Every now and then, sometimes once or twice a year, sometimes less, a place opens that combines all the right elements in just the right order to create the rare alchemy that we call the “it” restaurant. Gloria did it with its maximalist Italian amore della vita, as did Gymkhana with its studiously crafted modern Indian cuisine and heavy, wood-panelled aesthetic, and so did both the Bob Bobs with their mad Anglo-Franco-Russian menus and daft champagne buttons.
These places seem to come preloaded with an easy, laid-back confidence that other equally accomplished ventures by equally accomplished chefs will never – can never – reach. They create a feedback-loop of critical acclaim that sends them to the top of the wishlist of every food connoisseur within 500 miles.
Sessions Arts Club is one of those restaurants. It’s housed on the fourth floor of a massive Grade II listed former courthouse in Clerkenwell, the entrance deliberately tucked away with no discernable signage, allowing the anticipation to grow as you circle this imposing palace to gastronomy again and again, pondering how you might get inside. Is there an open window I could shimmy through? Some kind of sewer grating?
Once you spot the comically small menu tacked to a railing beside a pretty red door, you enter what feels like the ground floor of a castle: a claustrophobic little corridor with a stone staircase sweeping overhead. A man at a small desk invites you to take a tiny elevator to the fourth floor, where you pass through a velvet curtain into Sessions Arts Club proper. Logistics suggest this is probably the only way to get from A to B, but it serves to amplify just how grand this dining room is.
Triple-height ceilings are clad in peeling pastel paint reminiscent of Wilton’s Music Hall. Bright contemporary art is dotted around the space. There are hidden terraces, an art gallery, even a pool up on the roof. At night there’s a pleasant but intense gloom, cut through by firelight from the hearth and an actually-on-fire chandelier. It gives the impression that the electricity has gone off and everyone has decided to carry on regardless.
From some angles it looks like an old colonial building in Havana, from others a fading Kenyan hotel. I was there in mid-December, when fears over omicron were at their zenith, and it had the decadent, slightly manic atmosphere of people enjoying their final days of freedom.
When I walked in, former City A.M. food columnist Mark Hix was propping up the bar with a bunch of industry folk, and another critic was surreptitiously scribbling notes at one of the tables (the coward’s method – brave food writers simply stare at blurry photographs weeks or months after the event, their memories fogged by alcohol and the passage of time, and conjure emotional responses in a manner not dissimilar to mystical shamanism).
There’s food, too! Florence Knight (Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Polpetto) heads up the kitchen, returning to the London food scene after a break of more than five years and creating an inscrutably ‘modern European’ menu. She’s joined by St John alumni Jon Spiteri (the one with the suits) and artist Jonny Gent, the man responsible for works including Dog Licking Its Own Dick (oil on board), who is presumably in charge of the gallery but could be peeling spuds for all I know.
I met a friend visiting from New York who, over the years, I have invited to some of the very worst restaurants in London. I am thankful that Sessions allowed me to partially redress the balance.
So, now comes the mystical shamanism portion of this review. The first thing I recall is rabbit, minced with, I think, pork sausage and wrapped in cabbage so it resembles a small brain – a dog-sized brain? I’m not sure how big a dog’s brain is. It’s wonderful – simple yet subtly beguiling, with a restrained tang from a lake of mustard dressing. But I’ve skipped ahead – there were crab croquettes, perfect crisp orbs that, when broken, still had that fresh taste of the Devon coast.
To bring forth more memories I’ll have to check the pictures on my phone… This one looks like… Ah! I remember now. Crisp, buttery confit potato encasing smoky eel, a highlight of the evening if a little bijou for £18, especially when split two ways. But that distinctive eely taste is imprinted somewhere upon my gustatory cortex, where it will remain until the day I die. A marvel.
Scrolling forward, I see that my guest ordered the beetroot and goat’s curd, a neat rectangle topped with olive crumb. I remember being slightly peeved that one of our precious courses would be taken up with beetroot but Knight doesn’t break her stride, whipping up a delightful little dish, tangy, somehow decadent, garnished with edible flowers.
It’s all coming back to me now. There was sirloin, topped with curls of jerusalem artichoke and durrus cheese – another deceptively complex dish masquerading as comfort food. There were oyster mushrooms with green peppers, bathing in peppercorn sauce, as meaty as… well, meat. Juicy as hell and just as tasty.
Beyond that things are foggy. I may have had a scallop. There were desserts – who remembers desserts? There was wonderful and expensive wine. Two bottles of that. Cocktails.
This is all a little academic, anyway, because the food is only one small aspect of that special alchemy I was talking about. Sessions gets almost everything right, and the bits it doesn’t, your brain happily fills in. Waited too long for the dessert menu? Well, that’s just an excuse to chat to Mark Hix for a bit, or visit the genuinely stunning toilets (not with Mark Hix).
Arriving at the arse end of a terrible year, Sessions stands out as not only my favourite dining experience, but one of the most pleasant evenings full stop. It’s that good.
• Sessions Arts Club, 24 Clerkenwell Grn, EC1R 0NA, or visit the website