Whilst all attention is on West London’s resurgence at the moment, exciting things are still happening in EC1 – one of London’s foodiest postcodes since at least the 90s. If you had the wherewithal (and no fear of gout) you could spend each night of the week working through every restaurant in Clerkenwell from St John to Otto’s and you’d still only scratch the surface. (You can skip over Dans Le Noir and Smiths of Smithfield.)
But the joy of Clerkenwell has often been the lesser-known nooks and crannies such as the understated Bowling Bird* on Cloth Fair, a chicken escalope sandwich at Scotti’s or, until 2020, lunch at The Modern Pantry in St John’s Square.
When The Modern Pantry’s lease expired in 2020, commercial property agency Compton took over the space. No-one was quite sure if it would remain a restaurant but in May 2022, Compton revealed that it would be their own eponymous restaurant, which they immediately described as a “Clerkenwell gem.” Putting aside the hubris of that statement for a moment, it seems strange for a real estate firm to diversify into restauration in the first place. But property agents have transferable skills: they’re salesmen, for sure, but they also have a keen eye for minimal interior design.
At Compton they make full use of natural light and the walls are a muted pink tone a few shades shy of Pearce Duff’s strawberry blancmange. Cushions, marble-top tables and an open kitchen hatch are all conducive to a modern bistro ambience, even if it feels like an extension of Compton’s HQ across St John’s Square. But then again, where isn’t a remote office these days?
The Compton guys aren’t complete rookies in the restaurant game anyway as they’ve worked with Alex Kaye, founder of City-based Walter and Monty, to realise their vision. On my first visit though I wondered if more staff training was needed. I still don’t know how it was possible for my waiter to confuse my Negroni order for a Daiquiri; these cocktails are such close phonetic cousins, aren’t they? But they’re forgiven as the mistake was instantly rectified and hasn’t been repeated since. It has been difficult to find any other fault service-wise; the same goes for the deli next door where a friendly chap dispenses coffees, posh sausage rolls and quinoa salads to passing media and fashion executives.
The food at Compton may not necessarily be thrilling but it’s lovely, technically good and reasonably priced (for EC1)
Back to the restaurant, head chef Sam Monastryskyj is on the pass. He honed his craft at the high-end likes of Marcus and The Hand and Flowers, and that experience shines through in contemporary comfort food using British ingredients but with Mediterranean touches.
On the first visit, curried cauliflower croquettes with onion bhaji mayo at £2.50 a pop were an inspired opening gambit. The spicing in these little beauties was delicate and playful whilst the centres were soft and yielding (as they should be for croquettes). On a subsequent visit, smoky babaganoush was the perfect foil for a trendy flatbread (£6), itself flavoursome and as contour-free as the terrain of Peterborough.
I had mixed feelings about the Cornish bream ceviche (£13): this wasn’t made with the traditional lime or lemon for its curing but oranges and the dish ended up being a little dry, though there was gentle heat from thinly-sliced jalapeño peppers, some crunch from shards of fennel and then, for a plot twist worthy of a Knives Out film, tarragon. But after that slightly perplexing dish, just one bite of the BBQ Cornish squid with romesco on toast (£12) was enough to make me yearn for summer again.
From a daily specials list the steak frites was superb and, at £17, great value. The onglet was draped in melting Café de Paris butter and the cuisson was accurate, together with an abundance of French fries, punchy aioli and watercress in a sherry vinaigrette. It was unimprovable. For a plant-based option, salt-baked celeriac with truffle and sweetcorn (£18) was a very well balanced dish though, if honest, not particularly remarkable.
Not being that much of a dessert person I’ve only had one at Compton so far but their panna cotta alone is hopefully a representative sample of excellent technique. This one had the requisite wobble with granola on top for texture, perhaps using leftovers from the breakfast shift which earns them a brownie point for waste avoidance.
The food at Compton may not necessarily be thrilling but it’s lovely, technically good and reasonably priced (for EC1). The question is (harsh but a critic has to ask): is that enough? With instant French classic Bouchon Racine and fun Florentine Brutto not far away, both of which are permanently booked to the rafters, one wonders what Compton’s USP is other than an estate agent’s hangout (albeit a classy one). I suspect though, when Spring comes round again the European café vibes of its outdoor terrace will come into their own, with Negronis (or Daiquiris) and those divine curried cauliflower croquettes served aplenty.
47 St. John’s Square
*Since this review was published Bowling Bird has unfortunately closed.
by J A Smith