The Bonneville Tavern is not what it seems. Set behind a heavy black door and a thick dark curtain, it sits incongruously on the corner where Mare Street meets Lower Clapton Road, more thorough-fare than destination. Only the black chalkboard outside betrays the smoky interior (literally, there’s a smoke machine by the toilets). If there were ever a time to step into the unknown, this would be it.
Once inside, you’re hit with the unmistakable smell of must, of old spaces crammed with new people. It’s not unpleasant – it just sets the scene. Walls are flayed plaster (aforementioned must culprit) and adorned with dead animal heads. The floors are dark wood, and so is the bar, with back-lit glass bottles lining the shelves. Seating is wood and leather, with a stained-glass skylight barely punctured by sunlight (I’ve been here during the day, in the height of summer).
Because it’s not just the Ripper-esque atmosphere that brings you back here, it’s the food. This Sunday visit was my third, and not to be my last. Disappointed by a missed opportunity for a roast earlier that day, the boy and I set out in search of some savoury European fare to fill that Yorkshire-pudding-shaped hole. Off to the Bonneville we set. Another brilliant bonus – this place is never packed. I’ve been here twice on a Sunday and once on a Thursday night – no need for booking, no need for queuing. There is always a buzz – a gentle, sonorous hum that fills the room but not the space between you and your dinner mate. Low lighting and candles encourage proximity – the perfect date spot.
A full day of work (on a SUNDAY, what would Jesus say) had left me ravenous and in need of alcohol, in equal measure. The Pinot Noir was out so we started with an inoffensive Merlot in its place, and a selection of fried delights. Ham hock croquettes were a winner – three little plump balls, piping hot, pulled apart to reveal silken soft meat and a gooey cheesy centre. Deep fried duck egg with creamy mushrooms were much of the same – down to our own blind-sightedness when ordering. The yolk was molten, adding depth and shine to the creamy sauce. I’ve waxed lyrical about this dish before, but this time the egg was so ever slightly under for me. I struggle with the whole CONCEPT of eggs (a story for another day) and the boy didn’t agree with me, so don’t let that hold you back ordering the same.
For mains, I went full out carnivore (recent attempts to become vegan, then vegetarian, then pescetarian growing weaker by the day) and ordered beef fillet with pomme frites and béarnaise. I asked for the peppercorn sauce instead, but was told this could only be made from scratch for the larger, more expensive cut of beef designed for two. Which is a shame, because I bloody LOVE peppercorn sauce.The boy went for Belgian meatballs and a side of new potatoes. We shared a portion of season greens (long stem broccoli, in this case).
Don’t let my crap photography put you off (it was dark, and I was hungry). My beef fillet was, in a word, perfection. Perhaps the best steak I’ve ever had. Again, as with eggs, I can get a bit ‘funny’ about big cuts of meat (maybe I really need to give this vegetarian thing another go). But I tore through this like I hadn’t eaten for weeks. Perfectly pink flesh, with a slight caramelised crust, melted under my knife like butter. The chips were thick, skin-on, home-cut affairs, perfect for dipping in the sharp, tangy béarnaise. It was one of the most expensive dishes on the menu – £21 – but it was worth every penny. I’m actually salivating thinking about it (I haven’t had breakfast yet). Go eat it. Eat it now.
The boy doesn’t like to give me feedback on food in case I write a bad review and we can never go back (no sign of that here, honest). So, in a most diplomatic manner, he told me he had never yet had a meatball that wasn’t dry – immediately after he finished his. I tried them – five huge buggers, a 50 / 50 mix of beef and pork, glazed in a sticky, unctuous sauce (I didn’t ask, but I presume it was something similar to the traditional Lingonberry). They were good. They were sweet. Perhaps, if the sauce were served separately, the flavour of the meat might shine more. He summarised the dish as the “Head and Shoulders of meatballs” – two in one. A quote so good I immediately wrote it down, and put it here.
We finished the meal with espresso (double for the boy, he was in a meatball coma by this point). The overall cost was £86, not including service. Not the cheapest spontaneous night out, but nearly a quarter of that was my beef fillet (I regret nothing). If there’s someone you want to impress, or you fancy a dinner out with friends that doesn’t involve queuing or screaming over music, this is the place to go. There’s an also extensive cocktail list I haven’t tried yet – I’ll report back, next time.
43 Lower Clapton Rd, London E5 0NS
£86 without service
Four out of five stars