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Luca: Tradition Meets Modernity in Historic Part of London

Restaurant of the Week: Luca celebrates London's love affair with Italian cuisine in most apt of neighborhoods.

By Alex Martin

There isn’t much to do in Clerkenwell, at least from a tourist’s point of view. Lacking the spectacular attractions of the West End and the high-rises of the City, this modest area of London is nonetheless full of cultural significance. Once known as ‘Little Italy’ due to a community of Italian migrants, Clerkenwell was the perfect place for The Clove Club Restaurant Group to open its ambitious trattoria, Luca.

Italians first arrived in the UK in significant numbers in the early 1800s following the breakdown of the French Empire. Naturally, they grouped together and found a home in Clerkenwell, which was close to Smithfield, a meat market offering casual employment.

This was not only the beginning of the multi-cultural London that we know and love today, but the start of another empire: Italian cuisine. Pasta hit the city’s palette for the first time and the first trattoria opened in 1803. Today, Italians dominate culinary culture across the world from casual takeouts up to Michelin star dining.

[See also: Trivet Restaurant, London: A Post-pandemic Success Story]

Opened in November 2016, Luca was arguably late to the party. But as it was conceived by the same group as the two-Michelin-star Clove Club and fronted by an alumnus of another two-Michelin-star restaurant, The Ledbury, it soon caught attention. Luca was, however, never pitched as a fine dining restaurant. Instead, it aimed to deliver refined Italian cuisine in a casual setting.

True to its nature, Luca has not won a Michelin star, but has earned plenty of acclaim. As we found out in our review, Restaurant Luca continues to draw locals and well-informed tourists for $100-per-head feasts — and with very good reason.

The chef at Luca

Robert Chambers has been head chef at Luca Restaurant since the day it opened / ©Luca

Head chef Robert Chambers was, put simply, the perfect person for the job at Luca. Raised by his Italian grandparents in Luton (north of London), Chambers is the embodiment of Italian-British fusion. From a young age, he had the idea of opening a restaurant that served a more traditional trattoria menu, one that offers both fresh pasta as well as seasonal meat dishes across four courses.

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After starting out at the RAC Club, Chambers left to perfect the art of making pasta at Locanda Locatelli, one of London’s only Michelin-starred Italian restaurants. He then took his cookery to the next level under the tutelage of the legendary Brett Graham at The Ledbury. Chambers later returned to the RAC Club, where he became head chef and took control of its fine dining restaurant.

Even with his own kitchen at one of London’s most exclusive restaurants, Chambers sought to continue his development as a chef and would simultaneously enjoy stints at the three-Michelin-starred L’Enclume and The Clove Club. It was during his time at the latter that he caught the attention of its owners. Soon after, they invited him to take the helm at Luca, where he has been head chef since its opening day.

[See also: Da Terra Pulls London’s Fine Dining Scene Eastwards]

The menu at Luca

The food at Luca is unmistakably Italian, but Chambers pays homage to his British roots by using local and seasonal produce. As a result, dishes on the four-course menu change as often as the weather. We opt for the Prix Fixe menu, priced at £75 ($85) a head. This puts us in the hands of Chambers and his team, who choose our four courses. The sommelier will also cater a wine flight to the dish choices on request.

Most Prix Fixe experiences begin with the parmesan fries, one of the few dishes with a permanent residence on the menu. A simple concept presented in elegant fashion, the fries are cut into perfect cuboids and drenched in parmesan. They are soft and sweet, almost like a churro.

The parmesan fries are one of the few dishes with a permanent residency on the menu / ©Luca

What follows is an insight into Chambers’ inventive approach: Burrata served on a bed of zerbinati melon puree and parma ham. The melon was cooked down with celery, salt and pepper to tone down the sweetness and balance it with the burrata. It’s a remarkable dish and, as we were later told, only just introduced on the night we dined there. An array of edible flowers turns the dish into an influencer’s dream.

Visuals are clearly important to Chambers. Plates reach Michelin-level precision despite portions being in line with traditional Italian hospitality. He does, however, know when to let the quality of the produce sing. One of the best dishes we had on the night was also the least assuming: four sardines presented on a plate with a glut of lemon-infused oil. Bread, delivered daily from a local bakery, meant none of that oil went to waste. The sardines were not just perfectly seasoned but tasted as if they had been lifted out of the ocean that afternoon. It was one of those moments that transport you back to your last Mediterranean adventure.

All of the pasta dishes sound incredible, but in the interest of making it through the feast, we opt for the lightest of the four choices: Conchiglie with salsa rossa, roasted pine nuts and smoked ricotta. The chefs make the pasta daily in-house before the pasta lab opens up as a private dining space when service begins. The aesthetics and textures are wonderful. A gleaming bowl of fresh pasta shells that melt in the mouth. The ricotta didn’t have the promised smokey flavor and, as a result, was teetering on the edge of being overly sweet.

A luca restaurant sample dish
A burrata dish at Luca: most dishes on the restaurant menu are subject to change according to seasonal produce / ©Anton Rodriguez

British influence is also well represented on the menu. One secondi course offers Scottish halibut, smoked eel and English cucumber on a bed of salted potatoes. It could scarcely sound more British if it tried. The presentation lacked the vivid colors of the other dishes, but it made up for it in flavor.

To finish, we embrace the Italian-British fusion with the English cherry tart served with frangipane and amaretti ice cream. The amaretti provided enough of a kick to satisfy the urge for a digestif while the sharpness of the tart pays homage to my favorite summertime fruit.

The restaurant interiors

Although the food is enough reason to visit Luca alone, it would be remiss for the review not to mention the restaurant interiors. Luca is generally considered to be one of the most beautiful restaurants in London. Its facade is fascinatingly unassuming, almost looking like a restaurant lost to the pandemic. Step inside and make your way past the sophisticated bar, and you reach a modern space with double-height ceilings filled with natural light and a cacophony of ambient chatter.

Chambers orchestrates his team in full sight of diners through an open kitchen. The pass purposely sits to the side of the dining room so as to not dominate the look and feel of the restaurant. Indeed, after an initial gawk at the hustling team of chefs, you forget they are there.

The Tuscan terrace is usually booked out for private events in the summer / ©Luca

A sense of age is mixed with modern design. At the front, exposed brickwork, natural plaster and warm oak lend the restaurant a sense of antiquity. The old Charterhouse boundary wall, which dates back hundreds of years, can be seen through large windows at the back. That same imposing brick wall is also home to the foliage that brings its terrace to life.

Although faced with the British weather, the terrace nonetheless achieves its aim of transporting diners to Tuscany (at least during the historically dry summer of 2022).

It is usually booked in the summer months for private events, but when available diners can enjoy whatever is left of the daylight before tables are illuminated by flickers of candlelight. In the winter, the restaurant keeps the alfresco party going with a charming fireplace.

Contact 88 St John St, London EC1M 4EH; luca.restaurant; +44 203 859 300; reservations@luca.restaurant

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