london 1620

Sessions Arts Club

Clerkenwell, EC1R

I’m often asked “what is the best restaurant in London?” Frankly, it’s a difficult question to answer. Is a new three-Michelin-starred spot really the best? Is it better than a one star classic which has been around for a generation? It’s all a bit like asking if a cup of tea is ‘better than a cup of coffee? It’s an impossibility because a truly great restaurant is more than the sum of its parts. Beyond the food, service, location, ambience, into the intangible, the emotional and the connection with whom you’re dining – restaurants have the unique power to occupy a space in our collective culture that few other things do.

The question is also impossible given our innate biases. I, for example, can’t be convinced that there is a better breakfast than The Wolseley’s or that there’s better pasta served than Padella’s.

We carry around these biases and aim to navigate a new restaurant ignoring as many of these swirling emotions as possible. And then you step into Sessions Arts Club, fall in love, and it all goes out the window.

The building is impressive, imposing and yet somehow previously hidden. Entry is round the back, off the main road and up, via a lift, to the 4th floor. There is a rooftop terrace and pool here too: one can lounge on the former pre or post dinner but access to the latter seems ambiguous (we are told that it could become a ‘members’ area, but that doesn’t seem to be common knowledge).

they have the makings of something just a little bit special here

In any case, why would you want to even look outside when the inside is this damn pretty? Sessions Arts Club is a sensitive, elegant solution to the much-abused design term “shabby chic”. The distressed blushed patina juxtaposes white tablecloths, whilst sumptuous green banquettes and embossed menus add a discreet note of comfortable luxury. It’s a welcome, tasteful breath of fresh air in London. Not garish maximalism or barren minimalism, just a well-designed room with some gorgeous textures running throughout.

As for the people behind Sessions, there are certain names in the industry muttered in low, hushed voices by the cognoscenti. Jon Spiteri is one such name, the co-founder of St John, an era – and for many, a city – defining restaurant. Head Chef Florence Knight, who cut her teeth first with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and later with Russell Norman opening Polpetto, is another. It’s a bit of a dream team and I believe they have the makings of something just a little bit special here.

The room itself has a mezzanine level for added people-watching and it’s here that we post up for lunch, as if in the clouds of the restaurant.

Now I should say at this point our table was next to some big hitters on the ‘scene’, namely Tatler critic and grandee of the restaurant writing world Fay Maschler and Max Halley from Max’s Sandwich Shop. I report this with a heavy heart as I fear the service our table received somewhat suffered as a result (but this is why we review restaurants incognito). The service is exceptionally friendly and well-intentioned, but 30 minutes for our order of sliced bread to arrive is piss-poor by anyone’s standards.

That delay though was soon outweighed by the generous cooking on show here. Florence has an undeniably deft touch and her understanding of balance in a dish is a joy to experience.

We start with panisse, the chickpea flour based bread traditionally from Marseille, here served as a long, warm baton with thyme and salt which are essential in making up bite after blissful bite. The crab croquettes are modest, not in size or flavour, but in their apparent simplicity. Sitting alone atop a small plate with a little lemon wedge they call to mind an Iberian croqueta or empanada, complete with a tiny squared paper napkin for good measure.

We move onto eel with roe, potato and crème fraiche. What sounds a simple dish is anything but. The eel plays a thinly sliced role in a pommes dauphinoise which is then sliced and fried. The whole thing is decadent and carb-loaded in just the right way, with a sweetness from roe and sour note from the crème fraiche. It’s a very complete dish indeed.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, mind. There was a misfire in the mains with a less-than-ideal sweetbread dish. Without wishing to sound like a Great British Menu judge, it just wasn’t celebratory enough. There are so many decadent ways to savour such an unctuous meat. This dish though, served with lettuce and lovage just didn’t do the main event on the plate justice.

In lieu of a classic cheese plate of three meagre morsels, they opt for a single large slice of a gorgeous aged Pecorino. Alongside ribbons of courgette, honey and thin dehydrated crisps of sourdough (which, on their own didn’t do much, but all together worked) the plate looks exceptionally appealing, if a little intimidating – it really is a hefty cleave of cheese. But you break off little chunks, pile high onto the bread crisps and cram everything possible into one delicious bite for a cheese course that is genuinely like no other in town.

For dessert, the decadent chocolate tart was simplicity personified, but the brilliant panna cotta with greengage deserves a mention. This particular iteration wasn’t the sort of gelatinous wobbly turned-out thing you’d find lauded in slow motion on cookery shows. It’s much more grown up than that. A denser, creamier form, Florence’s panna cotta is unexpectedly rich in vanilla and yet somehow light. The greengages aren’t tart lip-smackers, they’re softly sweet and gently paddling in a light syrup. This is the kind of yearned-for dessert us sweet-toothed-eaters crave. I’m dreaming of it for breakfast the next day but due to Sessions’ opening hours, *apparently* I can’t go to Clerkenwell to have it at 9am on a Sunday. What do you mean the kitchen is closed? Let me raid the fridges, give me that panna cotta!

Is it the best restaurant in London? Is it my favourite spot in town? No. But something I find genuinely thrilling is to discover a new opening which one day could very well top both of these impossibly subjective lists.

Sessions Arts Club
16/20
Food & Drink56
Service46
Ambience66
Value12
about our grading system

24 Clerkenwell Green
Old Sessions House
London
EC1R 0NA

September 2021

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