THE NIGHTS OF ST JOHN
With the possible exception of The Fat Duck ( ground breaking molecular gastronomy or toy food for simpletons depending what you read. I tend towards the latter ) more words have been written about St John in Clerkenwell than any other restaurant in the UK, perhaps anywhere.
It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the restaurants that London has that is not replicated anywhere else ( with the exception of it's own offshoot St John Bread & Wine ) and although many have tried to tap into the same schtick, you don't see the Anchor & Hope on too many "must visit" lists of visiting foodies. Mind you that may be because of their hugely dumb no reservations policy. Something I detest with a passion.
People often refer to St John as "traditional British foof" it is, of course, no such thing. I cannot think of any period in UK history where food was prepared like this. The fallacy comes, I imagine from Fergus' belief in nose to tail eating which was certainly part of the agrarian society of Britain. I think, in fact, the cooking at St John has its roots more in Fergus love of European peasant cookery. In any case, what I would argue is that Fergus is creating or, indeed, has created his own tradition and alumni of St John are now opening their own places ( Medcalf's, The afore mentioned Anchor & Hope etc etc ) and taking his passions to a wider audience.
Where St John has it over these offal-come-lately's is its setting. The whole space is unlike anything else one can see in the restaurant world and its sparce minimalism reflects the ethos of the restaurant perfectly.
I have been to St John over thirty times and it was probably my favourite restaurant in town. However, I had not been for nearly two years. My last visits had been more miss than hit ( with the exception of a couple of excellent feasts of whole suckling pig), the food had been tired and the service lacking. It had all the hallmarks of a restaurant resting on its laurels, even if those laurels were used to stuff a rolled squirrel spleen.
So, it dropped off my radar for quite some time. However, recently, there has been a swell of publicity. Fergus' brain op seems to have miraculously given him the chance to work in the kitchen again in the future and a number of friends have reported good to excellent meals there.
Tonight, I had supper there with my good friends, Anny & Gavin just out on bail after another bout of hooliganism watching Harlequins Rugby club.
Our table was for 8pm, so I arranged to meet them at Vinoteca almost directly opposite on St John St. This is an entirely agreeable place which, I think, deserves it's own post. It has a great wine list, food that looked hearty and "Modern British" cooked by a delightful chef called Carol who, she told me, used to work with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum and cheery, efficient service. Anny & Gavin arrived soon after me and, after polishing off a bottle of Costiere de Nimes, we headed across the road.
Rather worryingly, the main dining room of St John was set up for a party of nearly 40. Fortunately, we were seated well away from them and I was delighted that one of my favourite servers was still there and looking after our table.
As their menu changes daily, St John can go from having two or three things on the menu that you would devour in a heartbeat to having nothing on the menu that jumps out and entices. The day before, they had squirrel on the menu which I had before and would not have minded trying again. Unfortunately, some vermin had eaten the rodent. Or is that the other way around? There was little on the menu that really screamed out to be ordered.
Anyway, we found things to choose. To begin, Gavin had the signature roast marrowbone. When St John first opened, I swear these were bigger. Now, four or five small bones served with parsley and toast. It is an exercise in minimalism and, no longer really repays the effort. The marrow, when you manage to scoop it out, is delicious, melting and unctuous. But, it is just the wrong side of the effort:reward ratio for me.
Anny's starter of cold middlewhite with a celeriac ( I think ) salad was better and, being a good person, she left the fat for me to try a bit of.
My own choice of rolled spleen with cornichons and red wine vinegar was interesting, but nothng more than that. Also, so rather mean in portion.
For the main courses, Anny chose Plaice. She declined the side dish of cucumber and dill that came with it as she hates cucumber. I only know one other person who hates cucumber. It always seems very very strange to me to dislike such a harmless thing so much. But, according to Anny, it is Crippen, Jack the Ripper and King Herod rolled into one. Strange some people, no? Whatever, the plaice was a little overcooked from what I tried and I am not sure that Anny enjoyed too much.
Gavin ordered pigeon which came with radishes. Now, I know that this should be served rare, but they should at least kill it first. This looked like it had not been cooked so much as walked by itself into a room with a 60watt lightbulb on for a few minutes. I did not mind this and polished off what Gavin left whcih was quite a lot.
My own main course was probably the most successful. Braised veal cheeks with shallots. A decent amount of veal which is not always the case with St John where the portionage can be a bit small.
We ordered an agreeable bottle of Pic St Loup from the Laungedoc @ £26 which suited perfectly.
We shared three desserts which were, in truth, the highlight of the meal ( once the techno dimwits at blogspot get their collective fingers out of their collective arses and fix it so I can post pictures without taking an hour for each one, I shall post some more images including dessert ) The eccles cake with Kirkham's Lancashire, of course. The perfect combination the discoverer of which deserves a knighthood, Rhubarb Eton Mess and Blood Orange Sorbet with a shot of vodka. We persuaded ourselves to a glass of something with this. A Marc, a Poire William and something else which I have entirely forgotten.
The bill, including tip for service which was efficient and hugely friendly, was £159 (£53 each) which is about typical for a meal at St John.
So another curate's egg of a supper at St John. A lot of money to eat, OK food ( in this instance ) in unique surroundings with charming service. I am not sure if that is enough to get £50 of my money on a regular basis.