A couple of weeks ago I went to Clove Club, that new place just off Kingsland Road that every reviewer is currently insisting on calling a “hipster” restaurant. It’s a turn of phrase I find profoundly strange; I have no idea why the (presumably) 40- and 50-something year old people who write food columns for national newspapers have suddenly cottoned on to the fact that the area around Shoreditch is full of young people, or why they’ve now picked Isaac McHale’s new restaurant as the place that epitomises a scene that actually moved elsewhere a couple of years ago.
The meal turned there out to be rather forgettable. Not completely bad, but for somewhere so obviously aiming for stars and reviewer acclaim, the food failed to excite or leave any lasting memory. Take the amuse bouche of Buttermilk Chicken & Pine Salt. It certainly looked pretty – a beautifully uniform and crispy shell hiding the meat, nestling in a basket full of locally-gathered pine needles – but I’m damned if I have any idea what the thing tasted of.
The food at Ride or Fry – a pop-up at Death by Burrito from US chicken demi-god Dante’s Fried Chicken – wasn’t pretty at all. In fact, it was grungy to the point I’d describe it as “ghetto” if that wasn’t a profoundly embarrassing word for a man who grew up in Bath to use. It was however, sublimely good, unpretentious, and truly memorable. Which – in the end – is far more important than getting the Independent’s food critic all hot under the collar about your use of a Korean chilli paste in your mayonnaise.
Unsurprisingly – it was at Death by Burrito after all – the Ride or Die experience was far, far less formal than minimal and staid surroundings of Clove Club just a few minutes round the corner. The music was loud and the cocktails were excellent and strong. Unlike our previous visits, staff seemed relaxed and almost friendly – managing to smile when we pointed out that our group of 6 wouldn’t fit on the tiny table they’d provided, and asking another group to move so we could actually enjoy our meal.
First dish to arrive was a Toasted Okra Breakfast Taco. It looked like a dog’s dinner, but tasted amazing. Which is saying something considering how much I usually hate okra. This time though, it wasn’t slimy at all. Just deliciously smoky, perfectly complimenting the soft blue corn taco shell and the spicy egg and veg medley that came with it.
The excellence of the taco only served to make us all even more excited about the fried chicken that was to come. We’d all heard the stories about what Dante could do with the humble bird and, based on how he transformed some disgusting ladies’ fingers into something magical, we were fast coming to the conclusion he might be a genius.
Then the chicken arrived, and our hopes were confirmed. It was everything that Clove Club wasn’t; ugly and unashamed and delicious. The chicken itself was meltingly tender, and the batter. Oh the batter. It was truly a thing of beauty; pockmarked and fried to a dark brown. It’s uneven surface was as crispy as crispy could be and subtly spiced. I’m still in awe several months later that some flour, egg and not much else could produce something so wonderful.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but I really am not. It was superb. Need more proof? Here’s a video of my brother’s reaction after he had his first bite.
The sides that came with the chicken were good as well, but how could they compete with the main star? The apricot “crack’ sauce, coconut biscuits and cranberry, almond and coconut slaw were OK but paled in comparison to the glorious fried goodness. The only thing that came close to the chicken was the smoked cheese and crispy leek polenta.
It was fantastic and reignited my love of the grain to the extent that I’ve now cooked it at home several times since. If that wasn’t endorsement of it enough, the very fact that I even remember it in the face of the chicken is testament to how lovely it was.
After that, there was bound to be a moment of disappointment, and it came in the form of the pudding: the white chocolate and black sesame sweet potato pie. Sweet was indeed the operative word here. It was tooth-achingly saccharine, highlighting perhaps the fundamental difference between palates divided by the Atlantic.
Even this disappointment was more inspiring than Clove Club though. At least Dante’s desert was memorable in its sweetness. I literally have no idea what the two deserts I had at Clove Club were and I’ve been looking at pictures of them for the last 10 minutes in the hope it might remind me.