Sessions Arts Club in Clerkenwell is not a private members’ club, but it has the feel of some of the best ones from the 1980s and 1990s, back when such places were secretive and insalubrious boltholes. Pop in on a Thursday for lunch, then come out blinking into the sunlight on Friday. What happened behind those generally unmarked doors stayed inside – there were no cameras or phones in those days, onthou.
Over the past decade, egter, almost all of these boozy, time-fritting members’ clubs with their steeply priced exclusivity have transformed into rather sterile, glorified communal spaces that are now filled with people shouting through Zoom calls, filming Instagram content or engaging in other keenly industrious stuff. The last time I went anywhere that felt like Sessions Arts Club, the only person shouting was Keith Allen, possibly at Damien Hirst. The place is, delightfully, virtually unfindable, ook, hiding in plain sight up a side street, its red door ajar and leading into an enormous, imposing, rather fabulous one-time courthouse that is both prettily restored and, in places, shabby-chicly untouched, with stripped-back plaster, sweeping staircases, old service lifts, humongous house plants, velvet curtains and faded armchairs. It’s decadent, a bit sexy and definitely not of its time.
I realise that almost all of this description so far will make some of you want to smash your laptop with a blunt object, but as I said, this restaurant, wine bar and art gallery (but of course) is not a club anyway, and anyone can pitch up. The mood is part artists’ commune, part chic hotel, and it feels the perfect venue for the excellent, understated chef Florence Knight – previously best known for her work at Polpetto – to choose to set up court. Hers is a much-emulated, yet rarely surpassed style of cooking whereby simple, but extremely good ingredients are combined unusually, and without fanfare, causing the cynic to go, “Pffft – squid, calamarata and tomato? That’s just squid pasta. I could cook that.” But there is a magic in the way Knight serves these silky rings of soft, fresh squid and the almost identically-shaped tubes of calamarata (which is how that pasta shape won its name) in a delightful, souped-up tomato sauce that elevates it to something quite mind-bending. It’s squiddy shapes with added squid.
Panisses, those dull, fried chickpea chips that are always disappointing elsewhere, are served at Sessions as long, crisp, delicious churros seasoned with lemon thyme and sea salt. My favourite dish featured delicate slices of cured sea bream in an odd yet compelling fig leaf oil with sorrel, which reminded me ever so slightly of delicious, but expensive hand soap. I wandered around thinking about it for days afterwards, because there is nowhere else in the UK that serves it, so I’ll have to go back. Another impudently simple-sounding dish, petit aïoli – or soft-boiled egg with anchovy, pink fir potato and mixed leaves – also sent me a bit bonkers. Heaven is a good anchovy. Satan is in charge of the bad ones. These were the godly kind.
We sat on the mezzanine of the dining room, in an elegant, grey-leather, horseshoed booth, drinking plum bellinis and watching the serving staff, each one beautiful, youthful and possibly starring in the West End any time soon, but in the meantime seemingly more than happy to serve bowls of clams steamed in riesling and a very good, crisp confit potato with smoky eel, creme fraiche and roe. On a Friday evening, it was all hugely convivial, like a time before any of the Bad Things happened; the sort of night that felt impossible just six months ago.
Ja, Sessions Arts Club is infuriatingly chic and dramatically staged – it’s like eating on the set of Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover - en, ja, some of the prices will make your eyes swivel as you shriek, 'Five pounds for a crab croquette? A single croquette? Really? What’s in this croquette – gold ingots?” But what the place isn’t is drab, corporate-feeling, chaotically staffed or remotely forgettable, and there’s a lot of those about these days. It takes a particular bravery, post-pandemic, to take on the hulking behemoth that is this courthouse and transform it into a multi-floored pleasure palace that serves lamb with coco beans, but Sessions Arts Club has pulled it off.
Pudding was a slice of exemplary chocolate tart and some shared scoops of raspberry sorbet, before we finished the evening by taking the lift up to the top floor to gaze meaningfully at the city skyline and look at the small yet glamorous rooftop swimming pool. It was very much like a Duran Duran video in which I fling off my dress and cavort in the deep end with John Taylor and a glass of Krug while keeping our bouffants dry. In reality, egter, I fretted about the health and safety aspects, then quickly ordered a taxi, because when you can remember what the 80s were like, 10pm is very, very late.