Sally Clarke opened her eponymous restaurant in December 1984, adding a successful bakery five years later that serves dozens of other restaurants. After taking cookery courses she worked for a time at Prue Leith’s catering school and then moved to California to work at a friend’s restaurant. While there she dined at Alice Waters’ influential Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and took inspiration from this encounter to open in London. Clarke’s was one of the first restaurants in the UK to offer a no-choice tasting menu, radical at the time, though ironically it has now shifted to a al carte format. With starters just under £20 and main courses nudging the £30 level, and vegetables extra, expectations of the food are inevitably raised to quite a high level.
The wine list ranged in price from £25 to £750. Examples were Clos Figueras Serras del Priorat 2016 at £39 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £27, the excellent Ostertag Muenchberg Riesling 2016 at £75 compared to its retail price of £46, and Gaja Pieve Santa Restitut Brunello di Montalcino 2013 at £120 for a label that will set you back £55 in a shop. At the prestige end of the list, Krug NV champagne was £237 compared to its retail price of £158, and Cheval Blanc 1985 was £650 for a wine that has a current market value of £529. As can be seen, mark-ups are not bad at all by London standards.
As one might hope from a restaurant with a famous baker, there was a selection of bread, including Stilton bread and olive focaccia. I began with a terrine of foie gras that came with toasted baguette, celery, radishes and onion marmalade. This was simple but pleasant, the texture of the terrine slightly rustic and rather lacking in liver flavour, though I did quite like the onion marmalade (12/20). This was more successful than girolles and warm purple artichokes, Parmesan, cobnuts, landcress and lemon. The artichokes were fine, as were the nuts, but the girolles were very sorry for themselves: flabby, limp and under-seasoned. We each tried one and left the rest, yet when the plate was collected not a word was said about the pile of uneaten girolles (10/20).
For the main course my breast of corn-fed chicken was filled with tarragon and then roasted. On the side was summer cabbage and more of the flabby girolles, the bird resting on a potato galette. It was a pity that it was served this way, as the galette had become rather soggy rather than the crisp creature that it doubtless was before someone rested a chicken on it for several minutes. The cabbage was pleasant although on the undercooked side, the bird itself properly cooked if having unexciting flavour (12/20). John Dory came with olive and marjoram tapenade, baked fennel, aubergine caponata and coco blanc beans. The fish was nicely cooked if a tad salty, and the tapenade was tasty, the fennel a good pairing with the fish (13/20).
Apple and greengage strudel was very pleasant, the greengage plums not overly sharp, the texture fine (13/20). Pistachio crème brulee with baked purple figs was garnished with a pistachio wafer. This was a nice dessert, the crème brulee capable and the wafer crisp, the pistachio flavour coming through. The figs wouldn’t worry the market stall holders on the Mediterranean coast but had decent enough flavour (13/20). Coffee was from Monmouth Street.
As a recurring theme there were more elements on the plate than were really needed. Execution was variable, as shown by the sad girolles, though at least the pastry section kept its end up. It is a long time since I have been here and to be honest it was pretty disappointing, especially given the high price point. The bill came to £116 per head with no cocktails, three courses and a decent but hardly grand bottle of wine between two of us. Service was quite good, the wine topping up being impeccable, but at no point in the meal did anyone ask us whether we were happy with the food, including when collecting the half-eaten starter. Clarke’s clearly has a lot of history and still attracts plenty of diners, including at least one celebrity artist this evening. However the food felt like we were dining in a decent but unexceptional gastropub, albeit with slicker surroundings, but with a bill that you would associate with a fine dining restaurant. At this price you can do far, far better in London.
Further reviews: 04th Nov 2010