Clapham has played a big part in my adult life – I’ve worked there for seven years. I’ve danced on the sofas at Venn St. Records – and set my hair alight in the process. I’ve snuck into the office after nights out to ascend to the roof and gaze over our spectacular city. I’ve lived not too far away in recent times, making the transition from north of the river to south about four years ago – Clapham North, now Colliers Wood. And I (thankfully) managed to never make it to Infernos during that time.
But when it comes to Clapham’s restaurant scene, there’s not a huge amount to get excited about. There is Trinity – recognised as a high-end neighbourhood establishment doing great things with seasonal produce – it’s on my list. Mama Lan does a cracking spicy ribbon tofu ban mein with pickles, and The Rapscallion has served me a very good duck confit with puy lentils and pomegranate before.
Down the high street – for couples with a carton of Waitrose wine for the common wearing matching Havaianas, in March (please don’t) – a place with Dualit toasters on each table where you pay for the privilege of browning your own bread. And there’s a Byron Burgers opening soon.
Not a great deal of note then, until that was, the opening of The Dairy in March 2013.
Along with a number of other high-end restaurants in London and beyond, Chef Robin Gill and his wife Sarah (commandeering front-of-house) previously worked at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.
They’re from Dublin, now living locally in Brixton, and with their team have created a destination dining experience. It’s put Clapham firmly on the culinary map with one of those flag-pins you stick in a cork-board print of the world to proudly display that you’ve visited somewhere. It’s had a similar effect.
Until two weeks ago, I worked a five minute walk from The Dairy. I’ve enjoyed brief and exceedingly pleasant weekday lunches there, but they were never the tasting menus and they were never with wine. It’s taken the removal of my daily existence in SW4 and me no longer walking past it each morning to finally secure a visit.
The environment is that of conviviality and rustic charm – seating straight out of a 60’s school room, daffodils and rosemary sprigs in simple glass vases, the day’s menu printed on rough brown paper. The crockery is a shabby-chic mix of pretty porcelain, vintage metal, slate and heavy stoneware, with some plates requiring weight behind to shift – the waiters must have some impressive guns. The front half is occupied by bars and stools for off-the-cuff visits (if there’s space) and free-wheeling ordering – expect to fidget as the seats are not the most ergonomic. At the rear you’ll find reservations for more intimate and private groups at the seemingly salvaged tables.
We began with a swathe of green – hisby cabbage, crisped cavolo nero, ripe Nocellara olives. House lardo with spring white truffle, wild garlic and crunchy puffed rice stole my nose before my stomach – I stuck it right in and took a long and heady sniff. Several shades of earthy carrot slithers grown in the roof garden came with aerated buttermilk, sweet carrot purée, a small but intense crumbling of pristine goat’s cheese and toasted honeyed nuggets of nutty granola – each mouthful was a thrill.
Bread was broken over the table with the assistance of a knife – a mound of hot-from-the-oven sourdough – the breached crust bellowing puffs of steam. On this bread we alternated between the slathering of house butter whipped up with smoked bone marrow, and the satiny chicken liver parfait. Leave me alone with this scene for the remainder of the evening and I would have left just as happy.
The unrivalled savoury pleasure unique to crisped fat was found in the hunks of fried chicken skin with a still soft layer beneath, baby courgettes that had felt the briefest heat treatment, and slippery wild mushrooms.
Then there was a compact package of well-cooked seabass, swiss chard and bonito butter, followed by a Pollock-esque arrangement of smoked cod with glossy mashed potato, sparkly orange roe, fresh nori leaves and some sorrel that, for some reason, was overpoweringly fishy and unwanted.
The 32-day aged Irish onglet with firm cubes of squash and black cabbage had flirted with heat so momentarily that beyond the outermost half millimetre, the flesh was red raw. Not a problem, if the cutlery was adequate enough to tackle this. With nothing sharper in the vicinity than a curved butter knife with no hint of serration (I did ask), I used the tools I was given to tear the meat apart into manageable chunks. It was a challenge to masticate in this form – it needed half a minute longer in the pan. We still cleared it.
An extra £4.50 for a finger of truffled Brie on toast was a pungent, creamy and oozing delight. A clementine segment sporting char from a lick of flames along with a wonderful neutral brown butter ice cream and puffed up rice (like less sweet Sugar Puffs) was really very good. But the salted caramel, cacao and malted barley parfait was better – a dark and rich consortium of all things chocolate should be on a plate; crunchy bits, viscous melty bits, smooth truffly bits, sweet and salty bits. Totally stellar.
To bid us farewell, a vintage tin housing still-warm doughnut balls dredged with hibiscus-spiked sugar, fragile shards of buttery shortbread, and glittering little cubes of sour apple jelly.
The seven course tasting menu for £45 will in fact get you ten separate and perfectly portioned plates of food (including petit fours and other throw-ins received with much enthusiasm). I am yet to find elsewhere in London with this sort of price-point in exchange for the same finesse of kitchen skill, number of courses and quality of ingredients experienced.
If you haven’t yet eaten at The Dairy, a visit should be high on your priority list. If you have, I suspect your next is already on the cards.
Liked lots: excellent value tasting menu; quality of ingredients; creativity of courses; number of dishes; location – a great restaurant only four tube stops from my house – rejoice; staff; atmosphere and interiors; the bi-fold windows open fully and face the green of the common – perfect for languorous lunches on a warm day.
– We felt a little rushed towards the end of our meal but were handled very well – we were moved to the bar to make our table free for the next sitting and had to scoff the doughnuts whilst putting on our coats. It probably takes a little longer than 2 hours to work through so many dishes (particularly if the extra cheese course is ordered) and that needs to be taken into consideration. I do think we were there for 2.5 hours though – the perils of booking an early evening reservation.
– They need cutlery with which meat can be cut.
– The building always seems to have a lot of condensation – I can imagine it getting a bit sticky towards the back on sultry summer evenings.
Good for: romance; affordable tasting menus with no compromise on quality; a reason to venture to this part of town.