to think for ourselves) the first item to arrive was a kind of mini falafel with tahini paste and an incredibly powerful spring of fresh mint. Most herbs and some vegetables, we were told, are grown on their rooftop garden; it's hard to believe you'd get flavour from mint like this unless it had very recently been in the ground.
Potted salmon had a bit of a Scandinavian feel despite the Guinness soda bread it came with. Fresh dill and summer vegetables combined with sweet-cured smoked salmon, bringing to mind a sort of tinned Gravadlax. Cute presentation, too.
Chorizo and squid Scotch egg may sound odd, but these individual flavours remained distinct without being in competition, and with not too much of either to overwhelm the dainty soft quails egg yolk inside. An experiment that could, let's be honest, have gone horribly wrong, and yet we both loved it.
The "charcuterie" course was more proof the Dairy aren't afraid of pushing things in interesting new directions. Salami and n'duja were both good, but the real surprise here was something called 'smoked bone marrow butter'. I don't know whether this was just the wrong side of too smokey, or needed more bonemarrow, or perhaps something called "smoked bone marrow butter" couldn't hope to live up to the heavenly product we'd invented in our own minds before trying it, but something about it just didn't quite sit right. Mind you, we still licked that stone clean so it can't have been that bad.
"Fresh peas, celery, mint and fried bread" is, and I'm hesitant to use such hyperbole but I've had a good think and I've convinced myself it's justified, probably one of the top three nicest things I've eaten so far in 2013. Full of the joys of summer, it was refreshing and invigorating and with a flavour profile so heavenly I couldn't imagine any peas and celery and mint tasting any better anywhere, even at the Ledbury who have been playing with textures in this style for a while (and where, presumably, the Dairy chef must have trained at some point). Beautiful to look at and masterful in terms of the number of techniques used to stunning effect (the savoury sorbet, the rich mousse), this satisfied on every level.
A monkfish dish, though slightly on the salty side for me, was still impressive thanks to lovely moist fish (sous-vided, my much more knowledgable friend guessed) and gently pickled veg. I'll be honest, I was still thinking about the pea and celery dish at this point.
Smoked cod with heritage tomatoes was, again, as much fun to look at as eat - I particularly liked the thin slice of huge tomato underneath it all, which had a lovely firm texture. I don't think it needed quite as much mayonnaise as was provided, but then I'm not the world's biggest mayonnaise fan and my friend polished it all off quite happily.
Suckling pig, objectively decently cooked and attractively presented, just unfortunately wasn't quite what we needed at this stage in a tasting menu and we found the layers of fat hard to enjoy in contrast to the supremely light and fresh courses that preceded it. What did go down well though was a little bundle of cavolo nero which tasted like something plucked from the garden of Eden. Or the rooftop allotment. One or the other.
A little pre-dessert of light yoghurty mousse of some sort with sweet celery sorbet (I'm struggling because it's not on the menu, and the very generous matching wines were really kicking in by this point) brought us back to summer though, with yet more impressive displays of texture and form.
Final proper course was strawberries with vanilla whey and rolled oats, perfectly enjoyable but in comparison to much of what had come before, pretty forgettable. And I'd be tempted to conclude that the Dairy's strengths lie in savoury courses - particularly vegetables - were it not for a completely extraordinary set of petits fours that followed.
Very often just something to nibble on while you pay the bill, even at the the Dairy's spiritual home the Ledbury (I'm going to look like an idiot if, in fact, it turns out they have never had anything to do with the place) they are just a couple of bits of cold fruit jelly in a tin lined with cocoa nibs. Here we had a hot, fresh doughnut rolled in hibiscus sugar, some wonderfully buttery thin shortbread, and a truly astonishing citrus jelly coated in that sour powder you get on Haribo sweets.
So for cooking of nothing often less than sheer, blinding virtuosity, ingredients that make you wonder why we were ever jealous of Spain or Italy or France, and for pitch-perfect service of warmth and efficiency, the Dairy is a truly remarkable new restaurant. It seems churlish to point out that in terms of seating you are given a not particularly appealing choice between the cave-like rear (dark and hot) and the high-school stools near the front (lighter, and cooler, but ouch - bring a cushion). These are things that can be fixed, and will probably matter less anyway as the seasons move on.
All you really need to know is that if you have even the most passing interest in finding out what the very best local culinary talent is doing right now, for not very much money, then you need to make a booking at the Dairy. It is what every British restaurant should be.