Claw & Hammer, 30-33 Minories, London EC3N 1DD (020 7702 1605). Small plates £7.50-£14, mains and hot pots £16.50-£29, desserts £5.50, wines from £22
Do not go to Claw & Hammer on a date. Or to be more exact, do not go to Claw & Hammer on a first date. Go on a seventh or eighth date, when the deed has been done, and you’ve already seen each other being about as messy and human as it’s possible to be. Then this restaurant on the eastern edge of the City of London, which specialises in southern US seafood boils, will be just the thing.
Because this is very much a hands-on, up-to-your-armpits place. The food is so gloriously prone to chaos and disorder that the main events are delivered not just with crab claw crackers and crabmeat picks, but also with blue latex gloves. “Although I wouldn’t bother with the gloves,” our cheery, cheerleading waiter said. I told him I wasn’t planning to. I’d come for dinner, not to perform an internal examination. Wet wipes would do me fine. I noted that those on other tables who had gloved up, were still able to scroll on their phones. They were probably Instagramming, which is very important in a place like this. Just look at the size of those king shrimp, and so on. It did, however, make them look like they were hunting down a differential diagnosis, while getting deep into the seafood action.
Claw & Hammer shouldn’t work. Seafood boils tend to draw much of their impact from context. You want gnarly wooden picnic tables spread with newspaper or at the very least spread with paper designed to look like newsprint, perhaps filled with fake stories referencing someone called Bubba or Fat Al. You want 100% humidity and forearms glistening lightly with sweat, and permission to get properly stuck in. The one time I did a seafood boil in rural Louisiana, I carried away with me the sultry waft of roasted prawn head and boiled crab shell for the rest of the day, as if it was an especially obscure eau de cologne designed specifically for the belly-obsessed. Who needs Givenchy Pour Homme Blue Label, when you can wander around smelling like a bowl of spicy bouillabaisse?
The interior of Claw & Hammer has a lot of raw wood panelling, as well as bare-brick walls overlaid with wire grids. It’s designed to convince you that you’re in an authentically hard-scrabble, pseudo-industrial place where nobody need stand, or sit, on ceremony. Naturally enough, the ceiling’s industrial workings are on show. Look at the ducts on that. In truth, of course, it’s just another blunt restaurant unit on a less than lovely commercial street near Aldgate.
Until last year it was home to a branch of Randy’s Wing Bar, which did what its name suggests. The people behind Randy’s decided the future at this outpost of their mini-empire lay not with wings, but with legs and claws. Put all those antecedents together and you could be forgiven for assuming this to be a grim, ersatz exercise in separating bored restaurant-goers from their money. It’s not. The food is terrific. Thought and care has gone into the tight menu. Whoever came up with the dishes knows how to feed and appears to be pretty damn fluent in the culinary vernacular of the southern US.
There are oysters to start, both naked and dressed, perhaps with a smoked jalapeño salsa and a spritz of lime, or their own buffalo sauce and a dice of pickled celery. We have three of them grilled under a powerful buttery broth, flavoured enthusiastically with Worcestershire sauce, smoked paprika, cayenne, lemon and tarragon. Cooking oysters like this makes them only more explosively themselves: sweeter, plumper, saltier and deeply redolent of the sea they once called home. Alongside these, we have a couple of chunky king shrimp, split and accurately grilled with what they call “escargot butter”. Given that it would work just as well with snails as it does here, the title is a fair one. There’s garlic in there, and parsley and garlic and Pernod and garlic and a little lemon. And some garlic. Hence, the instruction to come here on your eighth date. You need to dine with someone you can breathe on later without embarrassment.
At the heart of the menu are their hotpots: boisterous, Cajun-spiced broths, lightly thickened with the noble wonder that is the Louisiana roux, that gracious interplay of fat and flour cooked out together which underpins so much of this sort of food. The rust-coloured broth bobs with chunks of corn cob, red potato and smoked sausage, to which your chosen seafood is added. There’s mussels and shrimp in the New Orleans; crab claws and shrimp in the Alabama; and snow crab, clams and mussels for the Louisiana. A single serving of the New Orleans costs £21 or you can share for £35. The pricing works upwards from there. I have no idea what these regional titles have to do with the contents. Maybe they just wanted to prove they know the names of some places in America. There’s also a vegetarian version called the Mississippi, filled with butternut squash, grilled asparagus and okra, presumably aimed at non-meat eaters who really like hanging out with their pescatarian friends. What matters here is that they are huge, edible Fisher-Price Activity Centers for grownups. You are never alone with one of these hotpots: ooh, I can suck on this bit; ah, I can peel that bit; my, I can poke around in there for the sweetest of sweet white crabmeat.
We have a side of their corn bread, which is ordered solely as a vehicle for a pot of their melted lobster butter. It is concentrated essence of lobster dissolved in hot butter, a fine union which deserves to be blessed and celebrated. We wanted a side of the steamed French beans, but they’d run out. So there’s nothing green on the menu tonight? Our waiter shrugged. He suggested we have the tempura vegetables. Deep-fried broccoli? We decide to get our vitamins from the potatoes and corn. Reader, we lived.
At the end there was a serviceable sticky toffee pudding with a bourbon caramel. The New Orleans bread pudding, made with crisp layers of sugared croissant, was much more than serviceable. It was an airy, sweet and friable wonder, and a bargain at £5.50. I’ve made it clear that visiting Claw & Hammer was a punt on my part. I loved the way the menu read online, but I had no expectation that this place, in this location, with these antecedents could deliver. I am delighted to say I was wrong.
It’s been a while coming, but finally it’s happening: Cardiff’s cult Japanese food outlet Matsudai Ramen, which made its name through hugely popular meal kits delivered nationwide during the pandemic, has finally acquired a permanent site. Self-proclaimed ramen fan James Chant will open Matsudai Ramen at the Bank in a former branch of NatWest on the edge of Cardiff City Centre in the early summer. Alongside his range of ramen, there will be a set of other dishes including his karaage chicken and his karaage mushrooms. The space will also be home to roasters Lufkin Coffee, who are already using the property. At matsudai.co.uk.
Bundobust, the ever-popular craft beer and Indian street food group which started in Leeds in 2014, is continuing its expansion across the North of England. Having added venues first in Manchester and then Liverpool, it has applied for planning permission for a site in York’s former Argos building on Piccadilly Street. Visit bundobust.com.
JKS Restaurants, the company behind Gymkhana, Bao and Berenjak among others, has announced an impressive lineup for the relaunched Arcade Food Hall at the bottom of London’s Centre Point building. It includes Saborcito, a sibling to chef Nieves Barragan’s Sabor, a shawarma kitchen called Shatta and Toum, sandwich outlet Arcade Provisions, created by Margot and Hector Henderson of Rochelle Canteen, and Plaza Khao Gaeng, a southern Thai restaurant. See arcadefoodhall.com.
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