A restaurant worthy of all the hype
Once in a while, sometimes once or twice a year, sometimes less, a place opens up that brings together all the right elements in the right order to create the rare alchemy known as the “it” restaurant. Gloria did it with its maximalist Italian amore della vita, as did Gymkhana with its carefully crafted modern Indian cuisine and heavy, paneled aesthetic, as did the Bob Bobs with their crazy Anglo-French-Russian menus and silly champagne buttons. .
These places seem to be preloaded with an easy, laid-back confidence that other equally accomplished businesses by equally accomplished chefs will never – can never – to reach. They create a critically acclaimed feedback loop that sends them to the top of every food connoisseur’s wish list within 500 miles.
Sessions Arts Club is one such restaurant. It is located on the fourth floor of a massive Grade II listed former courthouse in Clerkenwell, the entrance deliberately concealed with no discernible signage, allowing the anticipation to build as you walk around this imposing palace with food still and again, thinking about how you might get inside. Is there an open window I could pass through? Some sort of sewer grate?
Once you’ve spotted the comical little menu hanging from a railing next to a pretty red door, you enter what looks like the ground floor of a castle: a small, claustrophobic hallway with a sweeping stone staircase above. A man seated at a small desk invites you to take a tiny elevator to the fourth floor, where you pass through a velvet curtain to the Sessions Arts Club proper. The logistics suggest this is probably the only way to get from A to B, but it serves to amplify just how grand this dining room is.
Three-height ceilings are clad in peeling pastel paint reminiscent of Wilton’s Music Hall. Bright contemporary art is dotted throughout the space. There are hidden terraces, an art gallery, even a rooftop pool. At night there is a pleasant but intense darkness, cut through by the light of the fireplace fire and a burning chandelier. This gives the impression that the electricity has gone out and that everyone has decided to continue regardless.
From some angles it looks like an old Havana colonial building, from others like a decaying Kenyan hotel. I was there in mid-December, when fears about omicron were at their zenith, and there was the decadent, slightly manic atmosphere of people enjoying their last days of freedom.
When I walked in, old AM City food columnist Mark Hix was supporting the bar with a group of industry folks, and another reviewer was surreptitiously scribbling notes at one of the tables (the coward’s method – brave food writers simply stare at blurry photos weeks or months after the event, their memories fogged up by alcohol and the passage of time, and evoke emotional responses in a way not unlike mystical shamanism).
There’s food too! Florence Knight (Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Polpetto) runs the kitchen, returning to the London dining scene after a hiatus of more than five years and creating a resolutely ‘modern European’ menu. She is joined by St John alumni Jon Spiteri (the one with the costumes) and artist Jonny Gent, the man responsible for works such as Dog Licking Its Own Dick (oil on board), who is presumably in charge from the gallery but who could peel the potatoes as far as I know.
I met a friend visiting from New York who over the years I have invited to some of the worst restaurants in London. I am grateful that Sessions allowed me to partially restore balance.
So, now comes the mystical shamanism part of this review. The first thing I remember is rabbit, chopped up with, I think, pork sausage and wrapped in cabbage so it looks like a little brain – a brain the size of a dog? I don’t know how big a dog’s brain is. It’s wonderful – simple yet subtly seductive, with an understated flavor of a lake of mustard vinaigrette. But I skipped ahead – there were crab cakes, perfect crispy orbs that when cracked still tasted that fresh Devon coast taste.
To bring out more memories, I’m going to have to check the photos on my phone… This one looks like… Ah! I remember now. Crispy and buttery candied potatoes coated in smoked eel, a highlight of the evening if a little gem for £18, especially when split in half. But that distinctive eely taste is imprinted somewhere on my taste cortex, where it will remain until the day I die. A wonder.
Scrolling forward, I see my guest ordered the beetroot and goat curd, a neat rectangle topped with olive breadcrumbs. I remember being a little irritated that one of our prized dishes was made with beets but Knight doesn’t stop there, concocting a delicious little dish, tangy, somehow decadent, topped with edible flowers.
It’s all coming back to me now. There was sirloin, topped with Jerusalem artichoke curls and durrus cheese – another deceptively complex dish masquerading as comfort food. There were oyster mushrooms with green peppers, bathed in a pepper sauce, as fleshy as…well, meat. Juicy as hell and just as tasty.
Beyond that, things are hazy. I may have had a scallop. There were desserts – who remembers desserts? There was wonderful and expensive wine. Two bottles of this. Cocktails.
This is all a bit academic, anyway, because food is just one small aspect of this particular alchemy I was talking about. The sessions succeed in almost everything, and the parts that don’t work, your brain happily fills up. Waited too long for the dessert menu? Well, that’s just an excuse to have a little chat with Mark Hix or visit the really gorgeous toilets (not with Mark Hix).
Coming to the end of a terrible year, Sessions stands out as not only my favorite dining experience, but also one of the most enjoyable nights out. It is so good.
• Sessions Arts Club, 24 Clerkenwell Grn, EC1R 0NA, or visit website