[London, W8] Clarke's

I’ve wanted to eat here for, literally, decades. When Sally Clarke opened her restaurant in the mid-1980s, she was pretty much the only female chef that you’d hear about in the media. She pre-dates the River Café by a year or so. And, then as now, the food sounded like it was the food you wanted to eat. So, why has it taken me nearly 30 years to get here? Well, truth be told, the restaurant has faded in and out of my consciousness and, on trips to the capital, there’s always seemed to be somewhere else in our thoughts. But, here we were, at last.

The menu is one of those where you’re going spoilt for choice. Around six dishes at each course, plus a trademark no choice three courser, for £39. Seasonal, Modern Brit food, tempered with an Italian influence in there with some of the dishes. This is food where the ingredients speak for themselves, without being cheffed about with too much. There was a knockout pea soup. Deep green colour that made you wonder if spinach was in there, but the flavour was all pea – with just a hint of leek and mint. It comes with the longest grissini you’re likely to come across – getting on for 18 inches.

The other starter was a seemingly simple salad of escarole and very bitter, peppery landcress. It’s topped with a big dollop of creamy burrata and a sprinkling of walnuts. So far, so good. This is all a good balancing of flavours and textures. But what brings the whole plate alive are slices of blood orange.

There’s a delicious veal chop for a main course. Alongside, roasted carrots, sweet parsnip crisps and another bright, fresh salad, again featuring the landcress along with matchsticks of beetroot and celeriac. It’s a winner. Cornish dover sole is the other plate. Served on the bone and perfectly cooked. There’s a well worked out set of mixed veg – carrots, Romanesco, peas, cabbage and a couple or so Charlotte potatoes. It’s one of the features of the menu that in-season veg were making several appearances – the peas, carrots and cress, for instance.

For desserts, there were a couple of soufflé pancakes, light as you like, filled with a well balanced lemon cream – not too sweet, not too sharp. It was advertised as coming with a strawberry sauce but, in the event, it was just sliced berries – but perfectly ripe ones – goodness knows where they source them from in March. The other dessert was a return to absolute simplicity. No cooking. No faffing about. Just a plate of perfectly ripe orange segments, accurately described “toffee dates” and fresh walnuts. It worked so well.

Service had been pretty much all you want – on the ball and unobtrusive. By the by, it seems that Sally Clarke is no longer in the kitchen but was running front of house. It matters not a jot.

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Was really interested to see this.

I last went to Clarke’s about 12 years ago when it was “no choice” and remembered being surprised by how much I enjoyed it. What it taught me was that, in the right hands, a no choice menu could enable a skillful chef to develop themes running through the meal that would otherwise be fragmented, or take you to new experiences that you wouldn’t have thought of selecting yourself.

It’s a bit ironic that, whilst there are now far more “no choice” restaurants than before Clarke’s has introduced an a la carte. At their best (e.g. Lyle’s) the new places capture that same skill and spirit I found at Clarke’s a decade ago, but often they do not. And, of course, it’s interesting to compare that idea of the “developed” set piece menu with the usual tasting menus which (as we’ve said here before) are often just a disjointed list of most popular dishes from each category: more a greatest hits compilation than a developed album!

My preference these days is always a traditional three courser (although I’m obviously happy to accept an amuse and a pre-dessert). But I’m happy to do a tasting menu when that’s something (a) distinct from the carte and (b) it’s something the restaurant is big on. Places like Fraiche on Wirral and the Sportsman at Seasalter. What I’m not going to order is the tasting menu that’s a mini version of disparate dishes picked from the carte (even though I know that’s how tasting menus started)

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold