I’m not a romantic type, but I am a pedant when it comes to choosing a venue which is appropriate for the atmosphere, company and of course food. The Welshman and I had a free evening on Tuesday, and as it was just the two of us at the beginning of the week, we though it an appropriate occasion to try The Dairy in Clapham; subdued quality dining which would be relatively informal.
It’s a small, narrow restaurant which squeezes itself between two units (which I forget the name of) as the pathway from the Clapham Common Tube station gradually bends into Old Town. In a sense it is enigmatic from the front; upon walking in, it suddenly strikes you that it is much, much bigger (or should I say longer) than you might expect. The high benches at the front exude ‘wine bar’, sharing snacks and shifting uncomfortably on stools. At the back, you find the restaurant, with the traditional table and chair set-up. The tables are small, and with the sharing platters that the menu proffers, alongside the dim candlelight – it is a slightly cramped, elbows-at-dawn intimate affair.
The low lighting is the stuff of food blogger nightmares. Sadly, and as a result of this lack of ambient brilliance, my photography efforts were somewhat hindered. I have credited the photographer where I have borrowed an image.
Each dish on the menu is starter sized. Between us we chose seven dishes (including two deserts) and we were offered, on the house, bread and smoked bone marrow butter (heavenly), and a complimentary appetizer to go with our aperitifs.
The menu is sectioned into: snacks; garden; sea; land; sweet.
The truffled brie de meux on toast with acacia honey was obscenely decadent (not that I am complaining). A beautiful combination of sweet, salty and textured crunch. (£8.5)
The padron peppers, cod head, smoked cod roe (£6) was one of my favourite dishes. This is the perfect aperitif if you enjoy strong flavours; the kick of the chilli, the soft creamy roe with the added surprise of the delicate head meat. Sublime. A perfect sharing dish.
To be fair, I wasn’t overly enamored with the selection on here; nothing really appealed. In the end we chose the rooftop carrots, goats cheese, oat granola, buttermilk (£7.5) – it was more to fill us up and reach the seven-plate quota we were recommended. In truth, it wasn’t necessary. However, the sharp textures of the pickled vegetables, the heartening crunch of the immaculately cooked carrots (which had that slightly leathery, caramelised structure to their skins) and the crunch of the walnuts, made it a very welcome dish indeed. And, frankly, one of the most beautiful which left the pass.
If you try one dish, please try the mackerel. Nigel’s mackerel – as it was described – with Swiss chard and bonito butter (£9) was a delight. The fish was seared and still pink on the inside. It melted like butter.
The presentation of the 32 day aged Irish onglet, butternut squash, black cabbage (£9.5) was divine. And, even though I would consider myself a butternut squash skeptic, this was a delight on the tongue. The onglet was a bit disappointing – slightly tough and lacking in flavour. The steak The Welshman enjoyed at L’Eto was better.
For the sake of a comprehensive review of the menu, we shared two puddings. While I normally have no sweet tooth at all, the clementine with brown butter ice cream and rice (£6.5) was a phenomenon. Butter ice cream will change your life. As The Welshman said: “Well, I wasn’t going to live that long anyway.”
The other sweet dish – a deconstructed Eton mess – was boring and unimaginative. It paled into insignificance against the butter ice cream and the other fantastic dishes we’d enjoyed.
What defines a good restaurant? The Dairy is certainly good one – and at just under £40 a head including drinks, it’s incredible value for money for the quality dishes served up. I was initially contacted by Match.com who asked me to recommend a place where a couple on a date might enjoy an evening out. I do think The Dairy could be that sort of place – it’s somewhere to impress, but is understated and unpretentious. It’s not raucous and you can freely enjoy conversation while there is still a foundation atmosphere which would put a new-ish couple at ease.
It’s definitely somewhere, if you live in the area, you must try…but if I’m honest, I think it’s a ‘once only’ place for me. I’d much rather go to somewhere like Abbeville Kitchen or Bistro Union where they have ‘robust’ dishes with more complex flavour combinations – and – just that little bit more space to bend your elbows.