The Clove Club
I’ve probably visited London every other year for the last 15 years. Never, in all that time, have I found a good reason to visit Shoreditch. Which is surprising considering that most of my work is in The City — a relatively short, colourful walk from this new hip quarter of London. Last month, when I found myself in London again I discovered, to my surprise, that restaurany No. 55 on The List, the Clove Club, was in Shoreditch, a short 15 minute walk from my hotel.
The procedure for booking a table at the Clove Club is a bit disconcerting. While other restaurants ask for a credit card guarantee against cancelations, the Clove Club requires you to buy a non-refundable entry ticket. If you can’t show up, you can freely transfer the ticket to someone else but under no circumstances will you get your money back. Which is a clever solution to the no-show problem but nevertheless unsettling when you have to commit in advance from halfway across the globe.
As I obediently followed the instructions from Google Maps I realised that not only was the restaurant in the heart of a buzzing hipster scene, it was actually located in the Shoreditch Town Hall, a building that dates back to the late 1800’s and was, for a 100 years, one of the grand vestry halls of London. You ascend and imposing staircase set against a Dorian facade to get to it but when the doors open, the restaurant itself sports a minimalist, almost spartan aesthetic — bare tables, shorn of table cloth and cutlery and a laidback and casual ambience that reflects in the functional unpretentious uniforms of the serving staff.
We were seated on a large (for 2 people) table in the bar area and almost as soon as we sat down, were greeted with an assortment of starters. There were an assortment of tarts and crackers bearing all manner of toppings but the thing that stood out was a delicious plate of crunchy crisps made of chicken feet skin — that was so snacky you’d be forgiven for mistaking them for potato chips. The other standout among the pre-starters was a bowl filled with pine leaves in which were nestled a couple of chicken nuggets encased in a thick layer of buttermilk and deep fried before being dusted off with pine salt. It tasted just as rich and decadent as it sounds.
Among the fish courses the real stand-out was the Gilt Head Sea Bream which has to be just the most exotic western preparation of fish I can remember. The bream was served as a carrapacio of salami-thin slices that had been exquisitely seasoned with a brown butter sauce combined with delicious aged fat. On reflection, this was probably the dish of the day — the fresh fish combining so well with the rich and slightly salty texture of the fat. I cannot remember a more delicate yet flavourful pairing of raw fish in the Western idiom.
The next course was a bite sized portion of tuna that had been seasoned with a clear shiso sauce and garnished with the flavours of mustard — seed as well as flowers. Once again a delicate, delicious mouthful of food that combined flavours that were both uncommon and unexpected.
The next course was advertised as bowl of bone broth and I was expecting a hearty helping. From the size of the dish laid before me my hopes stayed high until I looked into the oversized bowl and found that all it contained was a smidge of soup way down at the base of the dish. But for all its diminutive proportions, it was a tasty dish, the flavours all powerfully condensed into the small quantity we’d been served. And nestled within the broth, almost hidden in the cloudy liquid, was a piece of candied clementine that offset the earthiness of the broth with a sweet sourness.
Scallops have become such an integral part of a fine dining menu that I can’t remember when I came upon a degustation that didn’t include a scallop dish. The scallops at the Clove Club had been seared and then paired with rich combination of cep mushrooms, thyme and truffles. It was a surprisingly complex dish, in taste as well as texture, so much so that they must have felt compelled to include small slivers of fresh green apples to provide the tartness and crunch required to cut through the heaviness. The little cheddar tartlet (which was one of many such mini-tarts that we would get to eat during the course of the meal) was almost a palate cleanser — a tiny bite sized portion but flavourful and textural.
Ever since I watched Heston Blumenthal create the Mock Turtle soup as part of his re-imagination of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, I have known that Madeira is an essential ingredient of the traditional French consommé. But the Clove Club takes this recipe to another level. When we were ready, they wheeled out what looked like a drinks trolley — the kind you use to bring out a collection of port or really old single malts. Except that this one had just one bottle — a 100 year old Madeira. Our server explained something of the origins of the dish and then poured the Madeira into a wine glass. We were encouraged to drink it up till all we were left with was a thin coating on the glass. The server then filled the same wine glass with a mildly pungent duck and ginger broth that combined in situ with the dregs madeira that remained.
This was a conceptually clever dish. I am not sure if the Madeira can properly combine with the consommé if all you have done is pour it in over the residue on the glass but thanks to the theatre that preceded it, my mouth retained the taste and memory of the alcohol and the flavours combined in a wierdly asynchronous manner in my brain.
For the suckling pig course I was somehow expecting a hearty steak serving. That was what the ambience of the Clove Club called for — something big and meaty that packed a punch. What we were presented instead was a funky interpretation of Peking Duck — a neatly cut tender slice of pig served with crunchy shallots, herbs and coco bean sauce.
All the individual elements had been arranged artistically on a buckwheat pancake and after we admired the artwork we were encouraged to roll it all up into a tube and pop it into our mouths. I was expecting the pork to be hard to bite into and eat in this “wrap” format but the meat was tender adn easy to bite into. It wasn’t Peking Duck but the similarities were remarkable.
The centrepiece of the evening was a grouse dish. Now, I have only eaten grouse a handful of times but every time I’ve eaten the bird my overwhelming memory is of a sinewy bird that tastes a tad gamey. Not unpleasantly so but in the way that makes it impossible to confuse with chicken. The grouse breast we were served for the next course was moist and juicy — retaining the charecteristic flavour of grouse and celebrating it.
After we were done with the main plate they offered us the remaining portions of the grouse done in a few different ways — a doff of the hat to the nose-to-tail cooking that has become all the rage in London over the past few years. I thought the heart was excellent even if the grouse legs were a bit stringy. I guess this is as good an explanation as to why grouse dishes usually comprise the breast meat and nothing else.
It was about the time when I checked my watch and realised that 2 hours had gone by. The true measure of a meal is the manner in which time passes while eating it.
The transition from the main course to the dessert was through another one of those cheese tartlets that we’d been sampling through the meal. However, the dessert that followed was one of those delightful sensory puzzles that you can expect at meals like this. On the plate it looked like a Softy Ice Cream, all white, creamy and shiny to the eye. But when you put a spoon in your mouth it tasted tart and lemony with the unmistakable bite of a fizzy drink. What the kitchen had done (and I have no idea how), was take lemonade and whip it to the consistency of a soft mousse, all the while retaining the tart acidity of a carbonated drink. Just to confuse my brain even further, they’d added a dash of pungency by infusing it with some Sarawak pepper. Those who follow my food writing know of my partiality to chocolate desserts but if there ever was a dish that I was going to exchange for a chocolate dessert it would be this one.
And finally we ended our meal with Apple Pie. Not in traditional American style but completely deconstructed, with layers of apple slices that had been powerfully spiced and layered on a sort of a biscuit base like a rose. The apples hadn’t been stewed and so remained mildly (and I have to say confusingly) crunchy even if they had been stained pink with spices. All in all this was an unusual dessert to end with perhaps even mildly unsettling in equal measure.
The Clove Club was a treat in many ways. It was remarkable to me that a dining destination of this quality exists amidst the the brassy tones and rad colours of Shoreditch. The ease with which the restaurant embraced its hipster persona while at the same time dispensing elegant and complex food of a high standard was remarkable.
If I look back on the meal there were a few dishes that really stood out. The 100 year old Madeira consommé was such a clever concoction that I will remember it for a long time to come. The deconstructed (and subsequently reconstructed) lemonade dessert was a delicious enigma and until it was explained to me by the waiter my mid was struggling to comprehend what I was eating. But the dish that truly stood out for me was the one the sashimi of bream that really set the stage — and never really vacated it.