Sunday 10 March 2013

The Clove Club: I always knew I would...

I knew I would. I just knew I would. When I heard at the back end of 2012 that Isaac McHale (of Young Turks fame) was at it again, I knew that I would love it.  From the top of a car park in Peckham to the Upstairs of a pub in Spittalfields, McHale has been setting London's culinary world alight for years.  But nowhere has been permanent. Even Upstairs at the Ten Bells was set up as a pop up, albeit that it now appears to have an air of permanence with Giorgio Ravelli behind the stove.

But the Clove Club is different.  This isn't some fad, an eatery for the throw-away generation.  This is permanent.  A proper grown up restaurant.  It is housed in the old Spitalfields Town Hall, a magnificent building with soaring ceilings.  At the front there is a bar serving "snacks" (but don't expect boring pimped up sausage rolls and Scotch eggs here - this is proper fine dining, it just so happens to be in a bar) and their very own cocktail list.  But we were here for what's hidden behind, a small restaurant, kitchen on show, serving a tasting menu of Isaac's own making.

But back to the start - a Oaxacan "Old fashioned" - tequila, mezcal and agave syrup, with a sliver of orange rind.  Brilliant - it all worked so well together.

We were then moved through to the dining room next door.  You can tell the Clove Club has only been open a week - everything is still a little "hard" - like the dining room of St Johns but with elevated ceilings that make the place rattle. Still, as I said, this is the first week, I am sure it will settle into its surroundings.

The menu is split into the snacking section (I would hate to apply the term hors d'oeuvres to these dishes, they are way more fun than that!) and the more grown up mains. Every dish is brought to you by one of the chefs - excited and happy to explain what you are about to devour.

There are dishes that anyone familiar with Upstairs will recognise - those chicken nuggets (in the best way possible) and pine salt.  But also new plates: raddish with toasted sesame powder and gochuchang (a spicy Korean paste made with chili, fermented soya beans and glutinous rice powder).  The sesame powder was simply outstanding - we quizzed McHale for tips on how to make it, Japanese toasted sesame (apparently doing it yourself just does not come up with the same results) and salt - I will be trying this at home!  There was also a cheese crisp with curds, fine but didn't do much for me.

Next up we started moving through the larger plates. And when I say larger, I mean it.  This is a tasting menu for people who like to eat.  I do. Five plates to fill your heart and belly, and a tea cake to finish things off.

We started with the warm fennel, seaweed and walnuts.  The fennel retained a little bite, salty fresh seaweed and crunchy walnuts.  The balance of crunch and smooth, salty and sweet which is hallmark of McHale's cooking.  This was the Fashionista's least favourite of the night, but I still loved it.

Following this, a whole leak, its body split in two, spilling entrails of sweet, juicy mussels.  I loved the way this looked, seemingly so simple, yet so tasty.

Now for the meat.  Rib of beef from a cross-bred herd of cattle (between Hereford and Charolais) with Ramson (a type of wild garlic leaf) and potatoes.  Hawksmoor had better watch out.  This piece of rib was by far and away the best I have had in London.  Beautifully caramelised,  full of flavour.  And those potatoes.  I have never had anything like them.  Some way between a chip, a roast, and mash. Tubes, soft on the inside, cooked crisp on the out.

I was starting to get full by this point, but I needn't have worried, the cider and ginger mousse floated down.  Apples and spice, light as can be.

And to the final full plate, a triumph of technique, of contrasting colours, flavours and textures.  It looks heavy, it was not.  McHale consistently makes light, fluffy deserts that leaves you wanting more, even at the end of a feast. Tart blood orange segments, strips of blood orange jelly, aniseed from the fennel granita, sour sheep's milk foam and milk crisps. I am not a desserts man, I always go for the cheese. Not at the Clove Club.

Finally we have a chicory tea cake - better than the best Tunnocks could produce, but I wish it hadn't been sold as "chicory", I couldn't detect much of that.

Nothing about the Clove Club surprised me.  Normally that would not be good.  But seeing as I have fallen for McHale's cooking before, if I had been surprised that would have only been a bad thing. Different, exciting, delicious, there is a new "kool kid" on the block.

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