During what Charlie calls my "Annual Festival" in which my birthday and Valentine's Day collide on the same day to give me an excellent excuse to reap the celebratory perks of both holidays spread over three to five days, we splashed out and went to London's Michelin-starred Clove Club for a five-course tasting menu. We sat for maybe 10 minutes before Charlie suggested we just eff it and for go the £95 ten-courser instead in what was perhaps his most daring display of affection to date. It was the right move.
Legend has it that Clove Club was born from a line of supper clubs and pop ups put on by chef Isaac McHale and front-of-housies Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith. The guys finally found their forever home in Shoreditch's beautiful town hall building – there's now charcuterie hanging immediately to the left of the entry way. Inside, a bar area with a snacking menu leads into a cavernous hall of a dining room, where, in true hipster fashion, frills are sacrificed for bare tables and an open kitchen. The restaurant is known for its use of local British ingredients, and the menu reads like a map of the island's coast and fields. Dishes are often delivered to the table by the chef himself, and each comes with explanation.
Before the ten-course countdown could even begin, we were served a succession of snacks including everything from house-cured goose breast to the softest home-made salami. Snack time culminated in the above buttermilk fried chicken and pine salt, which has garnered quite the reputation with London's flashy food people. The nest of needles and golden-fried chicken "eggs" is quite the impressive sight, and the chicken was tender, light and flavorful – beautifully executed. But I believe the essence of pine salt that I told myself I could taste was more of a deception played by my eyes. "You see the pine needles. Now taste the pine," my brain challenged me as I tried my hardest to pick up any winter-fresh note with my tongue. Not sure I ever did.
Our first main dish was the flamed Cornish mackerel, rhubarb and toasted oats, shown above. This simple dish really showed off the quality of the fish, which had only taken just a lick of flame to the skin and was still translucent pink in the center. This is how I like to eat fish. (Raw.)
The famous raw Orkney scallop, hazelnut, brown butter and Perigord truffle dish was one of my favorites. Like eating raw fish, I LOVE eating raw shellfish – scallops especially. When paired with these mellow, earthy, paper-thin mushrooms, matchsticks of truffle and nutty butter, this melted in the mouth.
The raw, fresh shellfish in this dish is maybe a good example of why Clove Club has recently decided to charge guests for their entire meal (aside from drinks) at the time of reservation – a policy that has also been adopted at the likes of NYC's Per Se and Chicago's Alinea to deter eaters from canceling plans at the last minute, presumably due to the cost of wasted ingredients. When Charlie and I went to Clove Club, we paid at the end of our meal, and certainly felt that our spur-of-the-moment upgrade to the larger menu was worth the price. But if faced with a bill at the time of booking, I don't think we would have taken the 40-quid upgrade. In fact, I know we wouldn't have.
Up next was the crisp fried bass collar in soy and sudachi – a cut from behind the gills of the fish that came out steaming hot and with the instruction to treat it as finger food and eat around the fin. This was awesome – the meat had a wonderfully fatty, collagen-like quality, and the crispy bite was sweet. I'll generally gnaw on anything, so this was a quick win.
This little cloud was concealing Scottish blood pudding, Braeburn apple and chicory relish. A dig into the white foam revealed a coarse, iron-y pudding – the flavor lifted with the bright, tart taste of the apple foam.
Line-caught sea bass, Jerusalem artichoke, sorrel and kabosu citrus – we were treated to a table-side grating of an obscure Asian citrus fruit during the same week that Noma's Japanese pop-up at Tokyo's Mandarin Oriental was doing an obscure Asian citrus dish. The fish's iridescent skin was a crisp armor for its tender meat, and the sorrel swirl added a deep green note.
Following were two courses that escaped my photographic endeavors (that branded Charlie and I as a middle-class couple spending our week's salary on a v. special occasion as opposed to cool cosmopolitan yuppies stopping off for a quick 100-quid meal on the way home from work). WE'RE COOL, I SWEAR! A bite-sized Montgomery cheddar tart and crystal malt was like a delicate little wafer with a concentrated cheddar mousse – it demanded delivery-by-fingers directly into the mouth in one, as any other method would have inflicted fatal injury.
The next course was a theatrical affair – wild duck and ginger broth with hundred year old Madeira. The Madeira was served first in a wine glass, and we were instructed to finish it before the duck broth would be deposited into the same glass for sipping. I couldn't help but feel like we were hangers on to the current bone broth trend, but I'm a savory person – sipping broth out of a glass is basically my dream.The second of the larger dishes was roast sirloin or 60-day dry aged Hereford beef, toasted bay milk and kale. SOFT ass kale. THE softest. I eat kale regularly and let me tell you, McHale's kale must be caressed from birth to maintain those supple ruffles. The beef was tender and rare, and one particularly nubby piece hosted a great little slick of carefully rendered fat. They KNOW me at Clove Club.
Dessert #1 was Amalfi lemonade and Sarawak pepper ice cream – a silky, citrus-y cream concealed an ice cream that I can't remember. Enough said.
Dessert #2: warm blood orange, ewe's milk yoghurt mousse and wild fennel granita – this Jackson Pollock plate was light, bright and fruity, just how I like my dessert.
Clove Club is expensive, and its new pay-when-you-book policy has made it a little bit more intimidating than a $140 per person menu from a Michelin-starred chef in an old town hall was from the start. But I'd definitely recommend a meal there to anyone with an appreciation for food, whether that price is something you'd spend after happy hour because you're a baller, or whether it's for an occasion that deserves some celebration.
I found myself relating to a recent episode of the Longform podcast – a great one for any of my writer friends to pick up if you're not already ahead of me on that – in which the guys talked to Adam Platt, the restaurant critic for New York mag. Platt talked about how he does his job and what exactly he wants to convey to readers that may not ever go to the restaurant that he's reviewing – people who read restaurant reviews for leisure rather than to find a table to book for next Friday night. As are all Longform eps, it was a great listen.
What I really related to was how Platt said (or at least what I think he said) that sometimes there's just not much to say about a particular plate of food. That maybe food writing doesn't have to be an in-depth dissection and analysis of the dish down to the molecule, but it could just describe the experience that the writer had with the food in simple terms. In the four years that I've been writing this blog, I've grappled with my qualifications to write about food (none) – I've tried to muster an expertise that I couldn't always justify. But my writing has changed more than I could have ever expected when I started, and I've learned that I don't need to try wow readers with know-it-all food knowledge – instead I can just document and share my experience, using less words, and maybe that's enough. It's nice to get reassurance from someone so accomplished as Adam Platt.
The Clove Club: Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT