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.

The Clove Club on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Dinner: Top Ten, Perhaps Not

The problem with any award is that, while its nice to receive at the time, expectations are elevated.  Dinner is not only Heston Blumenthal's outpost in central London, but it is also now ranked ninth in the world by the San Pellegrino restaurant awards. That is higher even than the Fat Duck. So, with all that in mind, I was expecting a real treat. Frankly I imagined being blown away.

I am never a fan of restaurants in hotels - they always seem a bit like an extension of the lobby. Places that are perfectly fine for waiting, neutral, but not exactly somewhere to thrill. While Dinner does suffer a little from this, the porcelain jelly moulds on the walls bring just enough of a touch of Heston to the proceedings. 

The kitchen is open, allowing you to marvel at their pineapple roasting machine. Necessary for the creation of Tipsy Cake so we were told - a desert you need to order on being seated due to cooking times, we didn't bother.

To start we knew we were going to have the "meat fruit", chicken liver and foie gras parfait dressed up as a mandarin. But Strakattak and I were torn between two of the remaining starters: would it be the "rice and flesh" or the hay-smoked mackerel. We just couldn't decide.  Our waiter came up with a solution: he could do us a platter of all three. Sold!  Sadly, he failed to tell us that we wouldn't be getting three slightly smaller portions as a platter, rather three full size plates, with consequent cost.  Misleading and, if it all hadn't been so darn delicious, I might have complained about it.  As it was they were all wolfed down.

So rarely does a hyped-up dish deliver - the meat fruit does.  Tart "peel", rich chicken liver and foie gras parfait- looked wonderful, tasted better.

The rice and flesh was "aged rice" (to give it a pronounced nutty flavour), served al dente (undercooked?) as a risotto, with soft calf's tail, laden with saffron.  Not something I would rush back to, but nice to try.

 The mackerel came smoked but raw, with an anchovy heavy "Gentlman's relish".  Fresh, punchy, my kind of starter.   

Following the starters was always going to be hard.  I had the collar of pork with spelt, ham hock and Robert sauce.  The pork was incredibly tender, I suspect the use of sous vide, but the Robert sauce (a mustard sauce derived from the classic Espagnole sauce) was just a little too salty for me.  A plate of food I was happy devour, but not something I can say will stick in my mind. 

Strak had the ribeye, well-cooked, fine.  The triple cooked chips were, quite frankly, the best chips I have eaten. Ever.
The pork collar with Robert sauce 
To finish, I had the "brown bread ice cream", salted butter caramel and malted yeast syrup.  Yes it was malty. Yes I could see why it was called "brown bread" ice cream.  Yes it had salted caramel, a food sent from above.  But would I clamour for more?  No.  Remove the reference to brown bread and what you have is a malty ice cream with some salted caramel.  Nothing to get worked up about.  
Strak had the "chocolate bar" with passion fruit jam and ginger ice cream.  The ice cream was mind-blowing,  a hit of spicy ginger, the chocolate bar rich with passion fruit.  Cleverly presented, this was far more exciting than the headline-grabbing "brown bread" ice cream.  
Finally we were presented with a small pot of rich chocolate and tea ganache.  Served with a crisp biscuit studded with caraway seeds, I loved it.  It had enough going on to be a desert in its own right.  Caraway and chocolate, a great combination. 

So what to make of Dinner.  Yes there were high points.  The meat fruit lived up to all I had heard, the mackerel was a real treat, and that chocolate bar had a great balance of flavour.  Did I think it was deserving of its title of ninth best restaurant in the world?  No.  In fact I wouldn't even put it in my top ten in London.  Some of the dishes were really quite ordinary, dressed up in Heston hype.  Fun to try, but don't think I'll be back.

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