Sally Clarke’s eponymous establishment has been a Kensington fixture for a quarter of a century. Diners used to remark that it felt more like going to a dinner party than a restaurant, thanks to Ms Clarke’s bold decision to offer no menu choice whatsoever. Even without bargain prices to compensate for this culinary dictatorship, the place flourished. Then, in 2008, came a volte-face: Clarkes began offering a brief a la carte selection alongside the set menu. It may have abandoned its unique selling point, but it still pulls in the locals with its generally assured and unfussy treatment of whatever was freshest at the market that day.
The feeling of attending a dinner party lives on thanks to the room. With its fresh white walls, herringbone wood floor, inoffensive, abstract art and French windows to the rear, it matches exactly the understated, old money, knocked-through sitting rooms of most of its well-heeled Kensington customers. The same is true of the double-sized downstairs dining room of 50 covers with its open kitchen: many locals have dug out their basements to create a similar space in recent years. The smaller, 25 to 30 cover, ground floor room is the place to be, and it’s particularly pleasant to sit at the front and watch the genteel comings and goings of W8 on the manicured street.
All is relaxed animation amid the diners, some of whom adopt the David Cameron jacket and tie-less shirt combo, whilst others dress down as far as jumpers (cashmere, one suspects, or at least 100 per cent wool) and jeans. All posses that confident, moneyed, West London sheen. Service is friendly and generally accurate without being overly effusive.
From the daily changing, difficult-to-decipher, artistically handwritten set menu (£32 for three courses), mozzarella with marinated (or does it say macerated?) bitter greens and a chilli and sour cream dressing hits lots of the right notes. The cheese is as light as a cloud, the sauce deliciously garlicky (though the chilli is acting shy) whilst the leaves’ bitterness balances the dish perfectly, even if they border on being worthily chewy. Nice, doughy, flat, Italian bread with a crisp edge completes the ensemble. The set main is loin of Gloucester Old Spot pork with apple and sage sauce, crackling and quince glaze. The meat is impeccably tender and flavoursome, the jus gratifyingly meaty, and the apple sauce spot-on, whilst there’s plenty of al dente spring cabbage and broccoli to induce a sense of virtuousness. There’s little evidence of the quince, one piece of roast spud seems parsimonious, and the crackling is tooth-jeopardisingly hard but, overall, this is a jolly nice, poshed-up Sunday roast. The pud of caramelised banana gallette isn’t bad either, with ultra-short pastry, banana that still retains texture (is there anything worse than mushily overcooked banana?), good toffee-ish sauce and a generous blob of whipped cream.
The a la carte menu (printed: bliss!) features four starters, five mains, two sides and four desserts or cheese. Smoked organic Scottish salmon with red and green watercress and lemon is just as it sounds. It’s perfectly pleasant but could be assembled at home in seconds (we’re back at the dinner party again). Clarkes charges £11.75 for it, which might be seen as pushing their luck. Onto the mains, where lovers of well-done steak will have to stand up for their rights, as the chef prefers to serve them medium rare. It’s good advice, however, as the meat arrives juicy, tender and full of flavour with a pat of garlic and herb butter and, again, unadvertised but most welcome spring cabbage. The fried gaufrette potatoes are insubstantial, lacy crisps – very elegant but no substitute for a pile of good chips or roast spuds, especially at £20 a plate. Soft meringue with pineapple sorbet and mango-passion fruit sauce (£7.25) is a light and winning conclusion. The meringue is crisp without and fluffy within, and the sorbet smooth and fragrant, whilst the sharpness of the passion fruit removes any cloyingness – a triumph!
One Champagne, one other sparkler, four whites, a rose, three reds, three desserts and three sherries are offered by the glass (and well priced at £4.50 - £11.50). As for bottles, the list is overwhelmingly French with a few New World and other European options, and the mark-ups good-heartedly modest. The cheapest option is Le Fume Blanc Sauvignon 2007 at £17, a perfectly respectable, crisp and grassy quaffer which arrives properly chilled. Top of the shop on the main list are Puligny-Montrachet 2006, Louis Carillon et Fils for the whites (£72), Chateau Leoville-Poyferre 1999, St Julien for the reds (£130) and Ruinart Rose Brut Champagne at £192. Deep-pocketed oenophiles might opt for one of the Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignons from an additional page dedicated to Ridge Vineyards at between £190 and £270. Shallower-pocketed connoisseurs prepared to sacrifice quantity for quality should peruse a selection of half bottles (£15 - £51).There is a handful of magnums, too, a tempting array of dessert companions (four by the bottle, £23 - £49, four in half bottles, £23 - £70 for a very special Chateau Coutet 1983, Barsac), plus ports, brandies, cognacs and liqueurs.
The Last Word
Clarkes delivers the kind of simple, sensible dishes you always hope to achieve when throwing a dinner party yet somehow never quite pull off. Dining from the no-choice set menu with half a bottle of modest wine will set you back £50 a head, whilst the a la carte equivalent could easily rise above £70. Whilst a pleasant evening is guaranteed, this hardly constitutes a bargain, even amid the art galleries, top-end estate agents, designer boutiques and poshed-up pubs of one of West London’s choicest thoroughfares.