The Clove Club. Who said romance was dead?
“Happy loving couples make it look so easy.” Joe Jackson, 1989.
I’d last been to The Clove Club on Valentine’s Day, that passion-killer which ranks up there with New Year’s Eve as top of my nights to stay at home under all circumstances.
I was so overjoyed to be able to find that a table was free that I had failed to realize that there was a reason. And when the penny of sadness dropped into my consciousness I decided to press on anyway. How bad can it be?
If you are forced to eat out on Valentine’s Day there are, I hazard, worse places than The Clove Club, but even The Clove Club didn’t quite manage to overcome the dead hand of manufactured romance. It did not help that there had been a deluge and there were no taxis and I had, naturally, failed to bring an umbrella.
The evening passed in a damp fug, C bemoaning the journey out of his comfort zone to Beard Central, and me doing that talky-talky thing with the waitstaff to over-compensate for the thousand-yard stare on the other side of the table. Surrounded by couples pretending to be happy and absorbing the aura of soft disappointment that lies beneath the surface of every February 14th, I forget what the food was like.
So, six months later and again we trek to Liverpool Street and encounter the longer-than-you-remember walk to Shoreditch Town Hall, leading to C not really speaking much by the time we arrive. At least it wasn’t raining.
Had I not known about the dining room proper, I might have thought that the bloody awful table tucked round the back of the bar was the only available choice. It had as much atmosphere as a burst party balloon.
I’m told I have an expressive face so perhaps SAVE ME FROM THIS was written all over it. We asked to be moved and scored a table in the main room, the one with the kitchen in it, the sparse, minimalist one you see in all the pictures. TIP: make sure you are in that room when you book. It’s where all the action is.
The Clove Club is the brainchild of Isaac McHale, late of a group of chefs who used to be known as the Young Turks and who kick-started what can almost be called a movement within modern British food. The success of that movement can, to some degree, be measured by the Michelin star it won in 2014, an accolade awarded this year to that other Young Turk, James Lowe, at Lyle’s, just around the corner.
It’s a style of food that brings together unexpected flavours and techniques. It does a bit of the foraging thing and a bit of the pickling thing and whilst it respects classical techniques, it mixes old and new, expected and unexpected and makes you think about what you are eating. Thus it is that the food at Clove Club is at the very centre of your dining-out experience.
For some reason I decided to have the tasting menu. C wasn’t convinced, worried about too much food and in order to placate him I heard myself asking if it was a lot of food, even though I knew the answer. Don’t eat too much of the bread and you’ll be fine, said the waitress, sighing inwardly.
You don’t get the bread for a while though as it’s not an entirely conventional procession through the courses. You do get THE FRIED CHICKEN though. I bet they are bored to utter power of extinction with the chicken now, that buttermilk-fried version for which they are justly famous. This is the chicken that can be said to have started the trend for fried chicken in a fine dining setting and made it an acceptable choice for discerning diners, not just something you have in one bucket before you do something else in another.
It is good, but it is only fried chicken after all and really, there is so much more to be excited about on the menu. By way of a start, literally, something resembling a pair of puffed-up chickens’ feet arrive perched on a white napkin. I look closer and see that they are indeed puffed-up chickens’ feet. I think fondly of my own hens, Esther and Lilly, and eat the feet anyway. I’m not sure I’d do it again; it’s not the taste (crispy chicken skin crossed with puffed rice) but more the thought of where those feet might have been. What sort of culinary mind thinks about puffing them up? A Chinese one, according to my research, although I note that they are also a delicacy for dogs. I ate crispy pig’s ears once too. They still had hairs on them. Never again. I don’t care how good they tasted.
A grilled mackerel course stands out, richness in the dressing and charred skin and a simple presentation on three slices of cucumber, almost sashimi-like. The superb home-churned butter and dense sourdough comes part way through. It is with all my will that I refuse an extra portion. I have already eaten two pieces, despite the fullness warning, as the crust is the stuff of dreams and I layer it with a slick of butter of equal thickness. Some home-cured meat next, sliced so thinly it’s almost translucent and tears apart on the fork. On top of the bread it practically dissolves in my mouth.
My firm favourite is the scallops, apple, truffle and cabbage. There’s a sharp foam overlaying it, cutting through the rich. This dish has everything; colour, texture, richness and sourness. C is not sure about the sour but I think it lifts the dish and marks it as their own.
A little more of the theatrical comes with the duck broth and the 100 year old Madeira. The broth is served hot, from a decanter. We are asked to taste the Madeira but also to leave some in the glass. It’s knockout. Rich, complex, nutty, treacly. The duck broth is clear and umami-rich, with no trace of fat, just essence of duck. It is simple and complex at the same time.
A tiny Montgomery Cheddar tart appears, the cheese almost liquid. It is so small it cannot even be called a mouthful but it packs a flavour punch and I want another one immediately. Instead, we have Pork belly on a crisp blood pudding wafer, which is more delicate than it sounds and in another first, I make myself eat it and my journey from vegetarian to full-blooded carnivore is surely complete.
A bowl appears with cloud of what must be whipped egg-white and Amalfi lemon, with Sarawak pepper, ethereally light, sharp and delicious and it neutralises the palate, after all the richness.
Judgement: If you want to sample one of London’s more innovative restaurants and you don’t mind paying in advance for the privilege, then this is the restaurant for you. The cooking plays with classical techniques but has a style of its own, with a sometimes challenging use of flavourings and ingredients which won’t appeal to everyone. It’s an intelligent, restrained performance and one which the more adventurous diner will enjoy. And no, the extended menu wasn’t too much food and C held my hand on the way home, just for a minute or so, mind. Who said romance was dead?