Monday, 11 October 2010

St John

So, a full sit down meal at St John at last.  As I said in my earlier post, I’ve eaten at the bar there many times, and at Bread & Wine, the sister restaurant in Spitalfields, on several occasions, so it wasn’t for the sake of novelty that we wanted to go, and nor was it likely to surprise us.  The obvious danger therefore, was that it might disappoint.  Not be bad – that really would have been a surprise – just be a bit underwhelming.  A bit so what?  Don’t worry.  It wasn’t.  Not at all.

For those of you not familiar with the bar or restaurant, it’s a big, open, high ceilinged, industrial space – converted from an old smokehouse - with white washed brickwork and exposed fixtures and fittings.  The kind of space that’s quite commonplace now, might even be considered rather passé, but was groundbreaking back in 1994 when Fergus Henderson and co opened up, and why should they change just because lots of others have followed the trend they set?  You might even say the same of the food.  I’m not at all sure that the phrase “Modern British” even existed back then, but it’s certainly being applied to the food in a restaurant or gastro pub near you, right now, wherever in the UK you may be (assuming you are).  That’s as maybe, but in very few, if any of those places, will modern British food be being done as whole-heartedly (that’s an entirely inadvertent pun), or anything like as well as it is at St John, even today.  Nor as unpretentiously, and that’s a big deal.  Very few restaurants anywhere, with the kind of reputation St John has, are so lacking in pretension.  I rather doubt any others with a Michelin Star are.  The service is friendly, efficient and well informed, but not over attentive or obsequious.  The tables are laid simply, and arranged in semi refectory style.  The cutlery and glasses are basic.  It really is about the food here, but it isn’t a shrine to it.  It’s also a convivial, social space, about enjoying the food in good company.  It can get quite loud.

The two of us were given the choice of a table for two that would have felt like we were joining the group of four already ensconced at the adjacent table, or the table on the other side of them, originally laid for three.  We took that, because it was a little bigger, and better spaced, and also it was right next to the pass, which opens directly into the dining room – it’s a sort of semi open kitchen.  I do like to be able to see the chefs at work.  It’s a nostalgic thing, and generally it makes me glad to be sat this side of the pass, but it has to be said the kitchen at St John looks a tranquil, happy place to work (all things being relative and acknowledging the potential deceptiveness of appearances …). 

For starters she ordered the duck heart salad,  which I would have had, but it was her birthday, so she had first shout.  I went for the lambs tongues instead.  They seemed appropriate, offally choices, and we’d both had the signature roast bone marrow and parsley salad before.  For mains she took the roast mutton from the specials board, beating me to it again – curses – leaving me to take the seasonal route, and a grouse.  We chose a Roussillon from somewhere round the middle of the exclusively French wine list.  Bright and fruity, but with enough punch to look after itself.

The starter salads were much the same dish, save for the main ingredient.  Offal and dandelion leaves in a richly emulsified mustardy dressing.  The lambs tongues were yielding and slightly jellified – rather corned beef like, in a very good way.  But the duck’s hearts were the winner, with the rich, sweet softness of chicken livers, but a bit of pop to their texture.  A little like baby squid.

The grouse when it came was a rich golden caramel colour, and had a big bunch of watercress sticking out of it’s arse – an indignity it could perhaps have done without.  The flesh beneath the crisp skin was a deep ruby pink, done just enough and no more, with not a trace of the dryness which is always the risk with game birds.  It came with a little bruschetta of its mashed innards, and a smooth creamy pool of bread sauce.  Good as the grouse was, though, it was her dish that won again.  The roast mutton was exactly what you come to St John for.  Literally and figuratively it was a grown up rack of lamb.  Meltingly tender but with a depth of flavour that could come only with experience, and a thick layer of rich, soft but almost beefy fat, that would have had Jack Spratt reconsidering life choices.  It came with a sharply bright salsa verde and braised fennel, both of which, like the bread sauce with the grouse, complemented the meat perfectly without distracting attention from it. 

Two nil to Becca, then, going into desserts, and those were almost (not quite) a non event, on account of being too full to order the eccles cake and crumbly lancashire cheese, which I really wanted but know from experience to be a substantial meal in itself.  I settled instead for  the plum jelly, with vanilla flecked ice cream, and a glass of PX, while she didn’t so much opt for as fall back (no reflection on St John - dessert and dairy allergies being generally incompatible) on the raspberry sorbet that came with a vodka shot.  Both were excellent, but we were rather going through the motions by now.  Final score was two and a half to a half to the better half, but food, and St John, was the real winner tonight, Brian…

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