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Though I don't find myself in Clerkenwell much, I am always amused observing its warehouse-chic. The urban plan seems to be: take old storage houses and factories, gut them to fill with offices and flats (hope they are viewed as "trendy"), and scatter pubs liberally throughout so no one gets too depressed that they have to work or live there. The pub scene IS certainly thriving. Every storefront selling inebriations was packed to the gills on an early Thursday evening. One pub in particular, The Well, has taken on the mantle of "gastro," implying that it takes its cuisine as seriously as its booze. The clientele, however, don't seem to let the place get away with any culinary pretensions.
I feel sympathy for chef Didier Le Berre, a classically-trained native of Brittany, and manager Barnaby Meredith, formerly of Quo Vadis. The crowd during our visit was mainly into drinking and getting drunk. Most tables hadn't ordered food at all. The result was an extremely noisy, erotic (playful patrons in the lavatories), and a generally chaotic experience. Large groups dominated the proceedings, especially the ten-strong table of "lads night out" seated in the middle of the room. A word of advice, guys - yelling louder than anyone else doesn't make you "the life of the party". The small number of friendly servers, unbelievably, managed to take care of the mob quickly, though not without errors.
The small interior, seating about forty, is surrounded by wood, brick, and floor to ceiling windows. If you go on a warm day, you might have to get up for a moment as the staff open or close these wall-windows. The basement was inhabited primarily by couples sitting on squishy, dark seats in the corners while fish in the aquariums set into the walls swim idly along. It's surreal and completely different from upstairs, almost a sea cabin meets gentleman's club. The place is undeniably a huge success as a social venue.
However, as a culinary stop, I have some reservations. The menu in May seems heavier than the one that I read in April. There are not many cool, summer dishes on offer. For starters, we ordered roast sweet potato, leek, cumin, and coconut soup (£4.25) and artichoke salad with French beans and parmesan (£4.85). My soup was heavily seasoned with cumin, a dangerous spice. One extra pinch and a dish falls headlong into Moroccan or Mexican cuisine. And I'm not convinced that cumin works well with coconut. As dominant flavours, the two clash like a taco stand in Thailand. On the whole, though, this was a fairly innocuous soup and hard to make too unsavoury. My partner's artichoke dish was really a capacious plate of rocket salad with a few bits of artichoke heart thrown in. If a dish is to be dominantly one ingredient, shouldn't that item be listed on the menu? In the salad's favour, tiny and tender haricots verts balanced the peppery rocket with their sweetness and a balsamic syrup added a tart counterpoint. Parmesan was presented in chunks rather than slivers - good if you like its salty power. But you can't taste much else in your mouth while chewing a ball of parmesan. As my partner commented, "Well, it ain't subtle."
The best part of our night was a bowl of fresh, soft bread with mild, extra-virgin olive oil and little dishes of sea salt flakes and coarsely ground pepper. We used the seasoning to our food's advantage. I'm not sure if the chef wants to encourage us to season the food to our taste or if he is just very conservative with salt and pepper. We tried a special of the day - loin of tuna with rocket, sun-dried tomatoes, and pears. This dish consisted of a salad, much like the aforementioned but with bits of pear instead of artichoke, and an enormous slab of grilled tuna atop. We ordered the fish medium, and it arrived very rare. When seven eighths of the fish is raw and cold, I think we can safely designate that preparation as "rare." But we had no problem asking for it to be cooked a bit more. It came back a perfect medium finish, very lightly seasoned. From the menu, we ordered braised lamb shank with oxtail ragout and truffle oil champ (£12.50). The onion and potato mash (otherwise known as champ) was delicious with just the right whiff of truffle. The ragout was appropriately melt-in-the-mouth tender, but my lamb meat, though tasty, had to be separated from quite a bit of fat and gristle.
However, you certainly can't fault The Well for scanty portions. The helpings are abundant and very reasonably priced for the amount one receives. We witnessed two people order a special of sea bass with moules. Expecting a few shellfish as a garnish, we were astonished to observe huge bowls of mussels, making the sizable bass fillets perched on top appear almost puny in comparison. We were completely full after two courses and had to skip dessert. The pudding list is short and classic: Neal's Yard Dairy cheeses, apple crumble, bread and butter pudding, poached pear.
Wines are an eclectic mix of young bottles. Many are offered by the glass, which is greatly appreciated. We tasted a 1999 pinot grigio from Le Vigne, Vigneto Cantarelle - a dry, apple peel finish which goes down easily in warm weather. I sampled a glass of Chilean merlot with my lamb, an acceptable though warm and watery 1998 De Gras, Colchagua Valley. Bottles range in price from £9.95 for the house red and white to £350 for a 1992 Chateau Petrus.
Now I have to admit that I find it difficult to pronounce a final verdict: on the one hand, I can't with a clear conscience say that we thoroughly enjoyed our meal. On the other, most everyone else seemed to be having fun and came for that purpose rather than for dining. I do feel that I have an obligation to point out the experiences of others when they contrast from mine. If you want to drink and schmooze with 30-something, trendy Londoners, you could do worse than The Well. If you're making a trip out for really good food, you could find better.
Adam Kingl - May 2001
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May 2001, All rights reserved.