Chirpy in Clerkenwell
CICADA: 132-136 St John Street, London EC1. Tel: 0171 608 1550. Open Monday to Friday 12noon -11pm, Saturday evening 6-11pm. Set menu costs pounds 7 for two courses before 7pm. Average price per person, pounds 25. Major credit cards accepted
I do, however, find it easier to despise the hype about Clerkenwell than the place itself, as it happens to be home to two of my favourite London restaurants: St John, which continues to make glorious good use of the body parts other chefs dare not reach for, and Stephen Bull's bistro, which has for some time been offering one of the most intelligent and enduring interpretations of "modern British" cooking.
Apart from these two stalwarts, the place is positively seething with new cafes, bars and restaurants, all hoping for a fair slice of the Clerkenwell dollar. One of the newest of these is called Cicada, a restaurant and bar where last week I fixed to meet my sister for dinner. (She really wanted to go to St John, and I was tempted, but I stuck to my guns since the new kid on the block seemed more relevantly reviewable.)
The place is not designed, but pleasingly uncluttered - as we walked in it felt loose and comfortable, even though it's not huge and there were probably upwards of 80 people milling about the bar. A mixture of banquettes and well-spaced tables, plus a bar that bows out in almost a full circle, means that whether you are a gang, a couple or something in-between you can probably find an appropriate space to do your thing. And the thing that most people seem to want to do is drink.
The two of us took a banquette for four, although the attendance of our respective partners at this family pow-wow was in some doubt, owing to work commitments. Sophy's (Nick) eventually made it, mine (Marie) did not. But since Sophy and Nick were about to swan off to the West Indies for a fortnight, I didn't feel automatically consigned to gooseberry status.
In a place where the bar is so buoyant, and the restaurant kitchen appears to be bolted on one end of the room as something of an afterthought, it's hard not to fear the worst from the menu. And when that menu contains a short and fairly predictable list of pan-Oriental staples, and the chef goes by the very English name of Graham Harrison, you start to feel that your worst fears are about to be confirmed. But when you take your first bite of something described as crab and ginger dumplings, thinking "crab sticks here we come", and it turns out to be full of delicious fresh white crab-meat spiked with ginger and spring onion, you think, "perhaps I should stop trying to be a smart- arse food critic and just sit back and see what comes."
What came alongside the dumplings met with similar approval: spring rolls were filled with Szechuan pepper duck and, in a neat reversal of the normal practice, where a bland roll is dipped into a hot sauce, these peppy numbers came with a soothing mango puree. Seared tuna sashimi struck me as a contradiction in terms, but my taste buds seemed quite unaware of this logical difficulty, especially when they got to grips with the accompanying pickled cabbage and lime.
Most of the starters are neatly designed to be pecked at without getting too much in the way of drinking. But one of our main courses tested our utensil handling abilities to the limit: knife, fork spoon, chopsticks and special crackers all came to bear on a whole wok-fried crab with chilli paste and Shaohsing wine. It repays all the probing, sucking, cracking and scraping, even if you can begin to see why American crab shacks insist on bibbing their customers.
Whole deep-fried fish with coriander and lime dressing was another hands- on affair. It turned out to be a black bream - a lovely fish that's just coming into season now off the south coast. An "authentic" kitchen would use a pomfret, but this would necessarily be imported frozen, and the bream is the perfect size and shape for this classic Thai treatment, so why not?
Nick ordered marinated, barbecued rump steak, which was a good piece of meat neither over-marinated nor over-cooked. The only mild disappointment was a side dish of "lemongrass noodles, spring asparagus, chilli, shallots & garlic", which somehow seemed to lack the profusion of advertised flavours - and salt.
We couldn't not try a pudding that called itself "chocolate and lemongrass brule", even if it sounds like a bad joke from an Aussie chef who's had too much lager under a hot sun. Would you believe we all thought it was delicious? Honestly.
Clerkenwell might be fiendishly trendy these days, but one of the things I like about it is that it doesn't seem to have become self-consciously tribal (yet). If this bar was in the West End it would probably have a rather different feel. No doubt there would be a clip-board wielding blonde at the door pretending there was a private party inside whenever anyone too ordinary attempted to enter. And if it was in Notting Hill, it would be full of people looking as if they owned the place. But Cicada is just a buzzy, friendly joint that defies you not to enjoy yourself, and your food.
My sister called me the next morning: "I don't know if it's something you might want to mention in your article, but you know I left my coat in the restaurant? Well, I went back to get it the next day, and they couldn't have been nicer about it. They said they'd found it on the floor, and were worried because there was no wallet in it. But that was okay because I had the wallet in my bag. But, you know, they were just really nice."
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