london 1420


Smithfield, EC1A

When people ask me to recommend restaurants in London I usually rattle off a list that includes Noble Rot (all three branches), Andrew Edmunds, Lorne and Noizé (amongst many other perennial old favourites). It’s an interesting coincidence that these all happen to be “wine-led”, in the sense that they were founded by sommeliers or wine enthusiasts. But they’re still very much restaurants where the food is executed just as well. It was therefore vin jaune to my ears when I heard that wine importers Joe Haynes and Ben Butterworth had opened Cloth in my beloved Smithfield, a bistro that looks and feels like an amalgam of all of the aforementioned restaurants. But whilst imitation can be flattering, you do need to sweat the details and stand out from the crowd.

Restaurants are no different to artists in taking inspiration from each other. It takes a trailblazer to set a trend and then, before you know it, concepts and dishes become ubiquitous. Russell Norman has often been credited for introducing Aperol Spritzes, exposed light bulbs and small plates to the London dining scene; 2017-2019 will forever be known as “The Torched Mackerel Years”; and every young bartender from here to Timbuktu now pours martinis from a height ever since The Connaught made that their ‘trade mark’ (I personally think this method does nothing to improve a martini; on the contrary, it diminishes it, but that’s a rant for another day). We now have bread being served as a course (including a punchy £5 portion at Cloth), gougères everywhere (£7 at Cloth) and soon enough, tripe will be a new menu trope.

Following a formula that works makes sense if it results in success (cf every episode of Doctor Who and Scooby-Doo), but when visiting Cloth for the first time I couldn’t help feeling it’s not much more than a Noble Rot tribute act. Aside from the magnificent espelette chips, which are the nearest thing to a signature dish, there’s nothing really that jumps out as a USP. Also, to be the wine-led restaurant it aspires to be there needs to be more focus on details like specific glassware (though perhaps I’m one of those few fastidious oenophiles who cares about the difference between a Bordeaux and a Burgundy glass) as well as some work on the food element, which we’ll come to.

Perhaps none of that really matters, as they’re obviously doing something right. Despite the tricky location of Cloth Fair, every table was taken on this mid-week evening visit; indeed, the ground floor of John Betjeman’s former home lends itself well to an inviting bistro (this was of course where Bowling Bird used to be) and anyone walking past will be easily enticed by the flickering glow of real candles. Or, perhaps, they just have effective PR.

I don’t blame them for putting their energies into the marketing and building a very promising wine list that includes bottles from Haynes and Butterworth’s respective wine supply businesses, but on this visit they had dropped the ball on the cooking part – all the more surprising given chef Tom Hurst’s pedigree at Brawn and Lasdun amongst others.

Pleasingly, they were able to prepare the verdant courgette, asparagus and staccciatella risotto as an off-menu starter portion (well, just serving less of it is not exactly rocket science), but less pleasingly were the uneven chunks of asparagus which were more al dente than the rice. I love a rustic dish, particularly when served on a plate from a flea market, but the rusticity here was verging on slapdash. It was appropriately seasoned and all’onda though.

Next up, the longhorn rump with roasted onion, cow’s curd and pickled walnuts. The serving staff seemed to rely on telepathy here as no-one asked how I wanted it cooked, but thankfully medium-rare is their default setting. Despite the correct cuisson though it was surprisingly tough; anyone recovering from a mouth operation at nearby St. Bartholomew’s Hospital would’ve struggled with this piece of beef. Were it not for a complex pan jus, and those sensational chips with espelette pepper, the £30 price tag would’ve felt unjustified. My colleague seemed to fare better with the Cornish turbot, white asparagus, peas and mussels which wasn’t particularly remarkable but fault-free.

From a relatively brief dessert list of mostly mousses and sorbets, the pithily described “lemon tart” seemed to be the only one that involved any skill but even this, sadly, had errors. Whilst it had the requisite sharpness and the pastry base was correct, the tart’s custard filling was ever so slightly lumpy, as if on the cusp of splitting.

It’s perhaps harsh to dismiss Cloth as some sort of a cliché because it’s obviously very well-intentioned, has a gorgeous ambience and is run by lovely people. In such a tough market though that may not be enough; with neighbours like St John, Brutto, Bouchon Racine, Club Gascon, Restaurant St. Barts and Origin City (with their unfathomably low mark-ups on wine), there are some details to work on to compete in this somewhat saturated part of town. I’ll return, perhaps for the great value of the prix fixe lunch menu on a Monday – incidentally when corkage is only £5 so it scores a point there – and definitely for those chips; at other times of the week, it’s not quite ready to make it to my list of go-to wine-led restaurants.

Food & Drink36
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44 Cloth Fair

July 2024


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