Being invited into someone’s home is a fairly regular occurrence. All you need are social skills and friends. Or, alternatively, a BT engineer’s uniform. Being invited into someone’s head is not a regular occurrence, unless you’re a shrink or a meditation podcast. But that is exactly what happens when you go to The Drunken Butler.
The head and home in question belongs to Yuma: chef, owner, and table-maker of this French and Persian influenced restaurant in Clerkenwell. We don’t often talk names because it doesn’t feel that relevant to your experience, but at The Drunken Butler it is. Yuma will greet you, seat you at the marble table he built, before stepping back into the open kitchen to make and serve you lunch or dinner, leaving you to get comfortable in a plant-filled, jazz-playing, living room-like space where wine cabinets, artwork, and childhood pictures line the plaster walls. He’ll say goodbye to you when you leave. He’ll give you a bell to say you forgot your doggy bag. He is Remy the Rat, a Grand Designs applicant, and your parent all rolled into one. Everything here comes from him.
From Tuesday to Saturday The Drunken Butler serves a five or seven course chef’s tasting menu, and it feels like the inner workings of this man’s head. The presentation of everything from the pink rack of lamb to the caramel tart is meticulous. Your warm and salted flatbread intake is measured (but you should ask for more). The amount of money you spend - £49 for five courses, £69 for seven - is fixed. It gives you high points, like the saffron and mussel sauce that our firstborn will be baptised in, and it gives you so-so points, like the pistachio-covered oyster and its spoonful of cinnamon flashback.
Come Sunday, the menu changes. The tweezers are left in the kitchen drawer and instead a family-style Persian set menu - inspired by what what Yuma’s mother would cook for him - is served. Whether your childhood meals were ketchup-covered shepherd’s pies, or simmering pots of daal, or bizarre cuisine combos randomly assigned to a day of the week (note: Chirish Saturdays and Scotturkish Tuesdays are as fun as they sound), you’ll know that this is sacred stuff. Here it starts off with dips galore: smoky khask bademjoon, creamy mast-o-khiar topped with petals, coucou sabzi (a herb-packed frittata). If you’re not sure what it is, just try it. And then ask for some more bread again. Always more bread.
But don’t fill up, as you need room for the main event, the tahdig - a bowl-shaped portion of basmati rice layered with potatoes and butter, pan-fried until its outer shell is a golden encrusted throne for your juicy roast chicken to sit on top of. Along with the two lamb stews that come with it - yes, you read that correctly, two - this is a dream come true, assuming that you, like us, drift off thinking about a Crispy Foods Of The World buffet filled with trays of the corner sections of lasagne, blackened bits of naan, and now the crust of this tahdig.
The homeliness of The Drunken Butler, from the dim lighting and mismatched chairs, to the Ottolenghi and Momofuku cookbooks on the shelf, is sometimes at odds with the food served in the week. It can be delicious, but the fine dining-ness brings an air of stiffness to the atmosphere. Kind of like going to the pub in a suit, or eating a Pot Noodle out of a 900-year-old bone china bowl. This isn’t the case on Sundays. Comfort-wise and flavour-wise, everything makes sense. And that’s a headspace everyone wants to be in.
After eating this we messaged a knowledgeable friend saying, “You know that amazing squid in a leaf we ate at The Drunken Butler? Any idea what the leaf was?”. Turns out it was perilla, “or shiso if you wanna use the Japanese name”. But to us, it will always be the amazing squid in a leaf.
One with green apple, and one with pistachio. The former is delightful and the latter almost had us in the recovery position. Top tip: you’ll enjoy it much more if you do not breathe in the finely shaved pistachio.
This is the best khask bademjoon we’ve had in London. The aubergine is smoky and creamy and the breadcrumbs on top add some welcome crunch. We could eat this by the trough load, and the same goes for the warm flatbread you’ll pile it on.
There’s a point at which a sauce tastes so good that nothing can be wasted. Where any implement - bread, finger, tongue - must be used to transport every drop and smear of sauce from plate to mouth. This is one of those sauces. Your bowl will look like a prop from a Finish Powerball advert once you’re finished with it.
There’s much more to this than meets the eye. The lamb is perfectly pink and the fat melts. And the combination of cauliflower and black garlic is rich and earthy, like the estate of someone 58th in line to the throne.
A perfectly formed tart that has just the right amount of sweetness to end the meal. Very nice.
Everything comes thick, fast and fantastically on Sundays. The first wave is dips, salads, frittatas and even a soup. All washed down with a healthy amount of flatbread. It’s delicious, fresh, and social food, full of yoghurts and herbs, and things you might not recognise but will very much enjoy. The second wave is a feat of engineering. The tahdig is the eighth wonder of the world and roast chicken on top its ruler. You won’t forget this crispy and crunchy rice. And you won’t want to leave any of the two lamb stews that come with it. Gheimeh is tomato based, while ghormeh sabzi is a green stew packed with parsley, beans, and zesty stuff. Both are completely delicious and both are excellent vehicles for the rest of your tahdig.