Monday, 9 February 2015
Restaurant review: The Manor, Clapham
Having lived in north and east London for a few years now, I’ve been getting happily accustom to the smattering of small, interesting restaurants popping up right on my doorstep. Som Saa have lit the charcoals in the arches just across the park, Hill and Szrok take the meat off the hooks and invite diners into their Broadway Market butchers, and it’s only a few minutes further to Sager and Wilde for the promise of a decent glass of wine and a melting toastie. They join old hands at places like Trullo, The Empress and Trangallan, and are all reachable within 20 minutes from my flat. This was heavy on my mind as TFL advised me in the bluntest way possible that my planned dinner booking would require bus, train and foot. I had to double take. It may as well have said air, land and sea. But there was promise that wrapping up warm on the first snowy day of the year to travel right across London would be worth it, and I was not so quietly excited. In fact I since I booked my table at The Manor my anticipation had been steadily building. I felt like I could recite the menu by heart, along with a handful of newpaper reviews that all shouted GO GO GO. So if there was a fall to be had I had well and truly dug my pit. Nine stops on the tube would be a long trudge for any disappointment to marinate.
I was early, and instead of doing the sane thing and finding a bar to prop for an hour, I decided a quick reacquaintance with Clapham was in order. It had been years and I was surprised. Yes, the same crap bars guffed out the same music that threatened to drown out recruitment consultants comparing shiny ties and cufflinks. But round the edges it showed that it wasn’t just the north that was enjoying its crop of food prospects. Perhaps a slightly ridiculous enlightenment, as restaurants such as Trinity and The Dairy have been making their mark for a good while, but aside from that were the little side street, neighbourhood restaurants; all dim-lit and full of bustle. And then there was The Manor itself. And I have never been to an eatery more brimming with surprises. The cleverly partitioned room gave an illusion for somewhere far smaller, where every area had its own intimacy. A mixture of scribbled graffiti and traditional old house relics adorned the walls, whilst the well-spaced tables were etched like a mischievous school child’s. It was refreshing to be somewhere injected with a sense of casual fun. But make no mistake, beneath all of the doodles lay some serious cookery.
Now back to that memorised menu. For a largely indecisive chap like me this was torture, and for all my revision I was still none the wiser. Everything read brilliantly, with each dish both simple yet intriguing. Staunchly seasonal British ingredients were hay-smoked, fermented or burnt, and combined with the more foreign influences of kimchi, medjool dates and wakame. Little bits of charm were also adorned here and there; at first I blindly assumed that the “Sweet Promise” and “JulieGirl” next to the fish courses were some sort of zany preparation technique, but as a frequent visitor to the coast I also recognised that they could well have been the names of the boats in which they were landed. A nice touch, and in keeping with the small-scale growing and supply ethos adopted by both the Manor and sister-restaurant The Dairy. None of this though could help us decide, and there was an extreme FOMO going on.
The first food to arrive at our table was a small loaf of beautifully warmed bread with a pebble carrying a heap of chicken skin butter. It was just the very thing needed to set us up for what was to come, yet if all food had ended there I would have left a very happy customer. It was that good. I was surprised we had any left by the time the bowl of Cornish crab, charred celeriac and buttermilk came. This was an absolute delight, with rich chunks of crustacean and wafer thin smokey celeriac bathing in a cloud of stupidly light, slightly acidic buttermilk. Everything danced along to the same swooning harmony; it was comfort food at its very best. By this point extra bread had been offered, which made excellent dunking until every morsel was gone.
Two vegetable plates arrived next. Both simple menu descriptions could easily have been taken as side dishes or menu filler; a bowl of greens and some cauliflower, but they were so much more. They were a masterclass in how to treat such humble produce and transform it into something incredible, the sort of thing that you want to feed to those boring folk who won’t eat unless there is a slab of meat. The cauliflower was all layers of subtle-yet still savoury sweetness, whist the kale and cavolo nero hid a depth of glorious char.
At this point another surprise at the arrival of chef and owner Robin Gill carrying two off-menu dishes. It was great to talk through the menu with the man who had designed it, although after what we had eaten already I’m sure it may have been a borderline gush-fest. The smoked eel, cultured cream, new potato and sorrel that he left us with was yet another triumph, and as a diner there is nothing more special than the hosts going an extra mile. The fish courses proper came soon after; a perfectly cooked piece of on-the-bone skate balanced beautifully with earthy mushroom and salsify, and clean and refreshing mackerel, nori and cucumber. With the massive amount of technique and ingredients running through the menu, most restaurants serve something that just doesn’t quite work. Here there was no sign of a bum note.
When a meal heads towards dessert, it sometimes feels like things start to go a little through the motions. Not here. This is where the fun really began. Invited up to the ‘dessert bar’, I couldn’t help thinking of childhood trips to Pizza Hut and endless bowls of synthetic soft-scoop. Instead we sat at a smart bar overlooking a super-clean and professional pastry section. Here we were introduced to pastry chef Kira, who was nothing short of brilliant. Despite us asking a billion questions and snapping away with cameras, she was composed and entertaining as she made us two desserts each. She told us that for the first time at a restaurant she had been allowed creative freedom and it showed; each bowl looked and tasted wonderful. The first I had was a lemon sorbet with gin and cucumber which managed to totally cleanse and cut through the total glut of consumption so far. This was followed by apple parfait, feather-light meringues and a sorrel leaf that emerged from a cloud of liquid nitrogen, so brittle it could be broken with the back of a spoon. Kira told us that she had performed for over 70 that day, yet every quenelle of ice cream or piece of garnish was handled with patience and perfection.
The last surprise of the meal was the price. For a long and winding meal packed with dish after dish of hugely impressive food we couldn’t believe it. Had this have been in a marble-columned hotel in town it could easily have been four times more and you wouldn’t have blinked.
So I can conclude with nothing different to what I had read pre-visit. GO. This is the sort of restaurant that you want to take each and every one of your friends to, the sort you want just around the corner to visit every week.