On a cold night in Clerkenwell Molly Codyre finds a London classic that welcomes her like an old friend
Luca is one of those restaurants that invigorates your love for London. It seems to almost sit in Farringdon waiting for your visit and welcoming you in like an old friend, even if you’ve never dined there before. I’m ashamed to say I had not before now. Stalwart as it is, Luca had been continuously (and mistakenly) overlooked in favour of the new. But boy, there is something to be said for the well-trodden and the well-loved. In a city awash with new openings there are still a number of ‘classic’ spots, and few deserve that moniker more than Luca.
It is no surprise however when you realise the people behind Luca are the same team responsible for the iconic Clove Club. Where at the Clove Club there is a tasting menu and a culinary approach to pushing boundaries, Luca seems to take this same technique and shine its light in a heartier, more fundamentally lovely way. Personally I think cooking skills are best shown in the simplest of dishes – those where it feels almost impossible that it could taste that good because really, what have they done to it?
Take the parmesan fries for example. Something of an elongated cheese puff, they straddle the line between churro and molten cheese heaven. So deceptively simple – I mean really, it’s just deep fried cheese – and yet so flawless. It’s the perfect way to kick start the meal. Then there’s the burrata. I have had a somewhat illicit love affair with burrata over the years. I love it, I would eat it always if I could, and yet cooler chefs and foodies than I have inevitably made me feel guilty, like it’s the cronut of the cheese world. Well, here they can be damned, because Luca seems to pull a middle finger at them all with this burrata. Perched atop a mountain of various iterations of winter squash (silky puree and heartier, earthily sweet chunks) alongside pickled and candied walnuts and finished with a drizzle of inky roasted pumpkin seed oil, it seemed to stare burrata detractors right in the face and dare them to continue calling the cheese uncool.
Then there was the beef tartare. If burrata has been my secret love, beef tartare has become a burgeoning one. I’m not ashamed to admit it was one of those foods that made me overcome a certain level of meat-oriented queasiness that I had always associated it with before writing about food forced me to get over myself. I still hold a torch to the tartare at Flor (RIP), and have often found subsequent iterations lacking. Not here – the beef is hand chopped and simply cured in nebbiolo which imparts a hint of fruitiness and a dash of acidity, flecked with capers and topped with softened riseley cheese and a jenga tower of wafer-thin potato sticks. I dined at a restaurant recently where everything (including the tartare) was topped in a kind of unidentifiable creaminess that made your stomach churn, so I was hesitant when I saw the riseley cheese here and quickly proven very wrong. The delicate tang and subtle savoury notes mingled with the beef rather than overwhelming it all with a punch of richness.
The pre-pasta interlude came in the way of a beautifully cooked Orkney scallop served in its shell and topped off with a hit of salty, subtly spicy nduja. The scallop itself was lightly caramelised on the outside, a combination of the right heat and just enough time on the grill meaning the crisp exterior held in all the juicy nuttiness of the interior, the creamy sweetness offsetting the saltiness of the nduja in a match made in culinary heaven. In a world of over-cooked, tough, doughy scallops, this is what they should all try to be.
Then came the pasta, oh the pasta. There is an almost laughably decadent plate of agnolotti, not only bathing in but also wrapped around the buttery, cheesy, peppery goodness that is cacio e pepe and showered with slice upon slice of black winter truffle. Tubes of rigatoni bed-down with a pork sausage, anchovy-spiked ragu, while a smattering of shaved ricotta salata on top is like snow on Christmas (reserved in its appearance, welcome nonetheless).
It was around this point I started to realise my eyes were a LOT bigger than my stomach, but in the name of journalism I plowed on, finding space somehow to fit in the Scottish halibut. Thank god I did – whatever Luca is doing to seafood in that kitchen needs to be replicated throughout the city. The meaty fillet of fish was cooked just so that it was delicately sweet and fleshy without feeling dry or tough. It was topped with a lemon parmesan crust that – wow. It was astonishingly good. That umami-rich, acidulated flavour combination gave the fish a whole new life. Smoked mussels, romanesco puree and a sauce made from the bones of the halibut joined the party as welcome guests but the main act was that fish/parmesan/lemon situation. Genius. I suppose that best summarises what I mean when I say simple cooking can be the most illuminating to a restaurant’s knowledge of food and ability to create masterful dishes. A crust of lemon and parmesan on a well-cooked piece of fish shouldn’t necessarily feel ingenious, and yet here it does.
We managed to find space in our bodies, somehow, for dessert. I should probably admit that I am a huge fan of pastry chef Taylor Sessegnon-Shakespeare, so while I could be slightly biased in my opinion, the desserts seemed to summarise the rest of the meal perfectly. Featherlight tiramisu had hints of marsala, integrity to the cream and embraced the power of a subtle flavour, letting the liquor bring the sweetness. Lemon tart was a bouncy, sunshine-coloured beauty of a thing, bruleed on top and so joyously silky, the filling reaching that elusive acidic/sweet balance.
I may have been a little late to the Luca party, but now that I have arrived I really don’t want to leave. New restaurants may come and go, their shiny doors opening and closing at increasingly rapid paces, but there is something to be said for the modern classics. Those restaurants that were sparkling in their newness not so long ago, and have stuck around, their cult following only increasing with time. At least next time I visit I can feel a little more comfortable that I’m getting closer to earning that old-friend welcome.