The Manor transforms into an Italian
It’s tough times for restaurants with household names and independents alike having to close up shop all across the country. Skyrocketing business rates, a continuing staffing shortage, rising wages, intense competition (especially in London) and, in some cases, overaggressive expansion and impatient investors are all playing their part in forcing a restaurant reckoning.
Even the talented people behind Clapham’s The Dairy are not immune from the merciless claws of the invisible hand. They’ve had to shut their Bethnal Green spin-off, Paradise Garage, which is a real shame. The Manor, their oldest spin-off and also located in Clapham, only seems to have avoided a similar fate by undergoing an almost total revamp.
The renamed and relaunched Sorella has jettisoned the haute-ish modernist British fare for which it was renowned in favour of an Italian menu – perhaps capitalising on the closure of the local branch of Strada just across the road.
Although the premises are noticeably less draughty than it had been a few years ago, the décor remains largely unchanged from its days as The Manor in all its stripped-back, dimly lit, naked wall mid-teenies glory. That would’ve annoyed my younger self, but my older, somewhat wiser brain took this as a sign that the owners were concentrating on culinary substance rather than interior design.
My Spidey sense was right. Mostly.
First things first
Truffled arancini needed more resting time, but I couldn’t fault the crisp and oil-free shell once I got past the scorching temperature. The filling was spot-on too with an umami and earthy mix of truffle bits and parmesan. In that respect it was better than some of the arancini I’ve had in Rome.
One sign of culinary continuity between The Manor and its Mediterranean-ish successor is the continued presence of high-quality cured meats. The dense and fatty pork and fennel salami almost resembled Chinese lap cheong in appearance and texture. Its meaty mouthfeel and salty taste was both offset and made even better by the distinct bitterness of fennel.
Oddly wispy ricotta had a lactic tang that was positively motherly in its strident presence and coddling indulgence. It wasn’t quite strong enough to offset the distinctly salty punch of the kalamata olive puree though, while the umami of the parmesan cream was surprisingly shallow and weak. This dish proved to be overwrought and overly cerebral, yet lacking in substance.
Each strand of narrow yet thick tagliatelle had a noodle-like wrinkliness. This not only gave it a pleasing mouthfeel, but also helped the thin sauce cling to each ribbon. The sauce’s umami was deftly complimented by the gently bitter undertone of capers and the peppery pork. Despite its initially smooth seeming grind, the pork proved to be quite thick and chunky – more like smashed meatballs than a heavily reduced meat puree. Everything come together beautifully.
While tender and pink, the chunk of venison cooked rare proved to be surprisingly dull. The smoky, offaly off-cuts served on the side proved to be far more delectable. It was these off-cuts, along with the nutty artichoke crisps and unapologetically bitter and salty cavolo nero, that helped save this dish.
Although Sorella’s gelato doesn’t quite rank among the capital’s best, it wasn’t far off. The smooth, airy and almost wispy gelato on the left had a light sourness and a clean refreshing aftertaste. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve guessed this fennel-flavoured confection was quince instead. Combing it with the gentle bittersweetness of the whippy chocolate gelato and the mousse produced a tangy sweet caramel-like flavour, without sacrificing the distinctive tastes of either of its parents. It’s a remarkable achievement in the ice cream arts.
Going back for seconds
Each slice of black pepper coppa was boldly peppery to the point of sassiness – hardly a surprise given the thick crust of black spice ringing each slice. Far more unexpected was the blue cheese-like undertone present in the fatty streaks of each slice, but even this delectableness wasn’t enough to counterbalance the peppery mantle. That job fell instead to the greatly appreciated pickles – sweet radishes and sheafs of fennel bursting with briney acidity verging on booziness.
Although the individual morsels of fish in the mackerel crudo were quite small, they were unmistakably mackerel – the bold taste couldn’t have been anything else. The lemonish, almost tapenade-like taste of the sauce, while far from unpleasant, was somewhat odd and seemed out of place when taken with the slithers of mackerel.
Intriguingly named ‘turbot potato’ turned out to be smooth room-temperature mash wedged inbetween a pair of crisps. l kid you not. I mulled over whether I had detected the faint presence of fishiness and citrus in one mouthful, before putting it down to a perverse form of confirmation bias. To say that I was deeply unimpressed is an understatement akin to saying that there might be a bit of porn on the internet.
Fluffy soft gnocchi came in a light, gently creamy sauce dotted with supple and tart cep mushrooms. It proved to be a superlative, lip-smacking combination despite the occasional button mushroom interloper.
Medallions of beef cooked rare were elegantly delicious with a light beefy tang and a gentle umami. A thin yet creamy sauce enhanced these qualities. Even without it, the beef had other charms of its own, such as an occasional rind of neatly browned bark concealing unctuous connective tissue. Superlative as it was, the beef was almost outshone by the supple, slightly chewy leeks.
What appeared to be brisket, served on the side, provided bovine backup. This was no rushed afterthought though – the umami smokiness of these offcuts was made even better by tart and taut mushrooms. The unwelcome crisps made a repeat appearance though.
Although described on the menu as a panna cotta, the smashed appearance of this dessert made it look more like a deconstructed Eton mess. This was no melange of meringue and strawberries though. The smooth, thin and light cream already had a rhubarb-like tartness which was only boosted further by the extant bits of slippery, squidgy stalk segments. The gingerbread crumb was the proverbial cherry on top of this alternate universe Eton mess doppleganger.
A lone lemon drizzle polenta cake made up the petit fours. The emphasis is clearly on the ‘drizzle’ when it comes to lemoniness, but the dense tight crumb of this cupcake made it worth eating.
The ‘turbot potato’ was just as pants as it was before. Fried nocarella olives made for far better nibbling. The small-crumbed battered exterior was oil-free but these deep-fried olives, like the truffled arancini before them, needed much more resting time. Although a tad small for nocarella olives, their plump little bodies still managed to squirt sweet juice down my gullet.
Cuttlefish turned out to be a variation of the mackerel crudo. Small, thin slices of glossy cuttlefish took the place of the mackerel in this otherwise identical dish. The wafer-thin, bitesized nature of the cuttlefish slices made it impossible to appreciate their texture though. That’s a significant problem as cuttlefish generally doesn’t taste of much on its own. In other words, this dish was a big fat dud.
I washed away the taste of the crudo’s tapenade-like sauce with tap water and then gossamer sheets of prosciutto. Each thin and glossy slice was full of fatty, woody umami.
Thin and narrow linguine was a bit too soft for my liking. A far bigger problem was the meagre amount of crab meat and the almost bisque-like nature of the sauce which proved to be surprisingly dull apart from an occasional tang of sea salt. Unsatisfying.
Glossy just-cooked cod acted as a conveyor for the squid ink which was so evocative in its sea saltiness than it tasted more like a reduction of anchovies and squid innards. Although the skin of the cod was supple instead of crispy, the earthy, bitter and slippery taut chard leaves more than made up for it.
Smooth ice cream had a surprisingly pleasing acidic bitterness (possibly courtesy of some actual booze) that was bolstered by the bitterness of the still smooth and well-rounded pump of espresso. This affogato was, like some of my ex-lovers, utterly addictive in its creamy bitterness.
Given that The Manor had been in business for three years and that at least some of the front of house seems to have transferred over, it was no surprise that the service at Sorella was smooth and efficient. The somewhat more scattershot quality of the kitchen’s output was more surprising. There were some true belters and gems from the cured meats to the tagliatelle, the gnocchi, the beef and all of the desserts. There were some notable duds though, often in the fish and seafood department which is always a cause for concern.
The menu also owes as much of a debt to its prior incarnation as The Manor as it does to Italy, so much so that Sorella feels more like a cousin of self-described Britalian Luca than a typical osteria or trattoria. And yet some of The Manor’s quirky flair hasn’t made the transition over – perhaps in a bid to be more accessible and thus more economically sustainable and successful. Nevertheless, there’s still more than enough identity and talent on show to justify its already booming popularity. Despite its flaws, I’d much rather eat at Sorella than at a Strada. And so should you.
What to order: Charcuterie; Beef; Cod and chard; Gnocchi; Arancini; Dessert
What to skip: Turbot potato
Address: 148 Clapham Manor Street, London SW4 6BX
Phone: 020 7720 4662
Opening Hours: Tuesday 18.00-22.00. Wednesday-Friday noon-14.30 and 18.00-22.00. Saturday 10.00-15.00 and 18.00-22.00. Sunday 10.00-15.00.
Reservations? Highly recommended; essential on and around weekends.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £60-70 approx.