It is hard not to pre-judge the Clove Club. The venue is the highest ranked British restaurant in the annual San Pelligrino top-50 list. Maybe as a result of its fame, it is necessary to reserve a table for a weekend evening three months in advance and – in a first for this country – pay for it all upfront. Against this background, I seriously expect to be wowed. What my comrade and I learned, however, on a recent visit is that we should have followed the Michelin ranking. Put another way, while we loved our experience, we were not left awed by the food and felt that the price was not justified. One Michelin star tells you more than a #33 global ranking by San Pelligrino.
Sure, Isaac McHale (formerly of other super-star restaurants including The Ledbury, Noma and Eleven Madison Avenue) has done a wonderful job, both in terms of vibe and culinary wizardry. Fine dining should be fun, and the informality of the Clove Club goes a long way in dispelling the formal, almost reverent image that the term still connotes in some places. There are no starched tablecloths, snootily disdainful waiters or formal dress codes at the Clove Club – quite the contrary in all respects – but this remains an elitist experience. At £280/head, even for an 8-course tasting menu with paired wines, this is not for everyone. Shoreditch may be miles from Mayfair or Knightsbridge, but you still have to pay up mightily to enjoy the beauty of the renovated local town hall in which the Clove Club resides. Once at our wooden table in with a full view of the rest of the restaurant and its beautifully blue tiled open-kitchen, we waited to be impressed.
Our amuse-bouches set things off on a high note. A tiny brown crab tart with devilled spices was, for example, a sensation of delicate taste and served beautifully on a pebble-encrusted shell. Onto the first course and no complaints about my trout, although my vegetarian comrade was notably more disappointed with her dish. Even if it hid culinary excitement below, it was hard to dispel the unappealing sight of one radicchio leaf seemingly plonked on a plate to resemble a damp cloth. Throughout, there were undoubted flashes of brilliance with the raw Orkney scallop and perigord truffle – apparently a signature dish – lingering long after. I also loved my morels stuffed with wood pigeon sausage, snails and wild garlic, which combined a host of flavours and textures in an original and successful fashion. My comrade also loves morels, but it was not quite so easy, however, for her to get excited about a stuffing comprising breadcrumbs. For a restaurant that places a lot of emphasis on cooking with seasonal vegetables, it was sometimes hard not to feel that vegetarians were slightly short-changed.
Elsewhere, we could not fault the wines (some superb choices were shown, including a decadent 1996 Madeira) or the service (friendly and unpretentious, yet highly professional). Nonetheless, in the final reckoning – and when extras including service had been added to the bill – I felt I had got better relative value elsewhere.