No one would accuse me of being on the cutting edge. Occasionally I think I’m on the cusp of a new trend or fancy myself a pioneer as I find a new restaurant or shop that I must share. Inevitably though, I wind up being woefully behind the crowds of those really in the know, who spend their days getting press releases or talking to tastemakers and trendsetters. Such was the case when I set my sights on The Clove Club. I heard murmurings about this fantastic new spot in East London with a group of young, talented chefs at its helm. The no choice, five course menu was groundbreaking in much the same way that many of the restaurants I’d tried in Paris were. The British food renaissance hitting its stride, I quickly made a reservation. Alas, by the time I actually darkened the door at The Clove Club it had been featured in AMERICAN Food & Wine Magazine as one of the must-dine places in the world for 2013 and the New York Times Style Magazine had a full-page blurb about it. Sigh.
Much has been written about the chefs of The Clove Club, Daniel Willis, Johnny Smith, and Isaac McHale who have been calling themselves The Young Turks and flirting with the idea striking out on their own for the past couple of years. They toyed with the foodie public by hosting pop-up events that everyone wished would stick around, showcasing their unique culinary ethos – interesting and overlooked British produce. All have worked at some of Europe’s most prestigious restaurants, the Ledbury, St. John Bread & Wine, and Noma, so lightning was bound to strike.
The permanent home to this dynamic trio, is an old town hall in Shoreditch, spartan in feel, but the height of cool. I sipped a glass of champagne while my husband savored his Hanky Panky, made with great aplomb by our hipper than hip moustachioed bartender. You see, we are in the land of the bike riding, skinny pants wearing, East London hipster – a place I love to visit but haven’t been invited to be part of their club. The bar area was quite subdued for a Saturday night, I thought, but once we were led into the dining room, a hidden gem, a hive of activity infused with the scent of fryer oil, revealed itself.
Online I had seen photo after photo of radishes and fried chicken, two of the trio of amuse bouche that are the extravagant start to your meal (and not counted as one of your 5 courses). Everyone at our table concurred that more than one piece of fried chicken per person was due! It’s a lovely moist piece of chicken in a buttermilk batter seasoned with ground up pine needles. Fantastic! The radishes with a ground up garnish of black sesame seeds, sugar and salt and a smear of a Korean kimchi beancurd something or other was also refreshing and delightful in its simplicity. Finally, the wood pigeon sausages dotted with Ten Bells Ketchup (the server told us that it was sriracha – but got its fancy name because the staff at the Ten Bells pop-ups had used it like ketchup) were declared “absolutely beautiful” by my very enthusiastic husband.
So now, the start of the real meal, the sparse descriptions on the menu leaving much to the imagination. First came raw beef with honey vinegar jelly (jello to you and me), English mustard and cow’s curd. There was a lot going on in the dish with a dusting of breadcrumbs that gave it a lovely crunch and the mustard being not of the bright yellow sauce variety, but of the leafy variety. The cow’s curd smear under the stack of bits and pieces was an odd contrast as far as textures, but even though I thought it shouldn’t work, it did. Again a lovely, refreshing and rich plate. Next was a beautiful assemblage of grilled squid with tarragon and green radishes – which we were told are Asian in origins but grown in France. My squid was on the chewy side but I loved the flavors of the crunchy green radish (not as peppery as the conventional radish) and the bright green tarragon puree – a trick I’m going to use at home with this aniseedy herb. I didn’t ask for the following substitution, my husband did and I was simultaneously mortified and grateful, but the main was to be a slow cooked loin of lamb with old spinach and anchovy. Lamb is not my favorite meat and so I had Berkshire pork instead and it was delicious. Old spinach? Apparently it’s a spinach and kale powder dusted on the plate. Really yummy.
At this point it’s worth mentioning the crusty bread and butter that they gave us. My darling husband basically ate the entire basket and then asked for more. It was noteworthy bread, crunchy crust and tasty, spongy, warm middle. He asked the manager where they sourced it and was told it was made in house. He raved and raved about this bread, in spite of the plates of lovely food being presented to us over and over. His stomach knew no bounds! And, as a lovely touch, our friends asked the manager if we might have some to take home (given his obsession) and they very generously wrapped up half a round which I tucked into my purse (and carried around London the rest of the night).
Now to the final hurdles, two desserts. My favorite was absolutely the blood orange, sheep’s milk mousse and wild fennel. They dehydrated the segments of blood orange and then rehydrated and warmed them which worked to intensify the flavor, while the mousse was light as air and the fennel was served in granita form – the most fennelly of fennel tastes ever. I actually thought the second dessert was just a bridge too far, unnecessary and a bit of a cop out. Prune ice cream, kernel and rosemary sorbet and walnut cake. Too much prune, not enough cake and a muddled in between. Admittedly, by this time, we’d been eating and drinking for a couple of hours. It was time to move on and enjoy the next part of our Saturday night.
Our experience had been sort of exactly what I’d hoped it would be: a mixture of ingredients and techniques that were somewhat challenging, served in a laid back atmosphere, surrounded by other people who love food. Not everything worked for me, but I can appreciate what these Young Turks are doing and the imagination that goes into all of their dishes. They’re having fun with their food. I’ll definitely be going back, but to sit in the other room where you can order off a menu. While we had been sequestered in the cerulean tiled dining room, the bar area had jumped to life with a delightful mix of Londoners, the large windows letting in the last of the late evening twilight. Our loaf of bread in my purse, we had one final sighting that sort of summed up the place – a tiny coat closet turned cured meats hanging room. And in spite of being painfully un-hip, I felt completely at home.