just as Prometheus was said to have smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk, it was as if a small corner of the Mediterranean was smuggled in to Clos Maggiore with this dish
So what exactly is it that people look for when they go out to eat? What do we want from a restaurant?
What we want is somewhere that, looking in from the outside, comes across as the kind of place you would quite fancy being in. That means peering in through the window and happening upon a well lit room, preferably full – or close to being so, with the patrons appearing as though they’re having a thoroughly pleasant time of it.
If you’re unlucky ‘that place’ might be something like this:
“I’m so dreadfully sorry, we’re full” would come the fawningly disingenuous response from the Maître D: a Humble Heep; an Honest Iago; an altogether loathsome specimen whose ill-concealed smirk and unwavering glare actually convey, “I’m so dreadfully sorry, we shall only be fleecing fraudulently socialist Latin American dictators and Arab princes tonight. This isn’t really your sort of place”. Oh well, never fancied a bottle of that Romanée-Conti 1978 at 15 grand a pop anyway.
So now you are in, you are seated. All is well. Except it isn’t because your table is hidden away down a corridor, past a cleaning cupboard and slap bang outside the lavs in and out of which a parade of boorish Jeremy Clarksons stumble all evening long, shaking themselves dry as they pass your table and return to their seats. The waitress avoids all eye contact; the sommelier’s body odour is more toxic than ricin; you’ve got a wobbly table; there’s a light flickering above you; the menu is either mired in a time when citrus fruits were considered acceptable as an hors d’oeuvre (orange juice or grapefruit halves, anyone?), or else it’s all about needlessly tossy, irritating ‘concepts’ (a fishdog is not an on-trend menu must-have, it’s a goddam fish finger goddam sandwich); the starter is straight out of a tin; the main is straight out of a microwave and you’re supposed to be on a date but thus far the evening has gone so badly that even Pepé le Pew would be reconsidering his chances of being definitely on for some action later.
Hopefully your evening will go a little better. The two questions posed at the outset might more usefully be paraphrased as What Makes A Good Restaurant? In many ways, What Makes A Good Restaurant is Clos Maggiore. What makes it especially ‘good’ is so cunningly, cleverly simple: it is the ‘restaurant’ bit. No gimmicks, fads or trends, it is a place where you go to eat and have a nice time. That is all.
In one sense Clos Maggiore might be considered resolutely unfashionable. It is the kind of place that ‘Nobody’ goes to, ‘Nobody’ tweets about. Yet the place is always full. Full of people who enjoy going out to restaurants, who quite simply derive pleasure from the social niceties, and niceness, of all that entails. Mostly, it is couples enjoying a quiet meal in a place that ticks all the boxes.
Edward VIII favoured the private upstairs rooms at Rules for a quick knee trembler with Wallis Simpson while Nobu was the setting for Boris Becker’s broom-cupboard caperings. Clos Maggiore on the other hand has imperceptibly managed to win over the public as Harden’s “London’s Most Romantic Restaurant” of 2013. Toptable’s voters have gone a considerable step further by bestowing it with “Most Romantic in the UK”. There must be something in the Beaujolais as Wine Spectator recognises it as having one of London’s best wine lists and according to Hugh Johnson, “the wine is worth a week of anybody’s time”. Not bad without there being a single blogger in sight.
“But it is a romantic place” is the widely held aphorism. Yes it is, albeit in a very conventional sense: ideal for that dinner à deux intime under subdued lighting in a well turned-out room. The brief was to recreate the inns and bistros of provençale France. The rear conservatory, with its striking overhanging cherry blossoms is both visually sumptuous and the place to request a seat. While there may not quite be a sultry evening sky perfumed with rosemary and lavender and resonating with chirruping cicadas, it is still one of the better dining rooms in the West End. The “climate hot and dry, the colours vivid, the terrain varied from plains to mountains…brilliance and light and vivid of landscapes, yellow – old gold” of Van Gogh’s Provence is something truly romantic and evocative. Has Clos Maggiore perhaps missed a trick in not trying to recreate this instead?
From the outside it looks a bit like That Posh Bistro On The High Street, and in a sense it is. At its worst it you might glance at its frontage and consider it a bit Market Town Tory with its blue-blooded scarlet frontage and chocolate-box potted shrubberies. At its best it is rather smart: that Friday Evening place you might dress up a bit for. Rather than being pastorally provençal it’s perhaps the sort of place you might come across on Paris’s Rue Saint-Louis en L’Ile.
When it comes to the food, the more quixotic elements of the South are eschewed in favour of a tried-and-tested route through French cooking. Nonetheless head chef Marcellin Marc, formerly of double Michelin Starred Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence, and his team have fashioned a tight, well-balanced and altogether very approachable menu.
A garden herb salad starter was reasonable; the requisite sweetness of the greenery was there despite being given the treatment by a truffle vinaigrette. I’m not really a fan of this. Truffle oil is this decade’s balsamic vinegar – a faux-condiment that now seems to labour as contagiously as a TB epidemic in kitchens up and down the country in an attempt to ‘posh-up’ things that have no need of being poshed-up. I would have preferred the real thing. You can keep your dressings. Nothing lifts a plate of chaste, infant leaves and spring veg like a dissolute mountain of actual, freshly grated black truffle. But then that’s just me.
Plump scallops with seaweed butter was a top notch dish with a delicate, polite intimation of the marine. A confit duck leg with foie gras, pain d’épice and poached rhubarb is a tried-and-tested combination but it is so for a reason. Each part of the dish managed to elevate every other part.
Sea bass came with an aromatic fennel salad – another combination typique where the herb’s lustrous flamboyance worked as a foil to the mildness of the bass. Just as Prometheus was said to have smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk, it was as if a small corner of the Mediterranean was smuggled into Clos Maggiore with this dish. Breast of guinea fowl with garden vegetables was fine, lovely. Just a fairly nice bit of bird with a few veg.
Dessert was ‘Paris Brest’ with Praline Ice Cream. It is choux pastry with a praline cream filling: kind of like a cross between a Victoria Sponge and a profiterole.
So what about that wine list? With around 2,000 wines in total it was almost like settling down with a good book for the evening. But you’ve got to go du pays really haven’t you? So a Southern Rhône red that sat stylistically between a Châteauneuf and a Gigondas and a fraction of the price. Spicy, rustic, job done.
You will have a great time at Clos Maggiore and you will enjoy good, polite, formal French bistro cooking. You want to go out for a great dinner, right? On a date? Off to the theatre? Fancy a nice, proper restaurant with proper table linen and a proper wine list? Clos Maggiore is the proverbial hidden gem of the West End.
33 King Street
Telephone: 020 7379 9696