ST JOHN HOTEL: THE ORIGINATOR
There's a pleasing circularity about the opening of this latest branch of St John, a hotel and restaurant in the heart of London's Chinatown, which only occurred to me as I was having a less than satisfying second starter (restaurants, eh?) there: I was eating only a short hop away from Polpetto which occupies what had once been the French House Dining Room AKA St John Mk1.
In the seventeen or so years since the mothership proper opened in Clerkenwell there have been many imitators - the "School of St John" as HS has coined it - which have developed the idea of a few primo ingredients, simply prepared and arranged just so but few have had the chutzpah of the original to leave things as they are. Like that old stalwart Manzi's, the fish restaurant (and sometimes hotel) which occupied this site five years ago, StJ has remained pretty immune to the fads and fashions of the London dining scene.
Walking into the new joint the other day gave me a little frisson of recognition. the clean, white room which always reminds me of a secure facility, where you half expect to see R.P McMurphy (waiters as orderlies); here, the terse menu; there, the small glass tumblers and the smiley, efficient service. All present and correct.
And The food? Well they don’t call Fergus Henderson the Mies van der Rohe of the restaurant world for nothing (actually they don’t - I just made that bit up). So there are dishes where the use of white space on the plate is as important as the food. Ok, so the portions are not the most generous around but you get the point (that the plating is part of the shtick).
I liked my first starter of Veal Tongue very much. It had that effortless quality you might get in a plate of food on the continent but seldom find here. Some waxy potatoes, watercress and a mustardy dressing enlivened by capers were mixed with the slices of tongue. It was a little underseasoned for my tastes but that seems to be the modern way - I like things pushed a little in this department.
The dreaded portion control was in the house in a second starter. The pressed Pig’s Head - a variation on the brawn theme - was rather good but there was so little of it that it was more like a seasoning than the main element. C'mon St J, is your bottom line really going to be compromised by serving up a couple more slices? Hmmm? The flavours of the rest of the assembly may also have come through more clearly with less dressing.
A main course of Pigeon was better and almost an exemplar of the StJ philosophy. A couple of leg joints had been cooked to rare and were of excellent quality. There’s no indication of the provenance here - you just take it for granted that the raw ingredients will be very good. The innards had been mashed up and spread on fried bread. They didn’t have a particularly gamey hit, but they weren’t awful. The bitterness of the turnips worked well with the rich bird but I could have done with less liquid sloshing around. Not very St.John.
Desserts have always been a major strength of the kitchen. One was a vibrantly coloured (and tasting) Blood Orange Jelly served with some segments of that fruit, a blob of preternaturally rich and thick Jersey Cream and the shortest and crumbliest of shortbread biscuits. The second an oh-so-boozy Marc ice cream, sweetened by the addition of Sultanas and accompanied by a glossy sablé biscuit.
Some decent coffee tailended the meal but at £15 a shot La Vieille Prune was a bit de trop for this diner.
Obviously, this style of food won’t be for everybody - sometimes you just need a bit more of yer actual cooking going on, especially at the prices charged - but if you're in the mood for a bit of minimalism or you want to know where it all started then the St John Hotel will pretty much do the job. It did for me anyway.