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.