The day: 23rd August 2008, Dinner.
The place: 69-73, St. John’s Street, London EC1M 4AN
The venue: The Clerkenwell Dining Room
The food: Modern British
The drinks: Interesting shortish list, with a good range of prices.
After the slight disappointment at One Lombard Street and above all the shameful experience at Refettorio, another try for a good dining experience in the City. Quite unassuming from outside, inside it has two rooms on the ground floor, and another one upstairs. The décor is stark black/brown against cream and white, the white mostly coming from the tablecloths (Refettorio, please take note) on the well spaced and comfortable tables.
The menu is short and sharp, with eight starters and eight mains. Surprisingly given the location (near the Smithfields meat central market) it is unbalanced towards fish: of the eight starters, four are fish (e.g. smoked eel salad with Jersey royals and horseradish at £8 or Salad of crab and avocado as the most expensive item at £9.50), two meat – which we’ll go for, and two vegetarian (e.g. beignet of courgette flower, provençal vegetables and buffalo mozzarella at with ricotta at £8.50). As for mains, in the £15-£22 range, the vegetarian option (Potato gnocchi primavera, green asparagus and shaved parmesan, at £15) sits together with three fish dishes (e.g seared salmon with crushed new potatoes and beurre rouge at £16) and four meat dishes (including the Cote de boef for two, with hand cut chips and béarnaise sauce, at £22 per head).
Not a second after our orders had been taken, here comes a very welcome amuse bouche: cucumber ‘shards’ with salmon salad and dill sitting on top.
Very pleasant, fresh, the cucumber tangy with lemon fighting off the pleasant richness of the salmon salad.
And a nice bread basket to help it along
And yes, you may say that there are just two types of bread, and just three half slices per type. But this is not an Italian restaurant, and the bread is good, and in case anyone from Refettorio is reading, please note that bread comes for free…
Ok, so now for our starters:
– Country terrine of Pork with pickles an toast (£8.50)
– Barbecue quail, pickled cabbage and chilli mayonnaise (£9)
As for the Terrine, we remember now that it was advertised with toast: well, as you see from the picture there was no toast. No matter, it was really very good: the pork was chunky, moist, very flavoursome, each rich mouthful balanced by the acidity of the pickles. These perhaps a tad too salty, but overall this was a delicious dish.
The quail was also remarkable. Cooked through but plump, juicy and tender. Nicely and joyfully presented, with the crunchy (fried?) root vegetable slivers on top of the chunky stewed cabbage, with the sweet-and sour barbecue sauce rounding this dish off nicely.
For mains, we opted for :
– Roast monkfish, chorizo, broad beans, peas and green lettuce (£18)
– Rump of lamb, creamed sweet corn, fondant potato and rosemary and tomato jus (£18)
The monkfish came with a superthin ‘crispified’ slice of chorizo, which works out much better than other versions (these days the fish and chorizo pairing seems to be all the rage -see e.g. here – for some reason that especially Woman cannot make out). The vegetable broth was very flavoursome. The less successful bit of this dish was the monkfish itself, slightly sullen and chewy (maybe not top quality), and too salty.
The lamb, instead, was really something to write home about. Besides the very generous portion (definitely too generous for the lady at a neighbouring table, who was having real trouble in politely finishing her dish not to offend her host), the flavours were really clear and intense. The lamb simply excellent; the fondant potato, with a beautiful texture, had nicely soaked up the rosemary from the potent jus, very concentrated and counterbalanced by the sweetness of the creamed sweetcorn. If we had to find a flaw, the spinach, while good, erred again on the salty side.
Of course we could not let the puddings go unnoticed: so we passed on the Ricotta lemon cheesecake with pine nuts and raisins (£6.50) and opted for:
– Rum baba, tropical fruit and coconut (£6.50);
– Chocolate fondant, malt ice cream (£6.50)
Here again we cannot recall malt ice cream with the fondant, rather a red berries ice. And rather good it was. The fondant, so very intensely flavoured, was accompanied by an almost solid chocolate mousse (indeed, it felt like the mellow core of the best chocolate brownies you’ve ever had), deeply chocolatey, and all this intense chocolate really wanted some fresh and tart ice cream to complement it. Superb.
The baba was in fact more of a savarin. Too airy, perhaps, and the rum far fainter than in the Italian version, but overall a very nice dish, light on the palate, with the fluffy savarin quite a contrast in texture and flavour to the coconut ice cream, and the wide assortment of fruit lending some extra moisture and freshness to the whole. A perfect way to end the dinner.
We skip the coffee as usual, but nonetheless a little tray of homely chocolate salami squares generously appears:
With a bottle of Momo Pinot Noir 2006 at £30, our final bill would have come to £112 including service. Here again we deploy our weapon (it is enough to book online to get a 25% discount), finally ending up paying a very reasonable £84.38.
Yes, we finally spent a very pleasant evening in the City. Service is attentive, smiling, laid back but precise under the careful watch of the very charming she-maitre … it could be that of a well run Italian restaurant 😉
Chef Andrew Thompson operates his skill on relatively plain ingredients, but bringing out of them as much as possible with work, imagination and, we think, passion. This is something we like very much; it is another living proof that simple materials can be turned into enticing dishes in the hands of an able chef who doesn’t overstep the mark (remember Patterson’s). And the sense of welcoming and generosity offered by the room staff extends to the dishes. True, we would hesitate to pay the full price, skilful though Chef Thomson is, and you know that we could eat even better, and more cheaply, elsewhere. But to be fair The Clerkenwell is good comparative value and a notch more enticing than other joints in this area, and especially if you were heading for Refettorio, don’t, and stretch it one mile further north, and let them pamper you at the Clerkenwell instead.