For all London’s relentless drive and innovation when it comes to eating out, the appearance of genuinely game-changing restaurants is a fairly rare occurrence. There was St John, which reinvented British cuisine back in the 90s and gave the English a cooking philosophy – nose-to-tail eating – to be proud of and export around the world. And the River Café before that, which pioneered ingredient-led, strictly seasonal Italian food as cooked in Italy, as opposed to the meatballs-and-Chianti-bottle template mid-1980s diners were used to.
Another genuine game-changer was an outwardly unassuming little bistro just off Clapham Common, which opened its doors in 2013. The Dairy was, I’m sure even they would agree, not out to set the world alight or reinvent anything. But in offering a short menu of seasonal dishes split into five sections – snacks, garden (vegetables), sea (dayboat fish & shellfish), land (meat) and desserts, and offering alongside that a £45 tasting menu of highlights from all sections, they inadvertently created the template for countless Modern British restaurants that appeared in their wake in London and the rest of the country.
One of the snazzy young bistros that followed The Dairy’s example was The Manor, a bit further down Clapham High Street. But here, the similarity was entirely deliberate – it was a sister restaurant, opened by the same team, and serving a similarly attractive menu of seasonal small plates. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, The Manor never really found its audience, and has now been reborn as Sorella, a kind of Dairy but with an Italian accent.
In truth, there was always quite a lot of Italian about the Dairy, and Sorella just picks up that theme and runs with it. Snacks of arancini, deep-fried olives and ‘turbot potato’ (a kind of turbot mousse sandwiched between potato crisps) apply authentic Italian techniques to a mixture of Italian (where it made more sense to import) or British (when it didn’t) ingredients. Similarly a plate of superb cured meats, which sets imported Italian prosciutto against house-cured black pepper coppa.
There are also interesting experiments in dips for bread. Ricotta made from Jersey milk had a lovely lightness, and a vibrant purple mixture of puréed olives – kind of like a liquid tapenade – provided a powerful umami hit. Spread liberally on warm house bread, they became the kind of snack that could save any dinner party.
Happily, too, Sorella have inherited the mothership’s command of pasta. Fresh crab was combined with a curious carb closer resembling al dente egg noodles than linguini, but which was extremely enjoyable nonetheless, dressed with a few shards of fennel and a confident backnote of chilli.
Not everything was wonderful. A ‘bonus’ spoonful of strange pumpkin and blue cheese slop probably would have been a bland and baffling diversion from our chosen dishes even if we’d been able to taste the blue cheese element. And a venison main, though tender and medium rare, really needed a bit more colour on the outside and could have done with an easier hand with the salt.
Even so, overall Sorella did more than enough to earn its keep. As a neighbourhood restaurant, it will no doubt serve the people of Clapham very well, who should find plenty to like on its charming, if occasionally eccentric menu. But if nothing else, it proves that the creative energies of the Dairy team (Robin and Sarah Gill chief amongst them) show no sign in slowing down, and that the same talent and ambition that brought us that cult hit on Clapham Common all those years ago continue to influence and impress.