Wednesday, 7 December 2016
In an ideal world, you’d visit any restaurant completely blind, with no preconceptions about the ability of those involved, no knowledge of the background of the chefs or the experience of the front of house, and not the slightest clue who’s bankrolling the place, and who stands to win or lose from its success. Then, you’d go in, have your dinner, pay your money, and make an entirely objective appraisal of the experience, all the better to relate to others they should make the trip themselves. Or not, as the case may be.
Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world. Even if I wasn’t a desperately tragic restaurant geek (which I very much am), scouring the print reviews and pages of Hotdinners every five minutes to see if that Belgian seawater-dough taco place I had my eye on had opened yet, it would be impossible to avoid every nugget of information about a new opening, whether it’s a new project from an existing high-profile chef, or the first bricks-and-mortar restaurant from a street food star. Expectations and preconceptions, whether you like it or not, will affect our impressions of a place well before we step through the front door. That’s just the way things are.
So I will probably completely fail to be level-leaded and objective about Luca, a new modern Italian restaurant on St John St, because I know full well – as you probably do too – that it’s being operated by the team behind the trail-blazingly creative Clove Club in Shoreditch, Michelin-starred 26th Best Restaurant In The World, and comes with a weight of expectation so heavy it could drown them in their own sparkling water before we’d got as far as the starters.
Before we get to the starters, though, nibbles. These are “parmesan fries”, a description that undersells them hugely, as instead of the expected bowl of chips and cheese we have these gorgeous things, tubes of fluffy parmesan mousse, delicately crusted on the outside and dusted with paprika, like savoury churros. These are a must-order item at Luca, genuinely exciting and innovative in exactly the kind of way – for better or worse – I was expecting from the Clove Club team.
From here on, though, events conspired to be a little – though only a little – more ordinary. “Sea Robin crudo”, a very pleasant arrangement of fish carpaccio sweetened with clementines and drizzled with olive oil, the kind of thing you’ve eaten before if you’ve ever been to a smart modern Italian restaurant in London (both Café Monico on Shaftesbury Avenue and Bernardi’s in Marylebone do something similar, if perhaps not quite as refined). Sea Robin, by the way, is another name for gurnard, a pseudonym I like to think they’re using so I can call the dish “RobinSea Crudo” in my mind. Yes, I’m sure that’s why they did it.
“Preserved peppers, air dried bonito and spinach” was a plate of cold red peppers and floppy spinach whose charms I’m afraid were completely lost on me. There wasn’t enough salty bonito (or the bonito wasn’t salty enough) to lift the bland peppers, and though the spinach had a nice enough flavour it still ended up all tasting like leftover ratatouille. And I don’t really even much like hot ratatouille.
I’d heard a lot (probably too much) about the “grouse ravioli”, and its famed “potato and whisky” sauce, so the fact I’d allowed myself to get excited about it probably contributes in no small part to the fact I found it faintly disappointing. The grouse itself came in the form of a mousse stuffing in the ravioli – fine, but pretty underpowered and the kind of thing that makes you wish for a thicker, darker, slow-cooked ragu-style, one with a bit more punch. The potato sauce tasted mainly of butter, and I didn’t detect any whisky at all, and though none of these things are exactly disqualifying for a pasta dish, they didn’t make for a particularly memorable experience, either.
The other pasta dish, spaghettini with shrimp and mace butter was, admittedly, lovely. Bouncy fresh pasta with an intense, briny, seafoody sauce, it was a perfect example of its kind, disarmingly familiar but beautifully rich and elegant. We’ve been a bit spoiled for pasta in London in recent times, especially with Padella in Borough Market doing what they do so extraordinarily well, so it speaks volumes this spaghettini was still a topic of conversation days later.
My own main of beef rump stuffed with pancetta was straightforwardly enjoyable, nothing groundbreaking and perhaps a teeny bit on the stingy side in terms of portion size but still attractive and seasoned nicely. It’s difficult to say anything too negative about beef and pancetta presented with green veg and one of those nice sticky reduced sauces, especially when it’s cooked as well as this, and so I won’t. I mean, I enjoyed it. Really.
A monkfish dish continued the theme – decent ingredients, cooked well – and was similarly hard to criticise even at the same time there was little to set the pulse racing either. Nothing was overcooked, or undercooked, or underseasoned, or cold (when it shouldn’t be) or warm (when it shouldn’t be). It was all, objectively, very decent food.
And look, maybe that’s all fine. Not every meal needs to reinvent the wheel or gun for a place in the Top 50 Best Restaurants list and the vast majority of people who eat at Luca will appreciate it very well for what it is – a solid, mid-range modern Italian restaurant in Clerkenwell, where you can book a table for 4 and be served by very pleasant and well-groomed staff and where tables have pretty cutlery and house bread comes with nice grassy olive oil.
The issue is, at the risk of repeating myself, a restaurant by the Clove Club comes with expectations. There’s absolutely nothing to stop these supremely talented guys from opening a solid mid-range Italian restaurant, there’s no good reason they shouldn’t, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. It’s not astonishing value in the Padella vein and neither is it a ripoff like the River Café. It’s just a good restaurant. It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I can’t be happy with that.
So perhaps the best advice I can give you is to take the above, and the score below, in the context of a person who's enjoyed some meals at Clove Club – and at the various incarnations before that, at the 10 Bells and so on – that have been very close to life-changing, and probably wouldn’t have been happy with anything less than that from Luca, either. And if you disagree with my scoring a place down for familiarity or safety or lack of ambition, I’ll only say that I scored the original Clove Club way, way up for risk-taking, innovation and ambition by the bucketful, as well. These things are important. Well, they are to me, at least. The rest of you can make your own minds up.