The Dairy, Clapham. Worth crossing the river for.
For someone who doesn’t do tasting menus as a rule, it’s interesting that I was rather disappointed that C-nails didn’t want to try it. £45 for a seven-course menu selected by the kitchen, said the menu which spoke to me, in that slightly brain-dead last lap before Christmas state of mind. But it was nearly nine o’clock and I’m usually thinking about a mug of cocoa and Radio 4 by that time of the evening, so I expect it was the right call.
You’ll need about four plates each, says the waitress, immediately making me want to order at least five. I have that knee-jerk reaction to being told how much an average person needs. Like my inherent scepticism around recipe serving suggestions. Ha! what do they know? Maybe it “serves 6” somewhere, but not in my family, where a portion guide would be seen as a challenge. We would always convert. Serves 6 = serves 3 Jews.
Needless to say, we do not wonder why we are fat.
It is not fancy, this old dairy in Clapham, where chef Robin Gill uses produce from his urban garden and a list of suppliers as long as your arm. Including a forager, natch. The inside is not fancy and is cosy in a stripped wood, white glazed bricks, café-style way. Tip: Go for the front area for a little daylight when there is some.
Given that it was nearly Christmas there was the obligatory large celebratory group. Of course we ask to move, not realising that the innocuous-looking table of four next to our new table contains a woman with the loudest voice in all Christendom.
My Grandma had those plates, the ones with the pink flowers, shouts C-nails. I think everyone’s grandma had them. They are quintessentially old dear, circa 1965.
There is nothing old dear about the food or indeed the plates which came out of the kitchen. The little Marmite crisp with cheese and onion shows me I am in safe hands. And then the bread, in a sack, with a smear of smoked bone-marrow butter, on a pebble, as has been the fashion for a little while, in places where fashionable things happen. It is, of course, a sourdough and it is excellent. Warm, with a firm crust, it is irresistible. The smoked marrow butter a rich, creamy almost-too-much smoked taste. We are not charged for the bread and neither is there a cover charge, which reflects a generosity of spirit repeated throughout the meal.
Truffled brie de Meaux on fig and walnut toast with rooftop honey melts in the mouth, the brie almost liquid, the toast a slim crunch under its cheese carpet and a drizzle of honey (from their rooftop hive I presume) adding a hint of sweetness and some complexity to what would otherwise be posh cheese on toast. Chicken liver mousse is a light delicate swirl, with two fingers of sourdough, and a spoonful of sharp plum and apple compote on the side, cutting through the richness of the liver.
Despite the deliciousness of my starters I am sorry to say that C-nails wins the preliminary courses with her hay-smoked curd, Jerusalem artichokes, roasted onions and chanterelles. Stunningly good, this artichoke many ways dish, including roasting and steaming but the undoubted star of the show being the deep-fried skin in large whorls dotted about the plate. There are times when you want to go home and recreate a dish straight away. Layers of texture and flavour, the smoked curd being a worthy foil to the onion-y, mushroom-y, umami riot on the plate, this was one of the best things I have almost eaten for months. So much more than I would expect from the £8.50 price tag. I took as much as politeness permitted.
There was no way that my garden beetroot with kefir cheese, hemp seeds and Kalamata olives was going to stand up to that lot, but it had a bloody good shot. The hemp seeds were the bit that got your mouth interested, with their crunchy, texture and sesame-ish taste, scattered over the mild cheese. Gloriously-coloured beetroot, both raw and cooked decorated with fresh beetroot leaves (yes, you can) were tasty but I don’t remember the olives at all. Maybe they forgot them, but I didn’t notice.
Pig popcorn was what happened next, on a plate of crisp suckling pork belly and soft, melting pig cheek, which came with lightly blanched white cabbage and chewy dehydrated apple chunks. I loved the texture and the pig cheek was a particularly gorgeous, soft, flaking, yielding mouthful of meat. C-nails, coming from a family where “serves 6” meant just that, was struggling a little with her chicken oysters, crispy skin, cellar kimchi and burnt kale, so I put her out of her misery by relieving her of a large square of the best chicken skin I may ever have had the joy to eat.
From someone who was prepared to risk being sent to my room for stealing the skin off the Friday night chicken the moment it was placed on the table, you will understand that this is the height of praise. Go, if only for that. I have no idea if it’s a signature menu item but it should be. Chicken skin, concertinaed into an accordion of crispy, chewy pleasure, this will be one of my tastes of 2014. Simple, perfect.
I could have made myself eat the salted caramel, cacao and malted barley ice-cream but C-nails was done and I couldn’t sit there making dessert noises whilst she gave me the Claire stare for which she is justly famous. Which is why I booked for my second visit before we left. The siren call of that skin is just too strong.
The Dairy. You’d have to be miserable cow not to love it.