Situated in the western part of Central London, Clerkenwell is an urban sanctuary populated mainly by young professionals.
In the heart of the village lies the OLD SESSIONS HOUSE, built in the style in 1782. With its columned edifice and imposing presence, it bears some resemblance to the Pantheon in Rome. The building once served as a courthouse known as the “Old Judges Building.” Beneath its chambers were cells that housed the accused and convicted…who I’m sure were honored to be judged in such splendor.
After sunsetting as a courthouse years ago, it has gone through several iterations and today, amongst other venues, the complex houses a gallery and a small, 60-seat restaurant called THE SESSIONS ARTS CLUB.
It has become a toughest dining reservation in London.
Last year, just before it exploded in popularity, Joanne and I managed to book a table. The hard part was figuring out how to physically enter the restaurant. There is no sign. The entrance, while in plain sight, is virtually unfindable – hidden behind a red door with an unmarked doorbell.
Once we finally figured that out, we pressed the bell and the door opened into a very dark, claustrophobic little room. The initial welcome was a little weird. As our eyes adjusted, we discerned a man seated at a table lit by a single candle. (Was he a concierge? A greeter? IGOR the crypt keeper?). He asked our name, then invited us to take the stone staircase to the 5th floor. Sensing our dread of the climb, he then called our attention to a small lift off to the side. It creaked and groaned as it took us to the top.
Upon reaching our destination, we pushed through a set of really heavy red-velvet drapes only to encounter a jaw-dropping, sexy, decadent, soaring, 40-foot-high central atrium that is the SESSIONS dining room.
How to describe it…?
A once-elegant Italian villa?…tattered grandeur?…precisely distressed walls?…stunning textures?…prudently peeling paint and plaster?…a smart solution to the oft-abused term “shabby chic?”…delightfully unkempt?
I turned to Joanne and whispered, “Someone spent some serious money to make this place look so old.”
The restaurant critic, Fay Mascher, of the British fashion and lifestyle-focused publication, Tatler, recently proclaimed Sessions “the culinary hotspot on everyone’s lips.” I could understand why – and I hadn’t yet had a single bite.
The host greeted us with a warm smile, then led us to a catbird-seat table from which we could view the gorgeous expanse a dining room that seemed to be lit solely by flattering, flickering candlelight.
SESSIONS ARTS CLUB was founded by Chef Florence Knight and rock ‘n roll bad boy artist Jonny Gent (who has the dubious distinction of being best known for a painting called, Dog Licking Himself).
Fortunately, Chef Knight paints on a different canvas, and her artistry is unique in today’s fine dining world.
Trained in classic French cuisine and influenced by frequent travels to Italy, she has a culinary aesthetic that centers on fresh, seasonal, simple, but very cerebral and occasionally playful, whimsical creations – very different from the overworked, overhandled, tweezered food with saucy smears and swooshes on hand-made plates with dots of sauce that represents most chefs’ idea of fine dining.
LET’S HAVE DINNER.
The menu is not classified into appetizers, salads and main courses. It’s simply a listing of all offerings, whose size can be inferred by the prices. BTW, the price of our dinner, including wine for two, was a little over $200.
In 1948, Harry Cipriani created the ionic Bellini (made from white peach nectar and Prosecco) at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Florence Knight does a refreshing riff on the famous cocktail – her Rhubarb Bellini. Joanne and I each indulged in one as an aperitif.
We began dinner with two starters: Panisse, or four long sticks of chickpea-flour bread from the south of France, sprinkled with lemon-thyme and Maldon sea salt; and a single Brown Shrimp Croquette (at $6 for a single croquette, we thought WTF?) It turned out to be less a croquette than a shrimp, encased in a crispy-crusty potato ball laced with chili flakes, garlic and rosemary. When cut open, melty herb butter oozes out like a Chicken Kiev (sorry, Kyiv). We sopped up the herb butter with what was left of our Panisse.
Joanne, not being a fan of smoked eel, enthusiastically ceded the dish to me. Not only was it delicious, it was drop-dead gorgeous. I had to ask our server, “What the hell is in there and how in the hell did you make it?”
Asked and answered: It consisted of King Edward potatoes and smoked eel, thinly sliced on a mandolin, marinated in rapeseed oil, then stacked in alternating layers and pressed with a weight overnight. The rectangular little bricks that emerge are deep-fried, then married up with crème fraiche, arugula, salmon roe, and edible nasturtiums to brighten the plate. BTW the salinity of the roe countered by the tart sourness of the crème fraiche was really quite a nice experience.
I said, “This reeks of YES!” Joanne said it reeked of NO!
She ordered a lightly dressed Belgian Endive Salad, which is precisely what she wanted…NO EEL!
The next offering was Sicilian, which we also shared. Although we’ve been to Sicily several times, we have never, ever tasted or seen “Squid Rings, Datterini Soft Tomato Sauce, and Calamarata Pasta.”
First of all, what are Datterini tomatoes? And what is Calamarata Pasta?
Well, Datterini tomatoes are tiny red Sicilian tomatoes that explode with flavor. Calamarata are pasta rings shaped to be indistinguishable from squid rings. Paired up in the same dish, you can’t tell them apart until they’re in your mouth.
I told you that some of Florence Knight’s dishes are playful and witty.
On to the main courses.
To my surprise, Joanne opted for the Smoked Icelandic Haddock topped with a Buford Brown Softly Poached Egg…one of cuisine’s adorable couples. I, of course, am a snout-to-tail man (which makes me wonder: Is SNT2TL available for a vanity plate?). After all, FAT IS FLAVOR, so I ordered the Gloucester Old Spot Pork Belly with Braised Fennel and Orange. One dish that Sessions is famous for, which Joanne and I only observed, was Rabbit with Minced Pork Sausage wrapped in a Hispi Cabbage Leaf resting in a pool of English Mustard Dressing. Oh well…next time. AND THERE WILL BE A NEXT TIME.
Astute food critics often say something like, “Who in the hell ever remembered dessert?” (Are they too buzzed by then to remember?)
Well, I remember dessert – all three of them.
Panna Cotta…it either jiggles or it doesn’t. SESSIONS’ version jiggled properly and was served with fresh figs and a crispy Parmigiano Reggiano cheese crisp.
Nut Brown Chocolate Tart…deeply flavored, full-bodied, and served with a handsome dollop of Devonshire clotted cream.
And finally, finally…a hefty cleave of Pecorino Romano cheese with zucchini flowers, honey, and sourdough potato chips.
So there you have it.
Florence Knight is in a culinary world of her own…unique among other Michelin-starred chefs. She has flawless taste buds and proudly states, “My food is like a play…a single lead with two or three supporting roles. It is quite pure. It’s simple. Any more ingredients, and the plot becomes confusing.”
If Oscar Wilde were alive, I think he would say of Florence, “She’s just herself. Everyone else is already taken.”