The really big names in London restaurants, the ones everybody knows, are all steak places – Gaucho, Goodman, Hawksmoor. Apart from a few new challengers like Flat Iron, which I maintain is a triumph of economics and supply chain management above all else, it’s not always clear where you’d go for a good steak apart from one of those famous, expensive, and occasionally disappointing spots.
Knife, situated halfway between Clapham Common and Brixton High Street, is a surprising addition to this roster. It’s slightly out of the way on a street that is mostly residential, and I hadn’t seen it reviewed anywhere else. If it hadn’t been for its nomination in this year’s Harden’s London Restaurant Awards I doubt I would ever have heard of it at all, even though I live 20 minutes’ walk away.
I was assured by Ben, who spotted it, that being supplied by Lake District Farmers – who are so elite among butchers that they have to choose which London restaurants they supply from a select lottery – was a very good sign. And, after a booking process that seemed to imply a place in high demand, showing up to an empty restaurant at 7pm things felt a little strange.
But still, the early signs were good. Two bread rolls came hot from the oven with bone marrow butter, one brown with sesame seeds and one a salty, savoury rosemary and anchovy focaccia that I could have happily eaten more and more of until I was full. Very nice – and then a second plate of free welcome food came out, five golf ball-sized Yorkshire puddings with a little pot of gravy. The puds were crispy and chewy, just the way you want them.
Our heritage tomato starter (£6.50), served with basil, peach and bits of burrata cheese, did the job well. The peach was somewhat superfluous but every forkful of cheese, tomato, basil, olive oil and salt felt like the last day of summer, with tomatoes as flavoursome as you can get in England. But the real star was the oxtail with shallot puree, spring greens and stilton croquette (£7.50). Every part of this worked perfectly, with the savoury, sinewy meat of the oxtail being balanced by the sweetness of the shallots, and punched through with the stilton cheese. We more or less licked the plate clean so we didn’t miss a single drop of puree or meat.
Beef dripping chips (£4.50) were so enormous that calling them chips is a little misleading, but they were perfectly crunchy, fatty, salty and potatoey all the same. The perfect dip for chips, in my view, is bearnaise sauce, and Knife’s was freshly-made and pleasantly subtly flavoured. The one major misfire in the whole meal was the Stinking Bishop mac and cheese (£4.50), which I should have known would be disappointing (like buffalo wings, British restaurants cannot do mac and cheese for some reason) but really was a bit of a drag. We left most of it – it was just not creamy enough and too underpowered for a dish made with Stinking Bishop cheese. My suggestion to Knife and everyone else: stop trying to go for a crust by baking the mac and cheese, which if made in advance means the moisture is all absorbed by the macaroni, and make something like this instead.
But the star, of course, was the steak. The rib eye (£25.00) was cooked with astonishing skill, rare in the middle but utterly crisp and rendered on the edges. The interior meat was succulent and intensely flavoured, and barely needed any sauce to go alongside it. Still, the spinach, garlic, caper & anchovy puree served with the steaks was a marvellously sharp, umami accompaniment that brought out the flavours of the steak.
The £16.50 Holstein bavette steak (from former dairy cows, unusually) was less stunningly delicious but far better than almost any other steak you’d get almost anywhere else; it’s not quite priced to compete with Flat Iron but for a small amount more the quality was in another league. Both managed to be tender but maintain a bit of chew, which is just what I want from a steak. One minor complaint was that our steak was served rare, not medium rare as we asked. This wasn’t a huge problem for me, because I like it both ways, but the people beside us seemed to have a similar problem. It’s not a major crime, and they did re-do our neighbours’ steak when they asked, but it’s a bad habit for a steak restaurant to get into, even if you think serving the meat rare is best.
But never mind that. By the time we settled up, the restaurant was full and buzzing with people. At £86 for two, including drinks and service, for high quality ingredients, so skilfully made, Knife is something special.
Rating: Two medals.