Megan Abbott

Clerkenwell: Where to Eat

Megan Abbott
Clerkenwell: Where to Eat

With the legendary Smithfield meat market at its heart, Clerkenwell is an area built on gastronomic prowess. It was the site of London’s first gastropub (The Eagle), and is a playground for some of the city’s leading chefs (Anna Hansen chose the area for her wildly successful second restaurant The Modern Pantry). St John Bread & Wine, the brainchild of British icon Fergus Henderson, presides over the area like a grand master. Twenty-two years after its opening, it remains high on the list of the World’s best restaurants, and is still a meeting place for artists, chefs and food-worshipping visitors.

Bordered by the grey bustle of Holborn and The City’s skyscrapers, Clerkenwell’s narrow cobbled streets and ivy-clad Georgian townhouses offer quiet escape into a London of yesteryear. It’s a sort of grown-up version of Shoreditch or Bethnal Green, bursting with the same cutting edge food, refurnished warehouses, street markets, bars and tattoo parlours of any self-respecting gentrified East London enclave. Yet it strikes a far more elegant, grown-up note. Begin your journey on the bustling drag of Exmouth Market before wandering towards Smithfield, with its lilac vaulted ceilings and boisterous butchers. Stop for a pint or two at one of the city’s oldest pubs, the Jerusalem Tavern. And always, always make room for St John’s heart offal dishes, own-label wines and custard-stuffed doughnuts.

Berber & Q Shawarma Bar

If you’ve visited the original Berber & Q beneath the arches of Haggerston station, you’ll know it as a modern Middle Eastern grill house serving slow-cooked, charred meats alongside zesty mezze and natural wine. Its low-lit, bustling interior, scorching flavours, great music and casual, walk-in atmosphere turned it into one of East London’s most talked-about restaurants. Considering all that critical triumph, it’s not surprising that Berber & Q’s offshoot branch, nestled in the pedestrianised stretch of Exmouth Market, has become another instant hit. It is smaller, cosier and a little quieter than its predecessor, but retains all of the same warmth. Diners fill the yellow-tiled bar knocking back cocktails spiked with rose water and spices, while the exposed brick walls are hung with lavish Moroccan rugs, copper and chipped Middle Eastern street signs.

The food is as intense and comforting as ever, with the grill in the open kitchen churning out the two flame-licked stars of the menu – the sizzling lamb shawarma with and the rotisserie chicken with garlic yogurt. There are also dizzyingly delicious pitas (stuffed with lamb kofta, charred cauliflower or smoked brisket with tahini and pickles), and steaming rice bowls with lamb kofta, garlic yogurt and parsley, fired onions and tahini. As for the mezze, fill the table with creamy labneh with pistachio and dill, marinated peppers with whipped feta, blackened aubergine with anchovy, or the ‘chilli, chilli and chilli’ – a ménage à trois of spice offset by cooling yogurt. All of this slips down perfectly with a bottle of sour, nutty orange wine (natural wine made using the whole white grape, including the skin).

Sushi Tetsu

With its white frontage and fluttering ‘nori’ curtains, Sushi Tetsu could easily be mistaken as a modest, run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant. And yet, bagging a seat here is near impossible. In fact, the waiting list is usually a couple of months long. The reason? This is what many critics call the best sushi in London. Every piece is prepared by ex-Nobu chef Toru Takahashi, who stands behind the wooden counter masterfully arranging perfectly marbled fish and glistening clusters of yielding, subtly sweet rice. Looking on are the guests – just 6 people each time – who sit at the bar sipping ice cold beer awaiting the next piece, which is placed on a bamboo leaf and intended to be eaten by hand. Predictably, the bill is usually pretty steep. But the whole thing feels less like a meal than a sensory experience, and will stay with you long after the sake hangover has faded.

Zetter Townhouse

The founders of Zetter Townhouse Cocktail Lounge took the words right out of our mouths: drenched in dark velvets, oil paintings, sumptuous furniture, creaky wooden floors and gothic blossoms, this elegant boozer does indeed feel “like the residence of a most beloved and eccentric Great Aunt.” The famous drinks here are dreamed up by mixologist Tony Conigliaro, who uses homemade cordials, herbal remedies and extracts to celebrate Clerkenwell’s distilling heritage (the first distillery is said to have opened here as early as 1747). As for the food, small plates of classics like scotch egg, duck liver parfait, potted mackerel and sausage rolls are the perfect sustenance for a long evening spent sampling the cocktail menu.

Foxlow

The duo behind the critically acclaimed steak-and-cocktail chain Hawksmoor opened the first Foxlow in 2013. Soft lighting, navy wood-panelled walls, leather booths and Mad Men-esque furniture gives the place a tailored, casually elegant edge – which suits the diverse clientele of suited-up City folk to young foodies and painfully cool Hackney couples with babies strapped to their chests. While tirelessly-sourced steaks still feature highly on the menu, the menu is filled with a diverse range of bright comfort food. Think beetroot salads, five pepper squid, and pork and fennel meatballs to start, followed by hake with white beans, saffron and roasted tomatoes, jerked pork with apple slaw, or roast chicken with garlic and lemon-pocked broccoli. The carefully-assembled wine list is affordable and interesting, and the ridiculously pleasant staff make ordering that second plate of macaroni cheese a joy.

Workshop Coffee

Workshop Coffee beans, which are vigilantly sourced from the best independent coffee producers across the globe, can now be found in cafes and restaurants all over London. But their flagship café is still the best place to drink it. When it opened in 2011, Workshop’s wooden bar, scattering of laptop-friendly seating and giant open roasting room was rather revelatory. And despite the recent fever pitch of ‘speciality’ coffee shops across London, it remains refreshing in its approach. Alongside expertly made coffee, breakfast, brunch and lunch is also on offer. In the morning, Workshop brings in the big guns with St John doughnuts and muffins piled with poached eggs, sautéed spinach, citrusy hollandaise and smoked ham. They also do a mean French toast, topped with orange mascarpone and crumbled hazelnuts, ricotta waffles and a rare breed hamburger with smoky cheese and fries.

Ask for Janice

Perched just across from Smithfield Market, this airy space heartily embraces just about every interior trend within a ten-mile radius, with the same exposed bulbs, brick walls, ironic pop art and neon signage as its industrial-chic peers. But if you can take all of that with a pinch of salt, it’s hard not to love this place. As well as a great selection of beers, cocktails and wine, Ask for Janice specialises in seasonal sharing plates made using local British ingredients (as far as sticking to trends, this is a pretty good one). Dinners are all about filling the table with clattering plates of mussels with cider; chorizo, sherry and sourdough; bavette steak or black bean hummus, while long brunches and lunches can be spent feasting on baked eggs with merguez sausage, smoked salmon hash and avocado on toast with ricotta and pomegranate molasses.

Caravan

The smallest of Caravan’s three locations, this Exmouth Market spot sports a clean monochromatic palette, with a terrace for visitors to observe the bustle of the daily market while sipping their freshly roasted espressos. All four owners hail from New Zealand, and have brought a slice of their native brunch culture to London with dishes like organic oat and quinoa porridge with salted coconut yogurt, sourdough with thyme-roasted mushrooms and Kapnisto sausage, aubergine puree and poached eggs. In the evening, the whole place flickers with candlelight, making way for house made gin and tonics, cocktails and lovingly-prepared dishes inspired by global flavours: baby gem, anchovies and buttermilk; Burmese chicken salad with lime and peanuts; lamb meatballs with apricot couscous; cumin-baked celeriac and Norwegian cod with cockles, olives and wild garlic aoli. And be sure to leave space for the eye-wateringly good chocolate tore with olive oil ice cream, almonds and smoked sea salt.

Moro

Moro sparked something of a revolution when it first opened in 1997. It brought bright Moorish flavours to the masses, with people lining up to share its dishes studded with ripped fresh herbs, pomegranates and yogurt. Almost twenty years on, it remains a culinary establishment, with some of London’s best-known chefs having cut their teeth in its kitchens. The clean, polished interior is still as lively as ever, with tables and chairs spilling out onto Exmouth Market on warmer days. Next door is Moro’s cheeky younger sibling, Morito. This bright, bustling restaurant, centred around a tangerine-coloured bar, is the smaller and more informal of the two, churning out zesty cocktails and a constantly-evolving menu of colourful, careful small plates such as plaice with capers and mint, fried chickpeas with tahini yogurt, deep fried rabbit with rose harissa and spiced lamb crumbled over cloud-like whipped aubergine.

The Quality Chop House

Though it was restored in 2012, The Quality Chop House has retained all of the masculine, achingly British charms of its 19th-century past. The menu is composed daily from the fresh produce delivered in the morning, with the focus on sustainable, locally-sourced cooking. Steak night is on a Tuesday, while what is arguably one of London’s best roasts is served on a Sunday. Among the original mahogany booths, black-and-white tiled floors, foggy antique mirrors and glazed windows, visitors can enjoy creative spins on classic, meat-centric British cooking: mackerel crudo with crème fraiche and chickweed; game, prune and pistachio terrine; ox cheek with black truffle and parsnip and crumbly mince on dripping toast. And as for their famous multi-cooked confit potatoes, which are the colour of burnt honey and as layered as a tutu? They’ll haunt your dreams.