KEN TOWL has been doing thyme at one of London’s best-rated restaurants, where there isn’t a bar, but everyone is behind bars and where porridge isn’t on the menu
Last week I literally had my collar felt. Getting into Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton, if you are not a prisoner, is, it turns out, somewhat harder than getting out.
My daughter was wearing trousers and so passed the modesty test, while another female visitor was advised that her minidress was inappropriate. They gave her a pair of tracksuit bottoms which, if unflattering, at least matched her purple shoes. Interestingly, the guy next to me in the queue who was wearing shorts was allowed to flaunt his legs for the entire visit.
We left our possessions in a locker. There’s a rather long list of items that you can’t take in, for example chewing gum (that could be used to make impressions of keys), or travel cards, or cash. Phones, of course, were ruled out, as well as cameras. Which is why this piece is illustrated with stock photos of the restaurant.
We were indeed there to eat, a belated Father’s Day celebration with the rather mercurial Daughter No2, who was spending a few days in the capital between sojourns in Cardiff and Peru.
Her brief window coincided happily with Gourmet Night at The Clink, the restaurant inside HMP Brixton. Gourmet dinners are served on Thursday evenings only, while breakfast – full English and Eggs Benedict, rather than porridge – is available Monday to Friday, 8.15 till 10am, and lunch Sundays to Fridays 12pm to 3pm.
And here’s the pay off – given the quality of the food, I would recommend you go any time you get the chance. There is more to it than that, of course, so much more, but first, the restaurant…
Once we had all (some 50 of us) been processed through security, we were escorted to the restaurant. It sits inside a hexagonal building that was once the governor’s residence with a tower affording views in every direction.
Daughter No2 and I were taken to our table and our waiter Sonny introduced himself and asked if we wanted still or sparkling water and said he was happy to answer any questions we might have about The Clink. He gave us time to make our choices in a manner that was both friendly and professional, and without the over-familiarity so fashionable in more corporate establishments. He also brought us a couple of amuses bouches, something fine and delicious involving whipped goat’s cheese.
Daughter No2 opted to start with gazpacho with salmon rillettes while I had the haddock scotch egg with curried mayonnaise dressing.
These made the most photogenic plates of food that I have seen for a long time but thanks, alas, to Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service rules, you will have to take my word for that. They were as good as they looked.
Suffice it to say that the main courses – baked cod with herb fettuccine and pork fillet with udon noodles – were no disappointment, either. Both dishes were perfectly seasoned and subtly flavoured. The prisoners were doing serious thyme with the heritage tomatoes. I know, I know. I couldn’t resist, though, not after I had read Giles Coren’s review in which he had written, “The Clink is all very Shawshank Reduction. Sorry, Lambshank Redemption.
Dinner came with a surprisingly compatible soft drink made from crushed blueberries. This is, of course, an alcohol-free zone. It is also, according to Sonny, “the best place to work in the prison”.
His passion for the place was palpable. He wanted to get his national Vocational Qualification and, once he had a release date, start using The Clink’s placement service to secure interviews for work in the hospitality industry.
Prisoners working at The Clink train towards City and Guilds NVQs in Food and Beverage Service and Professional Cookery. Even the restaurant furniture is made by prisoners, as is the art adorning the walls. The ink portrait of Nelson Mandela, himself a prisoner for some 27 years, was particularly stunning.
There’s more. The restaurant creates a demand for fresh ingredients, so The Clink Gardens at HMP High Down and HMP Send provide salad, fruit, vegetables, herbs and eggs, and also City and Guilds qualifications in Horticulture for their prisoners.
Sonny brought us our puddings, a white chocolate mousse (light and airy as you would hope a mousse would be without the cloying sweetness that you might fear) and a vegan Eton Mess. The meringue is made from aqua fava, the viscous fluid you get in cans of chickpeas. Turns out the protein strings it contains are similar to the ones in egg whites. I can testify that it tastes the same, m’lud.
Brixton is one of the country’s oldest and most notorious prisons. First established in the middle of the 19th Century, its past residents have included Mick Jagger, British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, serial killer John Christie and philosopher Bertrand Russell.
These days it serves as a resettlement prison, where offenders are given skills or a trade to help keep them out of prison after their release.
The restaurant was opened in 2014, and has since gained a well-deserved reputation from reviewers, such as Coren, for being among London’s best.
However good the food or the service is, though, diners are forbidden from leaving a tip. The cutlery is plastic, too, but the outstanding meals will cost you less than £30 per person.
Here’s the thing – The Clink is more than just a phenomenally successful rehabilitation programme. Given that its graduates re-offend at almost half the average rate of the national prison population, according to Justice Data Lab figures, it is clearly successful.
It also provides a useful education to the rest of us, those of us on the outside of its forbidding walls. It is easy to compartmentalise those on the inside, to see them all as something dangerous and violent, something different from us. Going into a prison, coming face to face with prisoners challenges this; it is a lesson in empathy.
Sonny confided that Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, had recently visited. Good for him, I thought, and also that, if we lived in a more equitable society where life chances were not so tied up with background and economic status, he might, in a parallel world, have been served his vegan Eton Mess by a repentant Michael Gove.
There are few restaurants in south London that could claim to have such a transformative effect on its workers and its visitors.
Indeed there are few restaurants in the area where you will eat this well.
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