The Clove Club in Shoreditch is the highest placed new entry on the list at no. 26. Set in the vibrant hub of London’s most trendy area, it is remarkably stripped back. The decor itself wouldn’t be out of place in Pizza Express; it’s a relaxed Italian restaurant atmosphere with hanging hams, empty wine bottles and a huge bar.
It’s at the bar that I end up sitting, where I am promptly engaged in conversation with Robert the Barchef. Before you even get to the food at The Clove Club, it’s impossible to resist ordering a drink, and Robert is one of the best bar chefs going. From being interviewed by the FT, to being cooked for by Massimo Bottura (of Osteria Francescana) himself at a party, Robert is as much part of the fabric of the restaurant as the menu itself. If you ask him to make you a cocktail from scratch, it’s like watching the master alchemist at work, and I can guarantee you’ll enjoy the result.
Moving on the food itself, The Clove Club offers an impressive set tasting menu. If you want to eat in the main restaurant, this is what you will be served – and much to the surprise of some newspapers, you pay for your food when you book, in advance, via the Tock ticketing system. There is a secondary bar menu, which has smaller snacks and plates to go with your cocktails, but this is only served in the bar area.
With a tasting menu over 10 courses long, it’s a hefty amount of food and the dining experience lasts around three hours. It’s a relief that the menu is well thought out, or the experience could be overwhelming. In addition to the menu below, I was served a frozen gazpacho with toasted almonds and elderflower cream, buttermilk fried chicken with pine salt, a crab tartlet and a warm haggis bun to start, with petit fours of caramel chocolate, barley cake, a strawberry with pepper and a mint liquor pastille to end. In many ways, the menu is reassuringly familiar in its structure – starter, fish, meat, dessert – just extended into more courses.
The sheer range of different flavours almost contrasts with The Clove Club’s commitment to minimalism, but there’s a sublimity and a thought that goes into each section that maintains the simple elegance of each flavour. Take the warm haggis bun, for example. Serve in the middle of an artist’s palette, it’s presented as if part of a wider scheme. It’s soft, savoury, and has the spicy umami taste you expect from really good haggis. This is then expertly paired with a dehydrated apple cider vinegar, which adds the tang you need to balance such a deep flavour.
Each course is presented in an exceptionally stripped back manner – it’s beautiful, but often on such large plates that the food seems overshadowed by the sheer scale of the crockery. This does have the effect of making the portions look manageably small, but also detracts from the sheer beauty that has gone in to designing each course.
One of the standout spectacles of the meal is the whole roast duck. As you reach this course, a waiter appears holding a full roasted duck and explains exactly what you will be receiving. The idea is that the flavours progress from the lighter consume through to the more intense sausage, to explore the full range of duck flavours. It’s a shame that part of this show is just charade, as the duck you are shown is not your duck, but rather a “here’s one we prepared earlier”.
What does stand out in the theatrics of this dish though is the hundred-year-old madeira. The waiter explains that this madeira is one of the best in the world, a D’Oliveira from 1908, only bottled to order. You are served it in a large wine glass, and told to sip until only a trace remains. It’s strong but beautifully subtle, and when the last dregs remain, the consume is poured on top, picking up the last of the flavour to blend with the bacon-y duck soup. The sweetness is the ideal balance point for the earthy consume flavour.
Another stand out feature is the desserts. There’s often a sentiment with outstanding restaurants that dessert can be almost disappointingly lacking in innovation, or, far worse, overpoweringly stodgy after so much fine food. This is not the case at The Clove Club, whose apricot sorbet is the perfect contrast to the rich duck courses that have gone before. Beautifully refreshing with a tart burnt honey disk, it has a complex range of textures thanks to the bee pollen and almonds, and tastes delicious.
A lasting testament to The Clove Club’s commitment to minimalism comes in the petit fours. At the time, my only note next the simple strawberry with pepper was a heart. The perfectly right, soft strawberry is paired with the spicy heat of the pepper to create something that just tingles on your tongue before returning to a familiar sweet flavour.
It’s impossible to deny that The Clove Club has earned its place on the list. Its innovative, minimalist plates and range of flavours is underpinned by a relaxed almost family-like feel that make you feel entirely at home. If anything, I would have placed this one easily in the top half of the list, but perhaps only its youth stands between it and a top ten spot in next year’s judging.