I’m not quite sure where I stand with Clerkenwell at the moment. There are the reliable stalwarts: The Eagle, Moro, St John – like your first Facebook friends from a decade ago, you may not be regularly in touch these days, but it’s nice to know they’re there. You never know when you might need to call in that favour from 10 years ago or demand a kidney. But there has been a swathe of new openings in the area recently; new precocious kids on the block which just aren’t on the same level as the Clerkenwell old guard. Foxlow, the bastard child of Hawksmoor, has diluted a weakening chain, and the less said about the god-awful Iberica the better. Still, I approach every new opening with an open mind and Luca’s very premise intrigued me: run by the same guys as The Clove Club, the basic concept is “Britalian” food. Yes, that’s right: making Italian dishes with British ingredients.
I felt like reminding them of the lesser-known Morrissey B-side “I’m Human And I Need Time To Digest”
It sounds like fusion and fusion is always fraught with risk. It can so easily backfire. (It is also no coincidence that ‘Fusion’ is the name of a terrible nightclub I once went to in Devon). With Luca, are we to expect Yorkshire pudding pizzas topped with roast beef and horseradish? Gnocchi dumplings in a Lancashire hot pot? Don’t worry, it isn’t as silly as that but, like with Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, I wonder if they’re trying to have their torta and eat it, i.e. borrowing culinary concepts from abroad but cheating with cheaper ingredients from home – all the benefit and no detriment. Perhaps, though, this is the as-yet-unrealised genius of the place: this approach may become necessary in this Brave New World and they’re ahead of the curve.
No matter how clever your concept is though, you still have to get the fundamentals of cookery and restaurant service right, and on my visit to Luca there were a number of problems. The restaurant hasn’t been open long so I won’t rip them to pieces – there are bound to be teething problems – but they need to be resolved pronto.
Firstly, the service. My table had not been wiped properly. There were grease spots. A small thing to quibble about I know, but when combined with all the other minor faults it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
Each of my courses was served too quickly. I felt like reminding them of the lesser-known Morrissey B-side “I’m Human And I Need Time To Digest”.
Everything was competently cooked – it was just nothing special.
And what the hell is up with the staff to customer ratio? I was in a small section of the restaurant and I counted eleven serving staff with jurisdiction over four diners, each doubling up and overlapping. Like clumsy jugglers, the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing: more than one person tried to take my order and they were bumping into each other. It was a mess. It felt like dining in the middle of Piccadilly Circus – and if there’s one thing I hate in a dining experience it’s commotion.
As for the food, I do wonder whether the fundamental principle of the place – its very constitutional bedrock – is ill-founded. Everything was competently cooked – it was just nothing special. I was hoping, at this price point, for some elevation of the ordinary to the extraordinary, but it didn’t really happen. The grouse ravioli had a pleasant gameyness and texture, but the menu said it came with a potato sauce and whisky. There was potato sauce, yes, but no whisky evident at all. The lamb chops sounded uninspiring on the menu and were indeed uninspiring when presented. Yes, they were cooked to the requested cuisson but the dish as a whole was crying for more jus, or indeed anything more liquid than lamb – it was so damn dry. Cacio e Pepe made from potatoes is a great idea in principle: cacio e pepe is one of my favourite things in the universe, but it is a comfort dish you can make yourself for under a pound. Would you go out to eat it and pay over a 600% mark-up? Really?
And indeed, for a restaurant that has the feel of a posh Carluccio’s, the value for money is seriously lacking: £12 for a standard glass of Montepulciano and £3.50 for an espresso? You’ve got to be joking. You might as well fly to Italy.
Luca does show some promise and it is still early days: the bar and courtyard areas are nice touches, but at the moment, on the fundamentals of food, service and value, it only scrapes a pass. These are correctable issues which are best resolving now with a little dental surgery before the fissures become painful and/or inoperable. I will return for a check up in 6 months.
88 St John Street
by J A Smith