Giant Robot, 45 Clerkenwell Road, London, EC1
Its name makes no sense and neither does its concept – so why are the beautiful people flocking to Giant Robot?
Sunday 19 September 2010
Sharing plates are all the rage, which will probably suit the glossy posse of fashion editors and department-store buyers currently bestriding London on Louboutins watching catwalk shows. These are the kind of folk who make a science of only frequenting the most au courant of restaurants, and an art of not actually eating very much.
The little plates of food currently in vogue are cicchetti but the practice dates back to dim sum. Food trends, like fashion, tend to rotate and we won't have to wait long for char siu buns to kick chicken-liver crostini off the culinary catwalk.
They serve cicchetti at Giant Robot. It would be cool if a giant robot went around handing out miniature risotto balls and the like, but no such luck. Giant Robot turns out to be a medium-sized bar/diner with human waiting staff, also regular-sized. I've picked it because it ticks all the fashion boxes – trendy location/name/cuisine. Clerkenwell had its moment in the late 1990s, when Moro, Café Kick, Quality Chop House and The Eagle were all trendy. Then Hoxton and Shoreditch went and stole its thunder.
Now Clerkenwell's back. Bistro Bruno Loubet, Redhook and The Hat and Tun are all packing in discerning diners. GR wants a slice of the action, which is no surprise as it turns out to be owned by the operation that also owns Redhook – and was behind the Match chain of bars. (In fact, GR is in an old Match location. Our waiter helpfully points out that it's just been trendied up.)
So exposed brick walls have been teamed with copper lightshades, kitsch kitchen cabinets and some mid-century dining chairs. It's eclectic and a tad messy, but not unpleasant. On the night I visit, the clientele are men who look like Nathan Barley (grown up with a proper job) and women with on-trend (bleugh) nautical stripes and peep-toe boots.
I'm with two hungry fellas, so this won't be so much plate-sharing, as a knives-drawn fight to see who can get the last meatball. Yes, you read that right. Meatballs – or "balls", as they call them – are on the sharing menu; they're £1.35 each. This is going to get messy – and not just because of the spicy tomato sauce.
We add some vine plum tomato and basil, and wild mushroom and truffle crostini (82p and 99p each, respectively) and a portion of arancini (risotto balls with spinach and parmesan, £3.50 for three). So far, so Italian. The crostini are a bit flabby but the tomatoes are obviously not freighted unripe muck, and the mushrooms are meaty with a hit of garlic. The risotto balls are piping hot and accompanied by a herb aioli, there to counteract the rather chalky texture of the rice. Any self-respecting Milanese pavement café would produce something with more flavour, sadly. This is good grub for soaking up alcohol, rather than stand-alone gastronomy. Wines, including an adequate A Mano Chianti at £24, are probably not the focus – the bar pushes the cocktail list pretty hard.
Getting away from the novelty miniature dishes with novelty prices, we are encouraged to try the giant prawns with garlic, chilli, oregano and an aioli dip. Three seems a bit mimsy, so we order five and only afterwards realise that they're costing us £23.60. And for that price I'd expect to be given more than one tiny finger bowl to share. Luckily, I'm with close friends, otherwise I'd feel rather uncomfortable sticking my digits in their dirty water. The prawns are certainly giant, and the oily, pungent flavours are good, but as so often with supersized crustacea, the texture is a bit woolly.
A wooden board of salumi finds favour with the lads, but if the cured meats are good quality, which they should be for £14.50, why blob sticky balsamic all over it? I prefer the ladylike "No. 1 Salad", chicory, gorgonzola and walnut – a perfectly acceptable dish of crisp leaves, creamy cheese and good nuts.
We forgo the "Famous Baked Alaska"– £7 per person – and thus miss the opportunity to see it "flamed at the table". Perhaps another time, accompanied by flaming sambucas at an office party...
Who am I kidding? There isn't going to be a next time. The food wasn't good enough to merit it, but then it's not aimed at me. While sharing plates are fashionable, it doesn't matter that they're more fodder than fine dining. And when the cognoscenti move on to the next cuisine, the Friday-night crowd will still be there to play a new drinking game: how to split a meatball five ways.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Giant Robot 45 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1, tel: 020 7065 6810 Mon-Wed 10am-midnight, Thur-Sat 10am-2am, Sun 10am-10pm. About £50 for two with drinks
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