A whirlwind few months in the run up to an election leaves this political campaigner/food blogger and over-commiter with little time and energy to write about interesting local restaurants.
There has also been a bit of a lull in new openings in North East London. Cold weather is bad for business, and especially bad for launching a business when cashflow is everything. A couple of recent mid-week, mid-evening cycles up Kingsland Road shows up some pretty empty restaurants. Even a Monday night dinner at Rotorino sees this popular, well-regarded restaurant near empty.
I take the lull as an opportunity to finally try Eat 17's Clapton restaurant, above their supermarket-cum-deli-cum-burger-bar. I have long been meaning to try it, but also not being quite motivated enough. Its lack of visibility from the street put me off - is it a pig in a poke? How can I know if anyone is in there and enjoying it? A few press shots of its swanky interior make me wince a little too – is it a bit too alien to the Clapton I know?
It is terribly plush. Tables are spaciously arranged in four rows, with leather banquettes, marble circular tables, Art Deco style lamps for mood lighting and cripplingly nowish decorative palm tree lamps on the bar. It's so plush. I almost feel a bit scruffy and dirty, and more so for the fact that it's relatively quiet on this wintery Thursday evening - the space between the rows of tables left me feeling quite exposed.
The menu includes a number of dishes from their downstairs burger bar, but served on plates rather than branded greaseproof paper. The maitre'd is wired up to a radio mic, so that he can communicate with both kitchens. The co-ordination is impressive, even if the downside is looking like your in a 90s five-piece.
We share scallops on celariac puree to start. The scallops are plump and perfectly cooked, the puree adds a lovely creamy earthiness. Crispy pancetta is served with it in a classic combination, and crispy sage lifts it to the next level.
The mains menu is a crowd-pleasing whistlestop of classic bistro dishes. There's duck and red cabbage with dauphinoise potatoes, a pork and bean stew, a creamy smoked haddock dish, a steak, and a lamb dish. Something for everyone. But each has a bit of a twist to take us into 2015 – pepper ketchup, crispy cabbage, buttermilk, blue cheese in your mac'n'cheese.
I order lamb rump with cumin spinach, yoghurt sauce, fried aubergine and, yes, pepper ketchup. The lamb is juicy and pink, perfectly cooked and generous in portion size. All the accompaniments are pretty generous too – it's a big, filling plate, and the flavours work well together. My only complaints would be the spinach being slightly over-cooked, and the aubergine slightly under-cooked.
A rib-eye steak is also large, well-cooked and seasoned. It comes with that blue cheese mac'n'cheese, crispy onion rings (there's quite a lot of tempura frying going on in the downstairs burger bar kitchen) and a handful of chanterelle mushrooms. Like my lamb, there's a strong savouriness to the dish, with no shortage of juices sloshing around to make every mouthful count.
Sweets continue the crowd-pleasing theme, with more twists on classics that push the boundaries of sweet, gooiness. We enjoyed a bourbon tinged croissant bread and butter pudding, and a banana and toffee pudding served with chocolate ice cream. which were both on the edge of being too sweet.
The wine list is similarly eclectic and on-trend. There is a selection of English wines, including two Bloomsbury sparkling wines. Vinho Verde also makes it on to the list. Thumbs up.
I enjoy the meal and would heartily recommend the food to others.
But I'm left with a niggling feeling: there's something slightly uncomfortable about realising you are a target market, you are focus-groupable, a concept can be designed to attract you (the plush on-trend interiors, all these modern twists on classic bistro fare) and that it bloody works. Pretty much everyone in the room was a white, middle class professional, trendy-ish but monied and stable enough that at least three couples in the room were discussing home renovation plans.
I'm not naïve enough to doubt the importance of understanding your market and developing your offer accordingly. Too many loving businesses fail at this hurdle. But the magic is in the customer not realising the (legitimately) cynical considerations that any business makes in attracting their custom. I feel that Eat 17 leaves the careful workings, the mechanics, a little too visible; or perhaps there isn't quite enough soul and buzz to distract from them. And it jars a little, even when the food and service is good and generous.