Restaurants in London come and go. People move on; tastes change; leases run out and new ones become prohibitive. Good sites are snapped up by hamburger and pizza chains and coffee shops now proliferate. But some places stand the test of time and one such, about to celebrate its 30th year, is Sally Clarke’s on Kensington Church Street in Notting Hill.
I ate at this restaurant soon after it opened and soon also after I had moved down to London from the north, but my memories are naturally vague, although I must have been amazed, given what I had been used to.
What does remain in the memory, however, was a collaboration Sally Clarke had with a Michelin-starred chef from California, Alice Walters. Some ten years ago the two of them put on an amazing lunch at Le Manoir au Quatre Saisons in Oxford as part of a celebration of American cooking. The meal served by these two formidable ladies was a variety of lamb dishes from broth through to saddle via loin, chops and an extraordinary loop of sausage. Sally Clarke herself served me with a second helping of the broth, as I recall.
More recently, the room has undergone a refurbishment. The main dining room is bright and airy, and tables are well spaced. There is a smaller room at the rear, ideal for a private dinner. What used to be the Sally Clarke shop has now moved out of the main building to larger premises just across the street, leaving space for a more casual dining area, with wooden tables and leather banquettes, where I recently had a delightful Saturday breakfast. I imagine not many people know that this is even available, but it is, and on a daily basis.
Of course, dinner is the main event and it does not disappoint. If, like me, you enjoy a small menu—from which you could choose just about everything—then this is for you. It is obvious from the start that presentation and service are paramount. Beautifully-laid tables, white crockery, gleaming glass, attention to every detail. Everything served looked good on the plate and, in most cases, tasted better.
I started with the Souffle Suissesse, a warm and creamy Gruyere mixture surrounded by a leafy green salad which was excellent, nor did I have to wait any longer for it, as one often does. How do they manage that, I wonder. There is also a three-course dinner menu if you decide not to eat à la carte, and this offered a favourite of my partner’s, puntarelle salad, an Italian root vegetable not often found here, served raw, sliced with oil and vinegar; very good. Nor was there any problem in having this as part of an à la carte meal. I liked that.
Two guests shared a fillet of sea bass and there was an amusing moment when their two plates arrived. Peering over, I saw beautifully arranged girolle mushrooms, fennel, spinach and a potato galette but my immediate reaction was, “Where’s the fish?”
Fears were very soon allayed when a separate plate containing a large filleted sea bass was brought to the table seconds later, whiter than white, moist and, by all accounts, delicious. Two of us had the slow-baked duck leg with beetroot and a salad of bitter leaves, the latter soaking up any duck fat, the meat cooked perfectly and falling off the bone, and a very welcome change from the eponymous grilled duck breast.
Another plus for Clarke’s, and a general gripe of mine in many restaurants, was the timing of each course. Time to eat, time to wait, time to eat again, with perfect spacing. Neither rushed nor starved between courses.
I wasn’t mad about my owndessert, warm ‘Apple Brown Betty’, a plate of puréed cooked apple sprinkled with a crumble of sorts and a scoop of cinnamon cream. I could have done with a little more of both of the latter. The roasted quince must have been good because it disappeared almost as it arrived. Smiles of satisfaction all round.
To still provide consistently good food, impeccably served, 30 years later is surely a true testament to understanding what ‘good’ is and sticking to it.
Barry Verber is a passionate advocate for British food, and for London’s eclectic variety of eateries. Verber’s trademark ‘no-nonsense’ reviews have earned him the respect of countless restaurateurs. Visit www.barryverber.com.
Clarke’s Restaurant, 122 & 124 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BH. Tel: +44(0)20 7221 922. www.sallyclarke.com.