Itinerant chef Isaac McHale, a favourite of the London foodie set, has found a permanent home with this East End restaurant. Tom Vaughan went to visit
After what has seemed like a lifetime of itinerancy as one-third of the hip Young Turks collective, chef Isaac McHale is finally setting down roots. First there was Upstairs at the Ten Bells in London’s Spitalfields – opened as a permanent restaurant in April 2012 – and now the 33-year-old Scotsman is undertaking his most ambitious project to date, the Clove Club.
Originally itinerant itself, starting life as a supper club run by Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith – McHale’s partners at the Ten Bells – the restaurant has found a permanent home in the stunningly revamped Shoreditch Town Hall, with McHale running the kitchen and Willis and Smith front of house.
Planning restrictions in the Grade II-listed building meant that the team had to make do, redesigning the current kitchen rather than moving it elsewhere, which has resulted in what McHale describes as “probably the most open kitchen in London”, where the six-strong brigade beaver away in a blue-tiled corner of the high-ceilinged 40-seat Victorian dining room.
Considerations of space and staffing mean that although there is a lunch à la carte, dinner is a set menu of five dishes and three snacks (priced at £47) to make things easy for the brigade – although McHale also likes being able to plan the menu in advance and the idea of diners placing such trust in the food, he says.
“Snacks” seems like a rather prosaic term for the three pre-starters, which include pieces of buttermilk-fried chicken thighs that proved so popular at the Ten Bells and a stunning radish dish. The latter – French breakfast radishes with a gochuchang dip and dry sesame dressing – came about through various Eastern influences. “Gochuchang was first given to me by a Korean stagiaire when I was at the Ledbury. It has this great spicy taste, and I decided to turn it into a mayonnaise,” he says.
“The black sesame dressing I saw 11 years ago at Miyabi, a restaurant at the Great Eastern hotel. It was in a lunchtime bento box as a dressing on cooked spinach. It’s black sesame, sugar and salt blended together, and its appearance reminds me a little bit of the famous Noma soil dish.”
Following the three snacks, the menu takes the structure of two fish dishes, a meat dish and two desserts. Much of the emphasis is on creative use of vegetables, with the vegetarian menu almost as tempting as the non-vegetarian, save for the likes of squid with tarragon and radish. “I first tried this at the Ten Bells a year ago,” says McHale.
We use a Chinese variety of radish grown in France, which we cook down with some onion, add some cream and blanched tarragon, and purée.”
Next, charred rib of beef, courtesy of butcher Ian Warren, served with wild garlic deserves an honorary mention before the menu’s highlight – blood orange, sheeps’ milk mousse and wild fennel – a dish that displays McHale’s credentials as a chef of serious pedigree. “I love playing with temperatures and I always think of blood oranges as cold,” he explains. “So I got this idea of dehydrating them, mostly as a means of warming them up and stopping them bleeding.” The results are warm, intense pastilles of orange served with a classic combination of Florence fennel and wild fennel and a mouth-coating dollop of sheeps’ milk mousse set with agar agar.
There’s no doubt that McHale, once the London foodie hipsters’ darling, is staking a claim to be widely recognised as an extremely talented chef. At the Clove Club he has found an ideal setting to do just that.
Sample dishes from the menu:
Parsley and snails
House-smoked cured duck
Warm fennel, seaweed and walnut cream
Spinach and clams, sunflower seeds and mint
Mackerel, pickled rhubarb and Toyko turnip
Warm cider and ginger mousse
Caramel ice-cream, barley and oats
Chicory tea cake
£47 for five courses and three snacks
The Clove Club
Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT
020 7729 6496