The tables were set and the candles lit but despite that the restaurant was empty.
Not usually a good sign but then we did book a table at the very start of the evening service. In most places I find this off-putting – you’re a nuisance to the staff who are still making final preparations for the later rush. In Clarke’s it feels like they’ve been waiting for you and despite the summer heat they’re unruffled and smartly turned out. Our Maître d’ in suit and tie looking particularly smart welcomes and seats us at a table in the middle of the room where we can survey all around us. Unprompted he brings us a carafe of iced water and pours our glasses – “Something for the heat.” (It’s the hottest day of the year.) “The menus will be with you shortly, they’re just being printed,” he says.
On the menu is “Sally’s special set meal”. Three courses, no choice. Also it has no price on it. It’s 29 for two and 35 for three says Colin when my wife asks. I order the Angus sirloin with a horseradish sauce, watercress, hand cut chips and heritage beetroot. Heritage usually means “yellow”: yellow tomatoes, yellow beetroot, yellow green beans. Most places I won’t eat steak after years of disappointment. Likewise pork belly. The selection of bread I’ve eaten since arriving at Clarke’s (a white Stilton bread and a walnut bread) tell me that this is the kind of place you could probably order anything off the menu and it’d be good.
Yol’s starter is a green salad with baby broad beans, green leaves and an opaque white dressing splashed across it like a Jackson Pollock. Or cum. She says it’s delicious. I try a bit. She’s right and I resolve to make more interesting salad dressings at home besides vinaigrette cut with Dijon mustard.
At this point the first real customers arrive. They know the Maitre d’. This is how I learn he’s called Colin. It’s a good name for the Maitre d’ at Sally Clarke’s: it’s honest, it’s not foreign or fancy. In his suit with the middle button done up Colin could be the forgotten member of artist combo Gilbert and George. It could be one of those T-shirts like John, Paul, George and Ringo. Except there’d only be three of them.
I overhear a bit of the conversation, The woman looks at her husband and says “Would you have let him in wearing shorts, Colin?”.
I pipe up: “I’m wearing shorts and they let me in.”
Clarke’s is that sort of place, you feel like part of it even if it’s your first visit. She looks over and says “Oh, I’m so sorry I didn’t know.” I smile but she feels that she’s been unpardonably rude and continues to apologise. I laugh, I say didn’t mean to embarrass her. I go back to my very nice house rosé. Her husband on his way to the toilet claps his hands on my shoulders laughing. Like I say, Clarke’s is that sort of a place.
My wife’s main course of salmon is well cooked and presented with a good robust flavour, unlike some salmon which can be a little insipid says my wife. Salmon, that’s fish for people who don’t like fish I say. Baked tomatoes and a healthy dose of spinach. What the menu billed as “potato and shallot crisps” turned out to be exactly that and were an interesting surprise. You normally only encounter them on a dinner plate in a pub alongside a tired looking sandwich. In the eighties. These turn out to be the best crisps ever.
Desserts are all £7-something and the summer fruit jelly with cream and sponge fingers was exactly that but homemade, fresh and delicious. Other afters that caught my eye were the mini-chocolate donuts with more chocolate.
By the time we’re leaving the ground floor is almost full. There are the regulars, greeted by Colin and the two other staff as, well regulars, friendly but not too much. This is how they greet me in the Number One Cafe in Hackney where steak and chips is a fiver.
And yes, the heritage beetroot was yellow.