Adam Coghlan is a food and restaurant writer and is also head of content for the London Restaurant Festival. He has a weakness for Worcestershire sauce crisps.
Sarah Atkinson lives in South East London and works in Westminster. Her favourite cuisine is Indian and she has fond memories of dinner at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
Luca is the latest project from those behind The Clove Club – Isaac McHale, head chef, and front-of-house duo Dan Willis and Johnny Smith. It presents Clerkenwell diners with modern Italian food, cooked using British ingredients and served by waiters who know the food inside out. Referred to by chef Isaac as ‘Britalian’, the menu includes spaghettini with Morecambe Bay shrimps, rump of Angus beef stuffed with pancetta, and ravioli of grouse with potato and whisky sauce.
The restaurant’s design has been inspired by 1950s Italy, with a blue and sage colour scheme and an impressive semi-open kitchen flanked by floor-to-ceiling glass walls – while they eat diners can watch the chefs at work in the pasta-making room. There’s also a bar, open all day, serving espresso and pastries in the morning, salads and cured meats at lunchtime, and cocktails (making the most of homemade limoncello) alongside shared plates in the evening. luca.restaurant
Our pro says…
The Clove Club team is lauded for modern European millennial fine dining and a pin-sharp, northern-accented brand of hospitality. And so, maybe not surprisingly, they have followed-up what is currently the world’s 26th best restaurant with a ‘Britalian’ concept in Clerkenwell.
The service at Luca takes cues from Clove – at once warm, affable, attentive without being invasive. The staff have perfected that art of staying at the table for just the right amount of time and meeting one’s interest with a generosity of knowledge. This is particularly true of the sommeliers, whose wine list includes a stunning chardonnay from Friuli and a deep, earthy barolo – by the glass. *I wasn’t recognised.
The menu is divided in the traditional Italian way: snacks, antipasti, pasta, main courses and desserts. To start, parmesan fritters dusted in a piquant seasoning – cheesy churros – are perfect with an aromatic americano cocktail. Emulsified salted pollock, lighter and more subtle than salt cod, with peppers, olives and croutons is a comforting assembly of classic Mediterranean flavours; a salad of castelfranco, pear, shaved fennel and toasted hazelnut shows the kitchen’s light touch. Texturally, too, both are flawless.
Pasta is all made on-site. Marginal innovations on classics serve to improve the finished dishes. Angel hair vongole entangles clams, chilli, white wine and garlic much more gently than spaghetti would. And a Modenese tortellini in brodo (often beef) is refashioned as pheasant and mushroom agnolotti in the game bird’s broth – Italian food (with a British bent) at its fortifying best.
A little less pleasure – for more money – is found in a tranche of Cornish sea bass with artichokes and bagna cauda; a dish loaded with umami but which felt incomplete with no component of acidity. But to finish, a cinnamon-spiced strudel-like apple crostata with vanilla custard, if not remarkable, was a gratifying nod to the Christmas just passed.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For everything Luca might lack in customary Italian generosity on the plate, it makes up for with its sourcing, application and refinement. It’s a serious and grown-up restaurant, with a band of energetic young staff, that shows being authentic is moot and fusion needn’t mean naff.
Total for two, excluding service: £153
Our punter says…
We were welcomed warmly by Luca’s handsome staff, casually dressed and informal in their manner. They were serious and passionate about their produce, which is mostly British, and the Italian dishes they make from it. We were encouraged to try their homemade pasta, and the sommelier guided us through the short, all-Italian wine list and tactfully made suggestions across a range of prices.
The prices at Luca are steep, and as such the waiting staff’s suggestion of three antipasti, three pastas and two mains between two would only have made this worse. We shared three antipasti and had a main each, which was enough. The emphasis on fresh seasonal produce means vegetarians are well catered for with several choices across the menu.
Our favourite antipasto was the Orkney scallops with Jerusalem artichoke purée and ’nduja. The caramelisation on the scallops and the artichoke purée combined to give a sweet, almost toffee-ish flavour that the hot scarlet flecks of sausage cut through beautifully. Fennel, pear and toasted hazelnut salad was a generous portion, light, fresh and crunchy.
I was disappointed with the salted pollock with peppers and olives – the accompaniments were zingy enough, but unfortunately the pillow of whipped salted pollock was bland, resembling cotton wool in both look and taste.
My angel hair pasta with clams was fragrant, a tasty tangle of al dente pasta with herbs and shellfish. My husband’s lamb chops with rosemary crumb and crushed vegetables were somewhat overcooked, the breadcrumbs soft rather than crunchy – overall more like a homemade Sunday dinner than what you would expect for £24. We loved the bread, which had a dark crust studded with poppy seeds and came with olive oil so green and peppery fresh that it stung.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Luca is friendly, relaxed and modern, and makes the most of fresh British produce with some outstanding dishes, particularly the seafood and the pasta. But the prices are high, even for fashionable Clerkenwell, and some of the food simply doesn’t deliver good value.
Total for two, excluding service: £130
Luca’s Food Made Good rating:
It’d be easy to be sceptical about a restaurant’s claim to serve British seasonal produce through an Italian lens. Hmmm, where does the food really come from? Well, at Luca it looks like they’re true to their word. Not only are the bulk of the ingredients sourced from on or around these shores, but chef/owner Isaac McHale and his team have committed heart and soul to the ethos of nose to tail and root to fruit. Turnip tops, calves’ head and ox tongue all feature on a menu that also showcases British charcuterie including Carmarthen ham and pancetta from Shoreditch. Apart from a couple of the other hams, all of the meat is British and always high welfare, with a smattering of game mixed in too.
The seafood dishes on offer demonstrate a great understanding of what’s good to serve. Trout is an excellent substitute for salmon and the spaghettini with Morecambe Bay shrimp and mace butter is perhaps the best example of a sustainably minded kitchen at work. Having established a close working relationship with the Lancashire shrimpers, the kitchen team endeavoured to waste as little of this crustacean as possible. So the once discarded shells are now ground up and used in the sauce that dresses the pasta. With some top notch sourcing taken care of, Luca can look next to implement some initiatives to reduce its energy and water use.