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Thursday, September 18, 2008

ST JOHN: THE CHILD IS THE FATHER OF THE MAN















I think when Gerard Manley Hopkins (amongst others) wrote that line he was referring to the unity of youth and adulthood, but underlying it too, is the sense that as parents grow older and then old, the roles of carer and cared for are reversed with their maturing offspring.

I thought of this last night as I had my first supper at St John (a jolly for the launch of Trotter Gear aside) for nearly over two years. It was, in fact one of the first posts on our then nascent blog and, looking back on what was written about that meal, St. John’s place in the upper echelons of London dining was already under threat as we were served a meal memorable only for tired cooking and over pricing.

Since then, the challenge from ex St. John alumni and those inspired by Fergus’s “Nose to Tail” philosophy has grown from a baby’s rattle to an incessant teenage din with the opening of Great Queen St, Hereford Road, Magdalen and enough other modern British dining rooms to make you feel that this sorry country of ours is actually threatening to deliver its own cuisine at last. DH were keen to see if St. John, after its recent refurbishment, could still compete with the young contenders.

Precious little has changed from our combined total of over fifty previous visits. There is a fresh lick of paint on the walls, some uber modern Dyson hand dryers in the toilets and, er that’s about it. The bar remains buzz central for London’s media and fashion juniors and the dining room retains its stark smokehouse austerity.

The menu style, now copied all over the world, is little changed too, five word descriptions, the token choice for fish eaters and vegetarians and enough game and offal to please any would be Bourdain, but the ingredients are now so common in London it lacks the ability to shock that was once one of its main selling points.

If the dishes don’t shock, the pricing does. St. John was never cheap, but notions of value seem to have been thrown out with the old loo fittings. HP’s classic starter of “Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad” came in at £6.80. It is still a great dish, but HP, who dined at St. John in its opening weeks, declared that it had probably “jumped the shark” at the turn of the Millennium. My starter of “Venison Saddle & Celeriac” was a whopping £9.50, which became even more painful when I was presented with a plate containing four slices of the beast so thin you could read the price on the menu through them. The ingredients themselves were top notch, superb celeriac remoulade and perfectly pink venison, but I could not help think when I saw plates with only three slices going out later in the evening that the piss was very much being placed in the taken category.

An Ox Heart main course came with chips. Bad chips. There was a reason why St.John only ever used to do chips when they had tripe on the menu, that’s because they never knew how to cook them properly. These could have done with another frying and been about half as thick. I always say that you should work as hard eating the meat of an animal as they did growing it. This Ox must have worked damn hard because the tough slices, resembling slices of a kebab, required plentiful chewing to release their lovely offal flavour.

HP’s Lamb’s Tongues was a real misfire. Served with Borlotti beans, the delicate little morsels had been slow cooked to mushiness and had consequently lost their flavour. The beans added little and at a little shy of £17, you have to think there are a whole load of little lambs out there who can’t talk for no good reason.

If main courses failed, puddings were, as always, a delight. Prune & Armagnac Ice Cream for HP inevitably and Ginger loaf with butterscotch sauce and cinnamon ice cream for me, proving that this ageing old girl can still pull out the stops when she wants too.

The bill, a massive £120 included a tip for service which was as friendly but slightly awkward. A bottle of Pic St Loup was added to by the generous contribution of a couple of glasses of vieille prune from top General Manager, Thomas Blythe and sent us staggering out into the increasingly chilly night air.

I can’t help feeling that we are not the only ones staggering. St. John has always been an important restaurant for DH, the daddy of modern British food, but on last night’s showing it feels like an elderly relative that people come to visit because they think they should, not because they enjoy it. I think I may well be spending more time with the children from now on.

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16 Comments:

Anonymous Liuzhou said...

It was William Wordsworth. Hopkins was merely quoting.

"MY HEART LEAPS UP WHEN I BEHOLD"

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
1802.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 1:38:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You clearly don't like the place. Why have you been over fifty times?

Thursday, September 18, 2008 1:45:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

Actually, fifty between us and, pre-blog we have had some excellent and very memorable times at St John.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 1:52:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

Liuzhou

Thanks, you are right, of course and I think Wordsworth drew inspiration from Milton, no?

S

Thursday, September 18, 2008 1:54:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you suggest good replacements?
I love the idea of St. John but agree the prices are insane and the execution ain't even all that.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 2:11:00 pm  
Anonymous Gourmet Chick said...

Something must be said though for attending St John as a pilgrimage of sorts to where it all began

Thursday, September 18, 2008 4:19:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

I agree and some of the suckling pig fests I have had there are amongst my favourite food memories, but as I said, it may be that people go there now because they think they should or they are ticking it off a list of places rather than what it offers now.

Places like Great Queen St, Hereford Road, Magdalen, Anchor & Hope etc have, arguably taken what Fergus Henderson began and are doing it better and at better value. But, no one can deny that this is the original

Thursday, September 18, 2008 4:26:00 pm  
Blogger Chris said...

Couldn't agree with your review more. I had a very similar experience last month (http://cheesenbiscuits.blogspot.com/2008/08/st-john-smithfield.html) and now I've got it over with I don't think I'll be back. If you're going to cook offal, even if you do it well, don't try and charge me premium meat prices for it. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek way I compare it to Saf, which charges a fortune for nuts and berries just because they're presented well.

I'd also like to add the Prince of Wales in Putney to the list of St. John-inspired restaurants in London not afraid of a bit of pig's head. That place really can be a bargain.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 4:37:00 pm  
Anonymous Dan said...

I've found that in the last few years St John Bread & Wine has had more consistent food than it's older sibling and is far, far, better value.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 5:00:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. Nevertheless it's one of the few places where the bringing of wine is dealt with in a comfortable way, for only £10 per bottle, which means that wine enthusiasts will carry on with it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008 8:34:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, but isn't the point that the child and the man are the same person. We are formed by our own childhoods?

I know I was.

Ian

Thursday, September 18, 2008 10:20:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

THis review rings very true. I have had some fabulous experiences at St John, but fewer of them recently (though the bar remains one of my secret vices for a solo school day lunch). And Mr Blythe is a god among men.

I think, to understand St John, you have to focus less on Fergus's interest in food and more on his training as an architect. The restaurant has always been underpinned by an ideology, of which the food was an expression (I once, rather wankily wrote, that it was the spaces between the ingredients that defined the platings; wanky, but true.)

The next generation of chefs inspired by St John are far less interested in the art school culture of the restaurant and much more in the food it produced. St JOhn has always felt to me to be fascinated by the aesthetics of the dining room; its prodginy, by the aesthetics of the plate.

Jay Rayner

Friday, September 19, 2008 9:15:00 am  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

Thanks, Jay

While I take the point, the fact that meals at St. John used to excellent on a regular basis and now seem not to be means that this is surely not a case of differing aesthetics more of differeing priorities.

St. John has nothng left to prove and probably isn't trying to anymore. The new places do and are.

S

Friday, September 19, 2008 12:15:00 pm  
Blogger Douglas Blyde said...

I think BREAD and WINE is definitely more consistent and taughter in its focus. (http://douglas-wine.blogspot.com/2008/07/making-fat-fashionable.html)

PS. I am no relation to the manager(!)

Friday, September 19, 2008 7:31:00 pm  
Blogger Jeanne said...

Hurrah! A balanced review of ST John that does not start and end with "we are not worthy"! I've been twice and neither time was I blown away. For the price, I'd like something more than just virtuous eating, but I though that was just me being shallow... I do agree, though, that we forget that this is where it all started. You would be unlikely to be eating pig's head terrine an Northbank if St John had not started the ball rolling, so in that sense, a visit is a pilgrimmage to The Place Where it All Began... But as a stand-alone destination it would never be my first choice.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 2:09:00 pm  
Anonymous Neetee said...

Well written article.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 3:15:00 pm  

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