I don’t find myself in Clapham very often, which isn’t surprising. I live in East London, go to university in Greenwich, and a large portion of the places I like to go to (let’s be honest, it’s mostly coffee shops) are concentrated in East London or Central London. It’s not that I have anything against Clapham—I think it’s a probably a great place to live with the common offering so much lovely green space, and as of last year, it has one of the best cafes in London in the form of Fields. But it’s a long way away, so unless I have a reason to go out there, I usually don’t.
This past weekend I found myself out there on a job to photograph the aforementioned Fields. Much to my dismay, they were closed for a week for some renovations. I stared at the shuttered windows from across the icy cold, windy common, wondering what I’d do with myself now that I was out in Clapham at a loose end. I wandered amongst the neon-clad, huffing joggers, wondering if I should attempt to get a table at the packed Brickwood Coffee & Bread, when I looked up and the answer presented itself: The Dairy.
I had heard about The Dairy from quite a few of the food types I follow on Twitter, all very positive things, and I knew that I had to give it a try whilst I was on this side of the city.
As I soon found out, I was lucky enough to catch them right as they were opening for lunch at 12 pm, because by the time I was on my second plate, the restaurant was nearly full of booked tables. Clearly the people of Clapham know they have a good thing, and boy are they right.
After ordering a cocktail (Dill or Die, essentially a Hendrick’s gin and tonic with smooth touches of cucumber and dill) I was brought a small snack. It appeared to be pork rind, though it was much lighter and more airy than any fried pork rind I’ve ever had. In actuality, it was a Marmite crisp (the only time I ever have and probably ever will enjoy Marmite) with a bit of blue cheese emulsion on top. It was a lovely little mouthful to get my palate excited for the main courses.
When I say main courses, you might think of single large plates sporting filling amounts of food. The Dairy doesn’t have these. Instead, the portions are quite modest—I was recommended to order either the tasting menu, or two to three dishes a la carte to have a satisfactory meal. Being the shameless lone diner I am, I ordered three plates, not realizing that they would also be bringing out a complimentary loaf of sourdough bread to go along with the meal. It was a delicious and intriguing surprise, presented in a warm linen sack alongside a stone bearing a lick of smoked bone marrow butter. When I pulled the loaf open, curls of steam poured out, as if the bread was proudly proclaiming itself to be the freshest you could hope for. And the flavour… well, it was probably the single nicest loaf of bread I’ve had in a restaurant. Or anywhere. Ever. The crust had an amazing smoky tinge to it, much like pizza crusts fresh from a wood-fired oven. Spread with a bit of the butter, it had such an alluring, rich flavour and fluffy texture that I may or may not have stuffed the whole thing into my mouth before my first plate arrived.
The first course came from the “Snacks” section of the menu: smoked wood pigeon with parsnip and hazelnut. I was immediately apprehensive when the dish arrived because it looked very much as though I had ordered pigeon tartare by accident. I’m no fan of raw meat other than sushi, but in the spirit of adventure I decided to eat it anyways—a good move, because this was one of my favourite dishes I’ve had in recent memory. The morsels of pigeon had a slightly gamey flavour and a hint of sweet wood smoke. Combined with the parsnip chips, parsnip emulsion, lemon zest, and grated hazelnut, the entire dish was a lovely balancing act between sweet and savoury flavours, with the greenery adding a bit of peppery bite.
Next came Lady Hamilton smoked pollock with pink fir potatoes, black garlic, and sea vegetables. The flavours were much bolder in this dish: rich and salty like the sea. The fillets of fish slid apart at the lightest touch from my fork, and the potatoes were fluffy and perfectly cooked. The crunchy bits (alas, I did not ask what they were) atop the fish added a bit of texture and extra salty punch to the ensemble.
Although I could have stopped here and been pleasingly sated, I had one more plate coming: suckling pig belly and cheek, apple and walnut chutney, and cabbage. The pork belly was perfectly cooked, with a crisp top and succulent meat beneath. The cheeks were a good deal leaner than the belly, but not any less tender, and paired wonderfully with the smooth apple and walnut chutney. To make the dish even better, I finally got the pork rinds I thought I had received at the beginning of the meal. And what pork rinds they were—forget about all the cold, thick, jawbreaker-like ones you’ve probably had alongside your pork belly meals. These were the wispiest, most elegant hints of delicious porcine flavour I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Even though I would have happily eaten large portions of all the dishes I ordered, I think this one made me the saddest about not having more of.
Pleasantly full and incredibly happy with the whole experience, I asked for the check and was given yet another complimentary nibble. I have to confess that at this point I was slipping into a bit of a post-prandial fog and I didn’t write down what these sweets were. But the donut was hot and fresh and filled with a tart curd, and the little crisp on the right was like some kind of sweet and spicy gingerbread. They were both just the right size for fitting in after a decent-sized lunch, and made sure I was sent off with a contented, sugar-dusted smile.
The bottom line? You have to go. I wish I had brought someone with me so we could have ordered more dishes and tried more things, as I’m sure they would have all been as brilliant as the ones I had. I would say possibly go with a group… then again, you’d run into the situation where the more people you bring, the more you have to share, and the food here is so good I just don’t think you would find it in your heart to do so. I probably wouldn’t and would do some passive-aggressive hand poking with my fork. (You know the kind. Don’t act like you haven’t done it too.) The one advantage to bringing more people is that you would be able to spread the cost a little bit, which for me as a solo diner and a student was a bit much, but when you think about the quality of the food (and I am sure of the ingredients), then it all becomes worth it. I hope that I’ll find an excuse to go to Clapham again so I can try more of the food at The Dairy… and if I don’t, well, The Dairy is more than enough reason to go there on its own.