LUCA - CLERKENWELL
Luca is the latest venture from Johnny Smith and Isaac Hale, the team behind Shoreditch’s Michelin starred Clove Club. Here, they continue to pay homage to British produce but this time with an Italian focus, putting pasta at the forefront of their menu. This undoubtedly has me interested. Produce-wise think; Morecambe Bay shrimp, Cornish lamb chops, Wiltshire truffle, samphire, Cornish monkfish with a generous ode to Italy with its 5 ages of Parmesan vacca Bianca modenese: which we absolutely weren’t leaving without trying. The same applies for the baked chocolate mousse and prune kernel cream!
The restaurant itself feels divided, in the most positive of ways. On arriving you could easily be mistaken for thinking you’re back in the 1950’s, green modernist leather and mahogany booths against the raw pink plaster walls make up the more informal bar area. Open from 8am through to the evening, where espressos, pastries and small plates are available throughout the day. If the bold green tiled exterior isn’t enough to entice you in then the bar area will. I’d recommend you chance your arm and see whether one of these beautiful 50’s booths is available which are kept for walk-ins.
Get in there early and you might even get a peek at the chefs rolling out fresh pasta. One of the two private dining rooms doubles up as their pasta kitchen and offers an intimate family style dining arrangement. As you walk through beyond the bar, past the extensive array of wines, the restaurant opens up into a bright and more modern feeling environment. This is undoubtedly a beautifully curated space, which has a menu to match.
We took the waiters lead and worked our way through the menu with the sommelier pairing the wines. The Vegetarian being generously catered for excitedly matched me course for course. A good balance of simplistic, classic-style dishes plus plenty with much more intrigue are boldly placed within the menu.
Parmesan polenta fries arrive for us to sample ahead the four more courses we courageously order. When done well, as they were, these are completely addictive. For the antipasti, we order the shaved fennel, toasted hazelnut and pear salad along with the devilled Cornish spider crab bruschetta. This dish arrives almost soup like, sweet and doused in breadcrumbs, this is a great start and bodes well for what else is to come. Completely delicious.
Unable to resist any form of pasta I opt for the garganelli with pork sausage, anchovy and mint. The mint adding an interesting, and slightly elevating, note to a deeply indulgent rich and well peppered sauce. The Vegetarian tucks into the most buttery silky ravioli I’ve tasted: packed with pumpkin, sage and chestnut emulsion and topped with Parmesan and ginger. This really did cement for me their ability at fine dining pasta. For my main course I’m barely cajoled into ordering the rump of Hereford beef stuffed with pancetta, salsify, mushrooms and kale juice, which is too generous in size for what room I have left (I couldn’t say no to the freshly baked bread offering which may have set me back space wise). It’s luxurious in every aspect: glossy jus, rare steak balanced with earthy tones from the mushrooms and kale. The warm autumn vegetables, goats curd and Wiltshire truffle more than satiate The Vegetarian, combining textures and flavours that sit vibrantly together and pretty on the plate.
When it comes to dessert, we order the baked chocolate mousse and prune kernel cream plus the five ages of Parmesan. It’s at this stage, a good few hours in, that the double espresso brings us back round. Even if we consume it a little early for true Italians! The baked chocolate mousse works: completely morish, velevety, as you’d expect, and not overly sweet. The 5 ages of Parmesan is a respectful tribute to Italian produce, while also champions Luca’s know-how of it, we sample Parmesan up to 48 months matured with fresh pear and chestnut honey. This for me is exciting: the honey soothing, and counteracting, some of the more numbing tones of the aged Parmesan.
This long lunch really makes for the ideal Saturday afternoon. Having traveled much of Italy (and were married there last year) we were confident we had good markers on what constitutes great Italian food. Given that, I would safely say that this restaurant should be on your list of must visits. It’s entirely charming in its surroundings and both service and food, most importantly, is delectable.