Four years ago a friend moved to Clapton, and spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to persuade me to open a sherry and tapas bar there. It wasn’t to be. It was nothing to do with the area. Finance, capability and a million other factors were all far bigger issues.
In fact if, four years ago, I were to open a sherry and tapas bar anywhere, Clapton would’ve been a good shout. The north east London enclave is just a few miles from Essex, by the River Lea, and –back then – wasn’t an obvious food destination. It was in a sort of gastronomic-chrysalis phase. Then, very suddenly, sometime mid-2012, it was labelled the new Peckham, or new Dalston, or new Hoxton – I can’t remember exactly which came before or after – but suddenly things changed.
Flick back to 2011 though. Clapton was bleak. My friend bemoaned the lack of places to hang out in the evening, and not without reason. She liked the idea of having me milling about in a renovated shop, ready to pour her a sherry and whip out a little terracotta bowl of patatas bravas when she fancied. But as her pleas continued, it was like other people were listening in….suddenly these places started appearing…
Ok, there were a few cosmopolitan hints there already. The Creperie du Monde had dipped its toe in the murky waters of Clapton Pond round 2010. Then the pubs began smartening-up. Firstly, eighteenth century boozer, The Clapton Hart, which reopened in May 2012 attracting new punters with its charcuterie boards and array of London-brewed beers. Then Windsor Castle in May 2013. The final addition was a smattering of other hangouts for local freelancers to grab a bite during the day, and commuters to wind-down in the evenings: Shanes on Chatsworth (2012), Cooper & Wolf (2012), stew-specialist Maeve’s Kitchen (2013).
I fall into neither of the two groups. But as an almost-local freelancer, I jumped on the #55 bus from Hackney Road to go join a friend as he too went to investigate the latest addition to the Clapton scene: three month-old wine bar and deli, Verdene E5.
It’s funny thinking back to my initial sherry and tapas bar dream. I would’ve obviously have had a brace of Iberico hams on the counter, some house-cured meats and smoked coppa. And then Ed Wyand and Tom Bell went and did it all…and so, so much more!
The goat’s cheeses alone are given a special section on the menu. Three offerings from France, one from Italy, and then delicious Devonshire Ticklemore – all with tasting notes to help ease the choice. There’s a ‘soft cheese’ chapter, ‘hard cheese’, ‘blue cheese’ and ‘washed’ – starring the brilliantly-named London Foxwhelp (washed in Somerset brandy at Buchanan’s Cheesemonger), and the eye-watering beauty that is an epoisses, which will transport you to milking time at a farmyard, even in cow-less Clapton.
Upstairs is a large, slickly-decorated space. The grey colour-scheme is undoubtedly jazzed up by Farrow & Ball phrases like ‘moles breath’ or ‘mouse’s back’. But it merges perfectly with the flat, grey London light which fills the big windows. Just as the terracotta colour scheme of a Mediterranean bar might pick up the golden afternoon sun along the Italian coastline, there’s something fitting about a smart grey interior in concrete London.
The mood changes downstairs: low ceilings, banquette seating, and an open-pantry built into nooks in the wall create a bunker-like feel. It’s downstairs that the menu opens up into larger courses though: ‘slip sole, cockles and sea greens ‘ (£14), or ‘lamb cutlet and braised neck with squash and cime di rapa‘ (£15) – duck rilettes (£6) to start, and spiced quince cheesecake (£6) to finish. Every Tuesday is steak night (bavette: £12; rump: £14; rib-eye: £16), and the offer of Feasting Menus for parties over 12 make it a good option for big groups.
The final note concerns the wine list, which is vast. For more direction, it’s worth checking the Bitten & Written review by Zeren Wilson, who 1) being a once-sommelier/wine consultant/buyer, is a hell of a lot more knowledgeable than I am, and 2) by all accounts has spent a hell of a lot more time at Verdene I have (so far). All I will say is that the variety and quantity of wines they serve by the glass is very exciting. Wines from Sonoma and Savoie; Sicily and Slovenia. So many to taste. I suspect that the #55 route north might become an increasingly well-trodden path.
181 Clarence Road