When a top restaurant website rates an eatery number one in more than one category, you know you’re onto a good thing. When a friend recommends the same place, you know the reviews must have substance. Clos Maggiore is just such a place and really does live up to expectation.
We reserved a table recently for a birthday celebration and I surreptitiously e-mailed the restaurant to ask them to wish Happy Birthday to the Birthday Boy. The General Manager, Jean Kessler, replied courteously that he would pass on the message to his ‘boys’. I started to get that sneaky smiley feeling that happens when I’m planning a surprise for someone, then proceeded to count the minutes to our reservation.
When we arrived at Clos Maggiore, the receptionist exhibited brusque efficiency as she took names, whirled coats into closets and handed us over to the warm and welcoming wait staff. Located in London’s busy Covent Garden, to be led off the street into the warmth of this place is to be led into a very different world. It’s calm, it’s intimate, the artworks have been chosen by someone with a good eye for European painting and (sculptures of winged pigs), and what’s that at the back of the restaurant? A large dining room decorated to feel like an outdoor terrace, replete with trellises and spreading trees, but gladly lacking in threat of inclement weather.
Our table wasn’t in the terrace itself; we were located just outside that area, but our unusually early 6pm booking coincided with plenty of those in the know who were already part-way through their pre-theatre meals. Near us, a pair of girls finished off their meal, one of them sharing at volume unappetising tales of a baby with a sixth toe and its forthcoming operation, but her kind would be a foghorn in even the loudest of environments so this was easily forgiven, especially as we had glasses of kir to enjoy and menus to savour. Meanwhile, I watched the staff out of the corner of one eye to see when the Birthday Boy might be greeted. Or perhaps they’d forgotten? Their manner was so discrete it was impossible to tell.
Now it was time to test the oeuvres of Clos Maggiore’s chef, Marcellin Marc. Formerly of Michelin 2 star, le Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence, the website tells us he “brings a Mediterranean style of cooking to every dish at Clos Maggiore”, with a keenness for seasonal fare. By now drooling in anticipation, we opened our menus and began.
I started with chargrilled wild scallops which were so perfectly seared that they still smacked of the sea, making me wonder if I’d ever before eaten such idyllic scallops. Perched on a crush of Charlotte potatoes, with adjacent nest of something crunchy (potato again perhaps?) to contrast the textures, this small plate offered what some might call an elegant sufficiency. It was just right, providing enough taste and sustenance to carry one over to the main course with room to spare. Having said that, the other starters sounded suitably seasonal for such an unforgiving February, such as pumpkin and pine nut soup with parmesan biscuit and truffle oil or braised shoulder of Loire Valley rabbit. Monsieur settled for the smoked aubergine caponata with basil pesto, murmuring his appreciation until the last morsel had disappeared.
Choosing the next course was genuinely hard work. The various options were all tempting and Clos Maggiore’s reputation for European fusion cuisine was beginning to show. I nearly went for the oven-roasted Maine lobster medallions and mousseline served with etuvée of winter vegetable in a cognac scented lobster bisque, but the Birthday Boy had already chosen that so I had to find something different. The steamed fillet of sea bass with basil sounded good; I love sea bass, but I’d already eaten it that week. Meanwhile, the slow cooked fillet of Cornish cod glazed with ricotta cheese and chive with a fëdûa of shellfish and chorizo cream sounded like a Basque sea front feast. (Fëdûa is a pasta-based paella of sorts). Then, for the carnivorous connoisseur there was the slow-cooked Charolais beef cheek, or the roasted fillet of ‘Duke of Westminster’ venison. I turned them all down in favour of the roasted ‘black leg’ chicken with Burgundy snails and foie gras, served with sautéed spaetzle, wild mushrooms and a sauce supreme. Now, that’s what I call a rollicking combination.
The chicken had been rolled with a farce of foie gras and a sneaky snail hidden in each of its three sections. It was tender, the snails were delicious, almost completely devoid of earthy taste, and the spaetzle appeared as irregular drops of eggy batter, quite different to the long noodles we’re accustomed to. The wild mushrooms were small and sweet, retaining a bit of moisture to give them bounce, and most of the snails had been sensitively pierced by a single toothpick, easy to remove by the less adventurous diner. I was only sorry that two thirds of the way through my main I had to stop, or not be able to try the dessert menu lest I pop with gastronomic pleasure.
For the vegetarian there are a couple of decent pasta options, including the decadent potato gnocchi stuffed with gorgonzola and served with celery, walnut pesto and poached pear, however, if that doesn’t float your boat, a combination of the side dishes of vegetables and salads would make a hearty meal in their own right.
As for the wine list, well, comprehensive is a relatively short word to describe its contents. If you enjoy wine, be prepared to spend time salivating over the Clos Maggiore selection.
Now, back to my preoccupation with the Birthday Boy. Still nothing had been said, no greeting made. Perhaps there had been some miscommunication along the way? Once again, I didn’t worry about this because we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, right down to the friendly banter with the waiters and I say this to all budding London waiters out there: if you want to learn how to do it properly, save your pennies and visit Clos Maggiore. Their training is impeccable.
We hummed and hah-ed a bit about whether or not to have a dessert, but in the end relented, choosing the selection of ice creams and sorbets. As with every dish this evening we were thrilled by the presentation – spoonfuls of a creamy chocolate semi freddo along with lemon sorbet and another fruity variety which I forget now… The portions were well gauged so as not to overwhelm at the end of an epicurean evening, and what was that on the Birthday Boy’s plate? The chef had written Happy Birthday in a drizzle of chocolate sauce around the rim, and a single candle flickered in the central scoop of ice cream. Birthday Boy was surprised. ‘How did they know?’ he asked and on noticing the mischievous twinkle in my eye, he knew it was me. Thank you Jean Kessler and team. Your really made the Birthday Boy’s night, and I’m not just talking about the candle.
NB I didn’t take photos of my food here because somehow it just didn’t seem appropriate in the serenity of this restaurant. There are plenty of images to whet your appetite on the restaurant website. I suggest you have a look… Meanwhile, thanks to the LondonTown website for providing the image above.