THE RESTAURANT AT ST PAUL'S CATHEDRAL
It did not take long for Identita London, a rather grand conference of Italian chefs at Vinopolis, to lose its appeal. It isn't that it was not a beautifully organised event, it was. It’s not that there were not great chefs in attendance, there were, some really top of the tree exponents of the pepper mill waving art (sorry, couldn’t resist)
It was just that, after watching two chefs prepare dishes I would never attempt to recreate at home and then watching Nigel Barden eat them while doing his best to describe them to the audience, I realised that watching people cook is never going to be as interesting to me as eating no matter how enticing the food looked. So, with a few excuses, I slunk out and headed along the South Bank, across The Millennium Bridge and into the welcoming and cool basement of one of London’s great tourist attractions.
The Restaurant at St Paul’s Cathedral opened a little over a month ago and is a collaboration with Harbour & Jones, normally known for corporate catering and now putting their head above the trench to try feeding the likes of you and me. It’s a brave move and one that I suspected had been underpinned by the usual portion control and absence of cooking talent that we experienced recently at The Whitechapel Gallery, but the menu, with its quietly confident offering of British food at least looked harmless enough to provide a decent lunch.
I arrived before they had officially opened and the incredibly friendly staff allowed me to take a seat on the upper section of the split level dining room while I looked and the menu and cooled down with a glass from jug of tap water they brought over.
It is a short menu offering two courses for £16 and three for £20 and once you have got over the frankly quite stupid listing of prices as being in “British Pounds” there are definitely things here you might want to actually eat, increasingly rare these days.
A small bowl of pork scratchings at £2.50, sorry “2 ½ British Pounds” were rock hard and a poor start, tasting as if they had been sitting around for a while. Things improved with a starter of a pie made with Montgomery Cheddar and onions. Portion control was definitely in play here with the pie actually being a small slice from a mother ship of a pie, but while it could have benefited from some piccalilli or chutney rather than the drab leaves, the pie itself was excellent, slightly warm and rich with the taste of the world’s finest cheddar. The less said about serving it on a slice of dead tree the better.
Although the menu carries one meat option, they were obviously not expecting anyone to ever order it. If they had, they would have purchased knives with a cutting edge rather than the silly rounded thing I was given to eat my main course. A shame, as the Barnsley chop I was presented with was as good an example as I have experienced in London, and although that is not saying much (for shame, Butcher & Grill, for shame) the quality of the meat, the size of the chop and the cooking of chef, Candice Webber showed attention to detail.
It came a little more cooked than I would have liked. That may well be a house style designed to deal with the tastes of tourists, but the chop itself was meaty and delicious as was the sauce which, if I had not substituted for another vegetable, would have been perfect to soak into the accompanying Jersey Royals.
Instead I went for the offer of a “forgotten vegetable” in this case runner beans. There is a reason why so many of these vegetables are forgotten, because for years they were served boiled until they had lost all flavour and texture. These were spot on, retaining colour and bite and I used one to clean out a small pot of rather lovely mint jelly.
The wine list too is short, but nods towards Britain with some wines from Three Choirs. It also lists some decent ciders and some more than decent St Peter’s Ale.
I could not face pudding, but suspect that dishes like Gooseberry cobbler and Lemon Posset would be worth the extra £4, sorry “four British pounds”
As it was, two courses for £16, plus tip for really lovely service, is not too shabby for an impromptu lunch and although there were a few errors along the way a decent, good value lunch in a tourist attraction might just be, as St Paul himself might have thought, something worth writing home about