When talking about the restaurant Clos Maggiore, I’ve noticed that people invariably do two things. Firstly, they pronounce the name with a sort of mumbling self-consciousness, beguiled by the provenance of the words that are half French, half Italian, and thus assuming an accent lost somewhere amidst southern Europe. The second thing people tend to do is – bashfully or dubiously, depending on their temperament – quote the statement on the venue’s website that this is London’s most romantic restaurant.
Well, it’s a rather tall order in a city that boasts 39 Michelin-starred restaurants, innumerable bijou wine bistros, tapas boltholes and fondue restaurants (the latter two might not scream classic romance, one involves poking bread on a stick into molten cheese after all, but something about sharing food is just inherently sexy). Any beau looking to wine and dine a love interest is surely spoilt for choice, when on any given night the options include oysters and champagne at Bibendum, Porterhouse steaks and Chateauneuf-du-Pape at Hawksmoor or handmade Taglierini and a Ribolla Gialla at the River Cafe.
Clos Maggiore is in Covent Garden, which always sounds like it should be romantic (an historic square, the boutiques, the opera, and so on) but is actually an off-putting pen of spatially challenged tourists. Compared with the Place de Opera in Paris or Rome’s Campo di Fiori…well let’s just say I know where I’d rather be proposed to. Still, I kept an open mind and in accordance with the theme, I’d attempted to sartorially channel some film noir seductiveness, hence I tottered across the cobbled piazza in the darkness in a slinky black wrap dress, heels and belted beige Mac.
At nine-twenty, I was sat alone. The reservation was for nine. A candle cast flickering light on the empty seat opposite me. I peered at each page of the menu with inordinate interest. I read and re-read the wine list, which, I should add, is a leather-bound tome with a head-spinning number of listings. I went through all the messages on my BlackBerry (what did lonely people in restaurants do before the excusable distraction of a mobile phone?) and sent fatuous texts to friends at random. I sipped a glass of Prosecco in the hope of drawing a veil of tangy bubbles and tipsiness over my growing self-consciousness.
So goes the all-too-familiar narrative of a Stood Up Person (henceforth known as an SUP). Of course I knew I wasn’t actually one in the sense of having a blind date who saw me from afar and then ran for the hills. The stander-upper in this case was in fact my boyfriend, who had warned me he might be held up at work and a ‘little bit late’, but of course no one else knew that. I couldn’t tap my knife against my now empty glass and inform the nearby diners that I was, in fact, waiting for Someone Who Loves Me, actually.
I could at least make some objective observations about Clos Maggiore while I waited. It’s an opulent, grown up looking place crackling with rich colours and fabrics, unobtrusive piano music and warm low voices. It’s all crisp, thick white linen tablecloths, blood red walls, wax sliding down candlesticks, impeccable French maitre-des and rich, indulgent food. The restaurant’s piece-de-resistance is the rear dining room which looks a bit like the set for a Brothers Grimm tale, an enchanted forest with foliage covering the walls and ceiling, dotted with fairy lights. Here are the tables that fill up fastest and doubtless promise the most romance.
The clientele was by and large well-heeled ‘couples of a certain age’, who have silent conversations and drink lots of good wine without it having any visible effect and have probably just come from a ballet at the Royal Opera House. There was also a raucous quintet of City boys to my right, though, who had looked well into a boozy meal as I arrived and showed no signs of winding down when I left.
After a good half an hour of restaurant/wine list/self analysis my erstwhile dining companion made a blustering entry. In romantic French films people don’t lug laptop bags with them and turn down a drink because he was still in the grip of man flu. I pointedly ordered a large glass of the most expensive white wine I could see.
Maybe it’s not entirely normal or healthy how far my mood can be affected by what I eat: days have been ruined by a disappointing salad at lunch, arguments picked when the dish I ordered looks so much less appealing than what the other person was tucking into with infuriating smugness. Equally, starters as delicious as those served up in Clos scored a line under my earlier irritation and suddenly everything was OK. For me the redemptive course was chargrilled wild scallops with caramelised cubes of Jerusalem artichoke and shavings of winter truffle. Delicious. I find that scallops, since always served in such tiny quantities, induce a slow pace of eating when you really savour each morsel and pick through the dish with a sort of concentrated reverence – quite in contrast, say, to the way I will wolf down a dish of plain-ish pasta.
For the main course both of us had the slow cooked fillet of Cornish Cod and both of us in fact found it a little disappointing after the standard set by the starters. Yet by this point Clos Maggiore had begun to weave its spell and it didn’t seem to matter much that the ricotta cheese and chive glaze and bed of mashed potato formed a sort of conglomerate paste that was all very yellow and tasted far too salty. I should add, though, that the little pieces of oak smoked haddock and a smattering of grilled peanuts were excellent touches that lifted the dish.
By the time the waiter set down the desserts there was hand holding across the table, misty-eyed gazing and whispered conversation on nostalgic topics. Somewhere along the way Clos had delivered its promised effect. The pudding was a caramelised Braeburn Apple gratin with rosemary ice cream; this is effectively a tarte tatin, which is what we ate on our first trip to Paris and that then seemed something of great poignancy and significance in the rich, flickering atmosphere of Clos.
I still maintain that my most romantic London meal was at Polpo in Soho (despite me spilling squid ink risotto on my cream trousers, the vague shadow of a stain remains on them as a touching reminder of the evening), the simple components of a carafe of decent red and lots of little dishes of juicy fresh Mediterranean food again proving a winning combination in addition to the company, timing and conversation being spot on. I guess the moral of the story is that it’s all largely circumstantial, with a dull dud of a date able to take the sparkle out of the Oxo Tower Restaurant and its knee-melting views. But the snug enchanting Clos Maggiore with its fairy lights, blossoming walls and old-style Gallic suaveness is certainly romantic enough to leave a former SUP gliding off into the night feeling like Catherine Deneuve.