For Daniel Willis, Johnny Smith and Isaac Mchale, the planning and opening of The Clove Club in Shoreditch must have felt a little bit like penning that difficult third album.
One-off pop-up events with James Lowe under the guise of The Young Turks collective were a resounding success, but were also run at no real risk. A residence above the Ten Bells pub on Commercial Street was supposed to be a short-term toe in the water, but it just kept on getting better and better and has now morphed into a permanent enterprise, overseen by the three Clove Clubbers. The third offering, however, needed to be the real deal from the outset. A restaurant for the long haul, built very publically on crowd funding and under a not insignificant weight of expectation. Pressure, pressure, pressure.
Based on the evidence of a couple of early days meals, my take is that their efforts are a London Calling or Screamadelica style success (Google them, kids).
The Clove Club is split into two rooms. Two restaurants, in fact.
The first high ceilinged and off-white-washed room you enter houses a bar and around 35 covers. Here you can eat well and to a good tune, liberally watered with thoughtfully selected wines and beers and smartly crafted cocktails. Cold and hot dishes ranging from £4-£17 could be shared, but don’t have to be. All are innovative and interesting, as well as universally tasty. I particularly enjoyed the smacked cucumber, pigeon sausages with Ten Bells ketchup and Indian spiced sole with almonds and raita style relish. So far, so very good.
The main restaurant, accessed via the bar area, offers just one menu: three snacks; excellent house made sourdough bread; five courses on a 3:2 savoury to sweet split; and one of Isaac’s now well rehearsed takes on a Tunnock’s Tea Cake to round the meal off. It’s a fairly unique offering in London, I think. Other set menus exist, of course, but this is more progressive and refined than, say, The Quality Chop House, whose evening no choice menu is £10 cheaper; but not as delicate as the Dabbous or Roganic six coursers that’ll set you back £10 more. It strikes the right balance for people who want to eat interesting food without calling in Wonga or sacrificing atmosphere and fun.
Which leads to the room itself. High ceilinged and again off-white, the first thing that struck me was a lack of music. A loud natural chatter abounds due to the acoustics of the room – which may also be the reason for the absence of a beat. The second (and recurring) theme I noted was the quality of the tables, chairs, cutlery and plates. Bespoke furniture, smart cutlery, Clove Club personalised steak knives and custom made stone-ware. A statement of intent: we are no longer a pop-up. This shit just got serious. And finally, on the same serious theme, the open kitchen. Sometimes these appear more for show than toil; a quiet, rehearsed show pass, for plate assembly only. Not here. The classy teal coloured tiles and stainless steel end of the room is busy. I counted seven, maybe eight young chefs, uniformed with smart aprons and a beard, side parting, glasses or all three. It was a hive of activity at all times. A pleasure to watch, as well as a reminder that there’s a considerable amount of food cooked for both spaces throughout the night.
Our snacks got things off to a good start. Slithers of cured, smoked, ruby red and butter soft duck breast were the highlight for me. Buttermilk pine chicken were the top level dirty chicken nuggets they’ve been since the Young Turks Canary Wharf event; I think for these new times the pigeon sausages should be showcased. Radishes and a slightly spicy Korean style mayo were visually dramatic and a good nibble.
The prize for the best of the menu proper was shared between what was effectively the main course (rib of beef with ramson and potato) and the first dessert (on a blood orange and sheep’s milk theme).
Thick slices of Cornish beef were served blushing pink and tender on the inside, Maillarded to the max at the crust and generally packing a real punch. The ramson (wild garlic) added depth in its various guises of wilted, chopped raw and spots of emulsion. The jus was bang on in terms of flavour and viscosity and my friends and I basically licked our plates clean. No one would have complained if there’d been a third cylindrical potato croquette/chip (or “insane potato tardis”, as I’ve heard them described) on the side.
A sheep’s milk and blood orange dessert was maybe the most striking dish of the evening. It consisted of warm, slightly dehydrated segments of orange, a ribbon of orange jelly, a smooth tangy sheep’s milk mousse, wild fennel granita that was fragrant and invigorating, and shards of milk crackers, which melted as they touched the tongue. Some desserts that look experimental or use ‘interesting’ combinations and / or herbs fail at the taste test. This was sharp, refreshing, flavourful and awesome.
Of the other three dishes, we unanimously agreed that lightly cured mackerel, hidden under macerated curls of white turnip along with pickled rhubarb and chervil, was delicious and cleansing. Well cooked squid with a subtle tarragon sauce played on the ‘what lies beneath the root’ presentation theme again, arranged as it was under warm and striking discs of green radish. I liked this one, but others were less bothered. A final dessert of caramel ice cream, barley mousse and a mound of oats was again pleasant, particularly with a killer and reasonably priced sticky (can’t remember the deets, soz), but probably needed a bit of crunch to round it off.
It is also worth noting that we were very happy with our sub £30 Macon chardonnay and Chateau Musar Jeune … and the sticky that I can’t remember. The wine list is more accessible than many of the aspirational restaurants out there.
There is of course room for a bit of polishing.
On the food front, I think the snacks will gradually become more refined; and when, in the weeks and months to come, all dishes are at the level of the beef and blood orange, then it really will be quite something. Service and atmosphere in the main dining room isn’t as tight as The Bells in full flow: blinds are needed for the huge windows to block light from outside and dim the clatter within; and we could probably have had a tiny bit more attention on the wine front during the meal. I don’t doubt these quibbles will be buffed and come up shining very soon.
Daniel, Johnny and Isaac have embarked on an ambitious project here. Simply serving innovative, tasty food and well chosen wine in a small, low key room would have been easy for them. Running what effectively amounts to two restaurants simultaneously from the same kitchen, whilst keeping up with and maybe exceeding the high expectations that their previous successes and press coverage have led to, is another thing all together. Happily, the Clove Club is loaded and has hit the ground running.
The Clove Club in 3 words
Metropolitan. Progressive. Bearded.
The taster menu is £46 per person. A strong wine list runs from reasonably priced to expensive, so factor about £75 per head with booze.
Eating at the bar will leave you with a marginally heavier wallet. When I ate and drank a bit (it’s a bar …), it was a £45/50 per head kind of night.
thecloveclub.com – Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, EC1V 9LT – 020 7729 6496
Thanks to Paul Winch-Furness for use of his photo. More here.