Artistry in the kitchen
Calmly brilliant cooking rescues a vogueish restaurant full of underwhelming art
This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
“Nice, red, tall stiff,
In a vase,
On a table,
In a room,
In our house.”
Fans of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole will recognise this poem, the work of Mole’s yobbish nemesis Barry Kent. Barry naturally wins the poetry prize for which Mole is earnestly competing, his staggering verbal ineptitude rendered transcendental in the eyes of the judges by his alluring roughness.
I was reminded of Barry when taking a look at the artworks of Jonny Gent, one of the founding partners of the Sessions Arts Club in Clerkenwell, whose arrival on London’s wearied restaurant scene has been greeted with the rapture usually reserved for … the last time someone opened the capital’s “most beautiful restaurant”.
The three rooftop terraces with fireplaces, marble bar and small infinity pool are certainly luxy
Gent’s works on canvas include highlights such as “2 marines fucking a guys (sic) wife”, “Dog licking its own dick” and “Dying Tulips”, which latter might provide the consort to Barry’s ekphrasis, if you left out the “nice” part.
Painting, however, is evidently not the main constituent of Gent’s self-conception as Artist. Here is the introduction to his website:
So I kept hearing whisper of him long distance and could not fight that legend then; gambler, lover, drunk, balladeer, dandy, wit and deadbeat, skid-row charismatic adrift in hautest luxury, bankrupt celluloid burn out with his own penthouse vista …
Perhaps Gent has had something to do with the penthouse part of the Sessions; the three rooftop terraces with fireplaces, marble bar and small infinity pool are certainly luxy, but the space has been designed by Russell Potter, who did Soho House and Polpo, after the eighteenth-century former courthouse was renovated by Satila Studios. Maybe he’s going to focus on curating the promised arts events.
At least he’s steering clear of the kitchen, which is run by Florence Knight — whose food is a calmly brilliant response to the hyperbolic frenzy provoked by the restaurant’s PR.
Sessions’s cool factor derives from its semi-secret location on the fourth floor of the building, behind an archly unsigned red door. The space is charming — double ceiling with mezzanine surround, cosy banquettes, bare floors setting off mottled plasterwork, a plant here, a repurposed knick-knack there. Not wildly original, but the building is so beautifully proportioned it doesn’t need much to make it enchanting.
It is not quite a room to make you feel you’re in a Nancy Mitford novel, as one reviewer gushed, more like one of Robin Birley’s joints if the bailiffs had popped round; but it is the sort of place where you feel like anything might happen once you step through the velvet curtains. It’s the art that leaves one rather churlish, idiocy knowingly palmed off on punters in the knowledge it won’t be called out.
However, Knight brings true star quality to Sessions. Her philosophy is one of restraint, seldom using more than three or four ingredients per plate. But this apparent simplicity is belied by her genius for extracting and harmonizing flavours. It’s refreshing in every sense, not least in terms of the price point (some critics have grumbled at £5 for a crab croquette, but with no dish costing more than £22 and small plates coming in around a tenner it seems pretty reasonable for London).
The menu’s palette tends towards spritzy tartness rather than unctuous depth, with richness achieved by skill rather than heavy base ingredients. Cicoria, bottarga and pane carasau, the Sardinian flatbread known in Italy as carta di musica, is a case in point. What could have been variations on bitter is transformed by an elusive, musky satininess — perhaps because the slabs of dried fish roe have been preserved with beeswax — set off by the sharp bite of the cicoria and the hoppy scent of the bread. “Petit aioli” with anchovy, egg and Pink Fir potato was another triumph, salty, nutty, creamy, distinct yet curiously mellow.
Eel with potato, crème fraiche and roe riffed on the same flavours in what, again, could have been a standard rendition of a classic elevated here to a refined elegance. Rabbit with borlotti beans and olives was perhaps the only disappointment, not that the dish was in any way bad, but in that it did no more than correctly render a staple southern Italian recipe.
Translating one medium into another has met with mixed success when it comes to art and food
Had it not been competing with the eel and the Pink Fir it would have stood out as excellent. Puddings of grape granita with cream and a roasted pear sorbet were deliriously autumnal, mists and mellow fruitfulness in spoonfuls.
Translating one medium into another has met with mixed success when it comes to art and food. Toulouse-Lautrec attempted to impose porpoise, stewed marmot and heron on his guests, though the consequences were somewhat alleviated by his notorious “Earthquake” cocktails. Not so the unlucky diners chez Dora Carrington, whose rabbit pie was a byword for listeria.
Installations at Sessions presently include a not very interesting pair of silver mannequin legs descending from the ceiling and some inoffensive collages, but the real artist is right behind the stove.
Sessions Arts Club, 24 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0NA
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