Sally Clarke’s. Posh nosh.
There are cookbooks on a table, as we enter the restaurant. One of them is by Alice Waters – The Art of Simple Food – and I have this cookbook at home. I can wholeheartedly recommend it. It is a seminal work and Alice Waters is a legendary chef. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, is on the bucket list for foodies and she is credited with starting the whole movement for local organic and foraged food, before the word foraged became Noma-fashionable.
I was wondering why this particular cookbook was at the entrance and when I was given a glass with the words Chez Panisse etched into it I knew that there was something more going on. It turns out that Sally Clarke is a protégé of Alice Waters and the great woman herself had agreed to come over to the UK, to do a four night stint in the restaurant, to mark its 30th anniversary and to raise money for a charitable cause. This happened in October and I had missed it. Major restaurant intelligence fail.
It turns out that it is almost 30 years since I last visited Sally Clarke’s and the thing that I remember the most about that meal was that it was a no-choice menu and so it remained until very recently. I think that has put me off a little and now that the menu is a rather conventional set-up of four choices for each course, it is more accessible. There is a nod to the old no-choice menu and in a rather nice touch, that part of the menu is handwritten by somebody who I like to believe is Ms. Clarke herself.
The restaurant is set in an elegant double-fronted property on Kensington Church Street. The other diners appeared to be regulars and due to the demographic, Clarke’s goes straight to the top of my oldie-friendly chart. If you are one half of a rather well-heeled, middle-class, middle-aged couple you may feel that you have died and gone to heaven. There were a number of elderly parent/child combos and I heard the word darling, in a Jennifer Aldridge manner, more than was strictly necessary.
The first impression is of a slightly gloomy space with dim lighting. If the lighting is that muted, there could be some sort of spotlight on the table, so that you can see the menu properly and obviously so that one can take a decent photo on one’s iPhone camera. It might be a lovely room at lunchtime, or in summer, but it’s a little drab and cold on the damp November evening when you’re the second table in there. It did improve when the room filled up, but it would have been much more welcoming with proper lighting. I am , it must be said, a lighting fascist. There was a room at the back which looked more promising. I’d ask for that.
The service is grown-up Kensington and there are times that when to be treated like a grown up is to be relished. There is no music. There is inoffensive and tasteful art on the walls. Joy.
I am pleased that I have found a restaurant other than Le Gavroche which serves Soufflé Suissesse, a cheese soufflé which is served here with a strong cheesy sauce and a few chestnuts. It is not the miraculous creation served at Mr Roux’s gaff, but it is a fraction of the price and you can get in without having to wait for three months. I confess that the chestnuts are a tad disappointing, but the soufflé is cooked well and is light and airy and I am happy with it and I finish it before C is even a quarter through his crab salad, meaning that I have a second starter to dig into, as he is just being simply too slow.
His plate is very full, with said salad, a Marie Rose-type sauce, long thin rye crackers, a green salad and avocado. There are too many moving parts, he says, before eating the crab and leaving some of those bits of leaf you can’t be bothered to cut, but can’t get on your fork properly, so you swipe your chin with oil and suck them in through your mouth and hope no-one is watching. Classy. He has salad fatigue by the end and gives up.
Talking of watching you eat, I have recently come across a South Korean craze where people pay to watch you eat online. One woman makes $9000 a month from cooking elaborate meals and then eating them whilst being viewed, for which she charges. I was wondering what to do with my retirement.
After the turbot sadness last week, I go for the turbot here. A slender piece of fish, well cooked, very crisp on the outside (which I love) with two whorls of herb butter waiting to melt on top. I do prefer fried fish to a gelatinous steamed version. I squish the butter into the fish which sits on top of buttery spinach, next to some braised fennel and joy, galette potatoes, thin to the point of being almost hot crisps on the edges, with gooey potato in the middle. I could have eaten a lot of that. As it was the plate was very clean.
A tarte fine with apples, ordered by C was delicious. I would have like to have used the joke-sized fork and spoon hanging on the wall to eat it, but as it was I got the face afer a teaspoon.
On a wet weeknight when you can’t quite be bothered to make something and you don’t fancy egg on toast but don’t want anything too challenging, this is your place. You really can taste the quality of the ingredients, very much in the style of Chez Panisse and they do enthuse in an authentic way about particular items, to the point where you feel that you are missing out if you do not order them.
Sometimes you just want to be looked after by people who have been doing this a long time and are consistent. There are no unusual cocktails in jam jars and there is no torturing of ingredients and textures. I didn’t see a smear anywhere, nor a foam. I really like Clarke’s. It’s a classy, polished neighbourhood restaurant, turning out dishes which nod towards the Italian and are well executed and well presented. It’s not Soho and it’s not beloved of the bloggerati, notwithstanding that Sally Clarke is, amongst foodies a celebrity chef. And 30 years? That’s an achievement by anyone’s standards.