In this series, we review London’s restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle.
Spring is perhaps the best time to be a vegetarian. After the austere ‘hungry gap’ spent eating too many dull root vegetables, suddenly a riot of colourful and glamorous fruit and veg start appearing in the market. There’s elegant asparagus and rhubarb, tender young peas and broad beans, honeycomb-patterned morel mushrooms, tangy sorrel, early summer truffles, voluptuous alphonso mangoes and — to those of us who love cooking with edible flowers — the dainty confetti of cherry blossoms.
Some of this gorgeous spring bounty is showcased in the daily-changing menu of The Clove Club — as it should be, since the vegetable-centric restaurant’s philosophy, in which meat is relegated to the sidelines, is based on showcasing seasonal produce from small British suppliers. Chef Isaac McHale, who’s worked at The Ledbury and Noma, is part of the trendy Young Turks chef collective. He opened The Clove Club with Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith to enthusiastic reviews in 2012 in the revamped Shoreditch Town Hall.
Of course, the buzz around the restaurant means it’s not easy to get a table. We’d booked online (though afterwards we were advised to book on the phone, as their telephone system is more up-to-the-minute). We were given a choice of two 2.5 hour sittings, but as nobody had reserved our table after us, we were allowed to linger anyway. (How annoying are these ‘sittings’ systems?). It’s easier to get a table earlier in the week; or in the spacious bar area at the entrance. The bar leads to the restaurant, a curved, minimally decorated room with chefs cooking and bantering in an open-view kitchen to one side, and large picture windows to the other. There are two no-choice menus of £55 for five courses, including a vegetarian one. A simplified version of these is available as a la carte in the bar; but there’s no a la carte in the restaurant.
The veggie dishes look like miniature edible gardens, with waterfalls of foams and meadows of crisp green salad leaves. Roasted hazelnuts were a perfect foil to the slightly bitter, almost chocolatey flavour of chicory. Japanese gomashio-like seasoning of crushed black sesame seeds perked up a sprightly bunch of French radishes with leaves — though no chilli or soybean flavours were discernible in the accompanying gochuchang mayonnaise, which we suspect was an obligatory nod to hipsterhood. Strips of blanched young turnips were wrapped around fresh mint to give a pretty swiss roll effect. And these were just the canapés.
Next, the sharpness of sorrel granita brought out the smokiness of rhubarb, paired with roasted new-season beetroot. Cinnamon and curry leaves didn’t overpower the delicate flavour of green and white asparagus with morels. Perched on fine, creamy white polenta with podded peas and broad beans, roasted parsley root was both refined and robust. For an extra £10 supplement, we could have tasted perigord truffles with leeks and cheddar, but we were pleasantly full by now.
A fairly ordinary apple tarte tatin with burnt pastry was the only disappointment, but we’re pleased we’d saved room for the second dessert. Cool wild fennel granita, with its distinctive anise and liquorice notes, paired with slightly warm blood oranges was a playful combination of cooking temperatures. The accompanying sheep’s milk mousse, with crumbly, feather-light solidified milk foam resembling little pieces of meringue, added further intrigue. An eccentric trio of petit fours included peat smoke-flavoured barley cake, the restaurant’s own chocolate bar, and weird little chocolate truffles that came with a written homage to chef Fergus Henderson and Fernet Branca. Well this is, after all, Shoreditch.
We liked all the details: fluffy own-made sourdough with deliciously creamy own-churned butter, the surprise of the odd off-the-menu canapé. When we asked a passing waiter about an ingredient, he enthused about their small vegetable and salad grower, Organiclea; then, unprompted, brought us a card with the supplier’s details written down. Certainly staff are friendly, efficient, knowledgeable and full of charisma. Most importantly, they seem to enjoy what they do. We left our wine choices to them — but just be aware that if you’re drinking by the glass, and in the mood to experiment, as we were, the cost will rise steeply.
Oh but what a joy it is to taste exuberance on a plate, a carnival of sumptuous springtime ingredients in their full technicolour glory. Perhaps a little more protein — a bit of cheese, a few eggs — would have made the almost entirely vegetable-centric dishes more substantial. But it is these vegetables that are McHale’s starting point, his canvas, the stars of the show rather than tokenistic afterthought. And that, for a non-meat eater, makes all the difference.
The Clove Club, Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, EC1V 9LT. Tel: 020 7729 6496.