Looking for craft in Clerkenwell? Here’s Luca…

13 Jan 2017

Picture Marcello Mastroianni cruising the trattorie of Rome’s Via Veneto in that glossy black Triumph TR3. Or Hemingway penning his latest in a hazy corner of Harry’s Bar, Venice. Who can fail to be beguiled by their ertswhile posing?

The team from the Clove Club certainly couldn’t when they created Luca. Chef-owner Isaac McHale and restaurateur Johnny Smith have concocted an experiment in Anglo-Italian fodder and invited Robert Chambers (with not Clove Club, but Locanda Locatelli, The Ledbury and the R.A.C. Club to his name) to lead the kitchen. The result is a rarefied conservatism that flashes just occasionally with real originality.

To the eye, Luca is a beautiful fantasy in mid-century Italy. Behind the frontage, a bar of antique brass and marble faces immaculately joinered booths. Thanks to Alexander Wentworth’s design, it’s what the Via Veneto trattorie wish they still were: a spendy-looking spot to drop by for a casual breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Find the maître d’, clad like all Luca’s staff in bespoke Folk togs, and be taken past finely-louvered wine cellars to the main event. Luca’s expansive dining space opens to room beyond room of elegant pastiche: Art Deco(ish) lights, rustic washed plaster walls, and yet more immaculate joinery upholstered with muted sage and ochre leather. One private dining room, the kitchen’s pasta-making room by day, is arrayed with the earthenware and handsome wood of a contadin kitchen; the other, the linen, olive foliage and open sky (come summer) of a Chiantishire villa terrace.

In the kitchen, there is careful respect for age-old Italian method, twisted with often British produce. Almost the greatest delight came unbidden: the grassiest green olive oil from Fontodi, which accompanied a poppy-seed-crusted sourdough not so much of the panificio as the Hackney railway arch. Turnip Tops, Samphire, Smoked Cod’s Roe and Sweet Butter (£9) was intensely, richly and perfectly savoury. Other antipasti – a Salad of Raw Artichokes, Celery and Pecorino (£13) and a Sea Bream Crudo wth Clementine, Marjoram and Capenazza Olive Oil (£11) were immaculate yet unremarkable.

Pastas were exemplary. Canneloni (sic.) of Calves’ Head Ragù, Marjoram and Parmesan and Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage, Butter and Ginger (each £11) both sang like a prima donna with perfect technique and richest tone. Choose the Grouse Ravioli with Potato Sauce and Whisky (£14) to catch this Anglo-Italian hybrid cuisine at its fullest expression.

For Pear and Frangipane Tart with Quince and Custard (£8) read half a distinctly French pastry, sliced to reveal so proudly a profile of perfect crumb and crust, with not so much custard as classic and conventional French crème anglaise. Mint Choc Chip Ice Cream Cone (£7) was per me a dessert of the year; yes, for its cheeky plating, like a classier Mr Whippy forlornly upended on Morecambe seafront, but so much more so for the truest flavour of fresh mint you will ever taste in a gelato.

Luca has two tours de force. One: its attention to design detail. My special mentions go to the cutlery from the late, great David Mellor, and the campari sodas served in their original Futurist bottles. Two: its fabulous Italian wines, ranging from icons to lesser-known prizes. My 2009 Praesidium Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 2009, offered a classy palate of cherry, cocoa and spice for that Calves’ Head Ragù, and there are far finer to sample.

Luca gives us often delicious, finely made food that follows more rules than it breaks. It’s as rich in tradition as a nonna’s kitchen, and as handsome as a matinée idol. Does it beguile like a bygone Via Veneto? A volte.


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