I don’t mind spending seven hundred and seventy pounds on dinner at The Clove Club: it’s not like they keep the prices a secret until the last minute. I don’t mind paying for the food – a set nine-course tasting menu costing £110 a head – months in advance of the dinner itself: I get that they have every right to protect their perilous margins against no-shows. I don’t mind the expensive wine list: there is (some) stuff available for less than fifty quid a bottle; the markups across the board aren’t especially egregious. I don’t even mind paying for the odd dud course, the occasional swing-and-a-miss: it’s part of the highwire thrill of dining somewhere with this level of ambition.
What I do mind is how frequently they get the basics wrong.
It starts with the service, which alternates between jarringly intrusive (we lose count of the conversations interrupted midflow) and enervatingly lax
It starts with the service, which alternates between jarringly intrusive (we lose count of the conversations interrupted midflow) and enervatingly lax (those nine courses take four and a half hours). When it deigns to show up, it exudes a faint know-it-all smugness: our waiter corrects me when I say I don’t want to get too drunk on the nonalcoholic aperitif I order (“You won’t get drunk at all”); he forces us through an exasperating charade over dietary restrictions (refusing to ruin the “surprise” menu and so asking a series of increasingly specific questions that basically ruin it anyway); he later upbraids one of us for saying that the food we have had so far is “fine”. It chips away at our enjoyment, replacing it with the suggestion that they’re doing us a favour in allowing us to spend £200 each in the presence of a kitchen this gifted.
On top of this, and sporadic blitzkrieg raids on your wallet – though he does not do so pushily, the sommelier does upsell a couple of glasses of punchily priced pudding wine – some of the execution is also pretty fundamentally flawed. Early in the piece, a haggis bonbon is a doughy slog through two dutiful bites, the signature fried chicken is underseasoned (we pine for more pine salt), and some delicate spring vegetables are beasted by a smoked herring broth that honks like the kitchen in a Russian bath-house. Two otherwise excellent courses – a smoked trout tartare with potato soup and a Barbary duck breast – are let down by shoddy butchery, strains of sinew resisting teeth and the knife; a fun interlude involving exquisite Madeira (from 1908!) ends with a whimper when the ambrosia in our glasses – we are told to leave a drop – is drowned out by a duck consommé that tastes brackishly and anonymously of supermarket own-brand stock cube.
It might trigger the waitstaff anew, but fine actually covers off much of the rest. The very first bite – an apple and beetroot gazpacho-granita with walnut cream – is fresh enough (though I preferred the idea when Daniel Patterson had it six years ago). A bite of cured mackerel with horseradish and sesame is technically pretty unimpeachable – and bonus points if it’s intended as a Modern British riff on sashimi – but could do with a bit more oomph. A pudding of rhubarb with yoghurt and rose – complete with Hedone-style fruit-powdered pastry disk – is a decent match for the upsold sticky. Petits fours are a competent full stop, but not an exclamation mark.
And yet. Every now and then – three times, specifically – there is a high that bring you to your knees in supplication. Coins of raw Orkney scallop with on a Perigord truffle purée are an awesome chiaroscuro, proper ying and yang stuff: black and white, rich and fresh, brooding and virginal. Grilled pollock with onion, cinnamon and curry leaf is a five-star Keralan riverboat cruise; it is so good it stops conversation entirely. A burnt Clementine sorbet has been (I think) pacojetted into a perfect smoothness; creme fraiche adds fat and just a little tartness; spiced meringue brings a contrasting texture and unadulterated sweetness to offset the sour. These three dishes belong on tables in the best restaurants on earth.
That’s the nub of the problem, really. The Clove Club is not a bad restaurant – like I said, at its best the cooking is genuinely world class. But the experience is not world class enough, often enough, and this matters when there is more than just the cost of your dinner to indicate that world class is what they’re going for. Since the restaurant’s opening in 2013, the menu has basically doubled in length, suggesting an increased ambition; they have adopted Nick Kokonas’ pioneering reservation system, Tock; the food has evolved and now feels designed to say something, riffing both on co-owner Isaac McHale’s Scottish heritage (the haggis, some peated barley buns served on real barley) and on the history of British food more generally (the last thing I eat is a bonbon filled with Dr Henderson’s; it comes with a note declaring “We love Fergus Henderson, Trevor Gulliver, and St John” – talk about on the nose to tail).
I’d feel a little uncomfortable using it to advance the argument that London is one of the world’s great food cities
As recently as June last year, Ryan Sutton was hailing The Clove Club as “the British answer to a French neo-bistrot, a venue like Septime … where patrons can enjoy a short tasting for under $100 per person”. None of that holds true today. When you look at The Clove Club in 2017, you don’t see Septime – you see other restaurants serving long tasting menus, or positioning themselves on the cutting edge of reservations management, or using their food to say about time and place in their local cuisine: places like Noma, or Eleven Madison Park. The recent Sunday Times garland was the cherry on the top of all this signalling, anointing The Clove Club the UK’s standard-bearer for a certain kind of forward-looking, 50 Best-bothering, multiple Michelin-starred cuisine.
At present, I’m not sure it’s ready for that role. At present, it’s too patchy; the kitchen may even be over-extended in churning out so much when it is clearly capable of doing some things exquisitely. At present, I’d feel a little uncomfortable using it to advance the argument that London is one of the world’s great food cities; the present might, in fact, be a good time for the big name critics to take another look at a place that has changed immensely since they filed their copy. Because at present, whatever any list says, The Clove Club definitely isn’t the best restaurant in the UK.
At present, it – and we – can do better. C
The Clove Club, Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1
020-7729 6496; thecloveclub.com