Sally, Sally, Pride of the Alley
Notting Hill, once upon a time rural and home to potteries and pig farms, was developed in the early 19th century to offer smart housing, in stucco fronted villas around garden squares, to London’s well-to-do middle class. 100 years later, when WW1 changed the social structure and residents employed fewer servants, the area slid increasingly further down the social scale. The large houses were divided up into bedsits which offered cheap housing to immigrants from Ireland and the West Indies and, in time, it became a run down and even dodgy area. Around the 1980s, the heyday of the yuppies, it gradually metamorphosed into a place for those who enjoyed the edgy, colourful vibe, mainly artists and young people on the up, to buy then still affordable property. They refurbished the houses, opened cafes and shops, and the rest, as they say, is history. These days it is the home to the Camerons, the Beckhams, to models and celebrities, and the area has decidedly gone up in the world, now sporting the reputation of being super cool with real estate prices to match.
Separated from Notting Hill by the broad length of Notting Hill Gate, Kensington, on the other hand, grouped as it is around Kensington Palace, home to British Royalty since the 17th century, has an impressively long history of influence and affluence. This is the heartland of the twinset and pearl brigade, of silver spoons and privilege, of cut glass accents, old money and quiet elegance.
Sally Clarke’s restaurant on Kensington Church Street, only a few metres south of the dividing line, is the perfect representation of this altogether different world. Where Notting Hill boasts a fascinating array of exciting multi influenced International cuisine, dominated by unusual flavours and surprising textures, there’s nothing fancy, progressive or remotely unexpected about Sally Clarke’s food, it’s just well cooked no nonsense English fare.
“To see asparagus on a menu in November is depressing, because you know it hasn’t come from Norfolk or Cambridgeshire. It must have been shipped from somewhere in the southern hemisphere, and it can’t taste of that freshness, that peak of brightness. It loses its specialness.” (Interview with Sally Clarke by Leah Hyslop, The Telegraph, 2015). God forbid! Heaven forfend! No wonder then, that over on the other side in Notting Hill, where they eat all sorts of foreign delicacies, so many are semi permanently booked into The Priory!
Fresh from cordon bleu cookery school, Sally Clarke opened the restaurant on this site in 1984, and, despite the prevailing fad for Nouvelle Cuisine at the time, she made it her mission to produce simple seasonal food in decent portions within a calm unpretentious environment. The menu here offers excellently prepared, high quality food for the conservative palate that does not appreciate being challenged. It’s the kind of thing your kitchen savvy mother might cook, wearing her Laura Ashley pinny over her Jaeger blouse.
Our shared starter of Smoked Scottish Salmon and Dorset Crab with Seeded Rye Wafers, Pea Leaves, Shaved Fennel and Lemon was perfectly nice, no more, no less. For my liking too much mayonnaise, homemade as no doubt it was, drowned the delicate taste of the crab, though the earthy sweetness of the pea shoots and the fresh aniseed flavour of the fennel worked well in this combination. The multiseed rye bread wafer may have looked attractive on the plate, but the process of toasting it had depleted its distinct flavour while not quite achieving an appropriate melba toast crunch, which, with this type of high density bread, would be nigh on impossible in any case.
My Roasted Fillet of Scottish Seabass with Tomatoes, Olives and Marjoram served with Pale Aubergine, Courgette, Spinach and, on my request, with Baked Carrots rather than with Coco Blanc Beans, was beautifully cooked and succulent, the little sundried cherry tomatoes and the baked carrots a pleasant accompaniment, but the aubergine and courgettes, floppy and a bit nondescript as is in their nature, lacked a good dose of garlic to give them some proper Mediterranean impact to balance the fish.
The Lovely Husband had chosen rare Sliced Fillet of Duck with Currants, Pine Nuts and Salsa Verde, Tropea Onions, Carrots and Grilled Aubergine. This dish had more punch and was certainly very tasty but the heavy gravy, I thought, made it more Sunday roastish and wintery than summery flavoured. Both main courses were thoroughly good but neither had quite the personality they deserved.
Our pudding was a shared, sadly all too meagre, slice of Blueberry and Apricot Polenta with a Vanilla Crème which was quite delicious, both fruity and cakey at the same time. I loved the tartness of the apricots muted by the dollop of the cool cream. Quite heavenly.
The cheese selection looked very enticing, but by now all we could manage was a dark chocolate truffle each with our superb coffee. I have to confess that I am not a huge fan of dark chocolate, healthy and life extending as the high cacao content apparently is. Perhaps there’s a common streak in me that by far prefers the less classy milky version. Eeek, back to Notting Hill with me! On second thoughts, there they like things like chilli matcha chocolate, so off to Coventry with me instead.
The service at Sally Clarke’s was, of course, quite impeccable, the clientele discreetly well heeled and local, the restaurant attractively informal, with its parquet flooring, its starched white table cloths and sparse but excellent wall art. After all, Lucian Freud was a great fan of this restaurant and even painted his friend Sally. Best of all was the unusually wide spacing of tables, making for a generous and calm ambience. Adjacent to the main dining area is an equally pretty private function room. On this occasion, a mundane Tuesday evening, both were fully occupied by satisfied looking twosomes and groups.
So, what’s my verdict on Sally Clarke’s restaurant? Well, there’s absolutely no gastronomic adventure to be had here, certainly no culinary experience bar none, but then again, a little prim as it is, there’s no question that the food is excellently well prepared, fresh and unadulterated, using the very finest ingredients and therefore almost comforting in its predictability. This, together with the relaxing atmosphere and tip top silver service, make it an enjoyable, easy-going neighbourhood place to eat. Our bill at £117 including service and a £25 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc was acceptable too, considering the high quality of fowl and fish. Jolly good show, what?!
Sally Clarke’s, 124 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BH, Tel.: 020 7221 9225 www.sallyclarke.com
What I wore
Red floral Reiss dress with asymmetric neckline and 3/4 length sleeves, nude Kurt Geiger sling backs, cream vintage Gucci handbag with shoulder strap and bamboo handle.
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