Whilst reflecting on the previous evening’s meal at St. John, embellishing on the notes I had made mid-mouthful, it came to my attention that I had not left a tip when settling the bill. I must admit, having idly inured to seeing that now-standard syntax, 12.5%-discretionary-service-charge-included, so often, when it came to paying, I literally did not give the gratuity a single thought. An honest mistake, n’est-ce pas? Well, it was a mistake that would return to haunt me that very day…
This aforementioned reflection had made me hungry and memories of that lovely posset in particular stoked within me a pining for pudding(s). Now, I do think it a little particular to patronise the same restaurant twice in two days, but there were mitigating circumstances: I had yet to try anything truly curious or unfamiliar on the menu and St. John would be closing for the summer just two days later, making another visit impossible (for two months anyway). I had to make the most of this opportunity.
On arrival, given the same table as the night before – I was on the road to becoming a regular – I wasted no time analysing the menu. The pudding list, which was where my attention first focussed itself (please note the passive tense here), was indeed enticing, but alas, once again the rest of the menu disappointed: no sign of lambs’ fry, squirrel, not even that Langoustines & Mayonnaise starter I had read of just about everywhere. I had to reconcile myself with rabbit.
A waiter approached. It was, of course, the very same gentleman that served me last night; as if it could have ever really have been anyone else. Now, not that I was expecting/looking forward to a hug or a bout of cheek-kissing, but I do think a friendly welcome should be de rigueur. He acknowledged me (just about). I greeted him with a joke. He (grudgingly) admitted remembering me. He demanded my order. ‘Any specials today?’ I asked hopefully/gingerly. ‘None.’ Of course not, I said to myself. ‘What do your recommend?’ ‘Everything is good.’ Oh boy, this is going to be fun. ‘How is the Squid, Fennel & Green Sauce prepared?’ (I am a glutton for punishment). ‘With a Salsa Verde.’ ‘And the Cured Beef & Celeriac?’ ‘It comes cold.’ OK, enough of this, I thought, it was becoming irksome; he had spurned the chance to milk my appetite. ‘The rabbit please…and for pudding, Gooseberry Crumble & Custard, Chocolate Terrine & Crème Fraiche and half a dozen madeleines. I do love your puddings. That posset you recommended last night was excellent, thank you.’ What’s wrong with you? I sighed to myself.
Rabbit Saddle & Dandelion Salad was today’s incarnation of one of my favourite meats. It certainly sounded enjoyable, but when it arrived, I quickly became dissatisfied: what appeared a decent cut of meat was on closer inspection a rather pathetic portion. The only flesh left for me to devour on the little beast consisted of two skinny shards either side of the backbone. Though served rare, with blood still visible closer to the bone, the rabbit’s certain lifelessness was evident by its total blandness. As if out of spite, the meat having already been stolen, what was left had been bled bone-dry of all the rabbit’s natural gamey richness. The salad of capers, radish and dandelion was, on the other hand, full of sour and bitter tangs. These converged in a last-bid attempt to revive the dull little bunny…but failed. The tender flesh did at least play nicely with the crisp roots and at least I did get to try dandelion for the first time. It tasted like chicory.
Unfortunately, over the course of my meal the attitude of the waiter did not improve. There was no pleasant banter. Dishes were brought and taken away unceremoniously. The bread was never replaced voluntary nor was the butter; if I wanted more, I had to ask for it. Then, when it was finally brought, instead of removing the empty bread basket from the table, the new one was indelicately plopped on top of the old; it was the same with the butter plates. Luckily for me, after my main course, a different waitress took over. She was sweet and friendly and for the first time that night, I received a smile.
Finally, it was time for the real (secret) reason behind my return: the puddings. Desserts are pretty, delicate objets d’art, usually better on the eye than in the bouche, but puddings, however, are real pleasures. The word itself conjures up, for me anyway, memories of cold winter days, curled up on the coach, wrapped in a warm blanket spoiling myself with a rich, naughty treat (I think I’m treading a rather fine line here). Though not always attractive, not at all fancy nor pristine in preparation, they are gorgeous and luxurious nonetheless. At St. John, the retro-comfort puddings take the biscuit. I ordered three, well, two and a half dozen madeleines.
They arrived more or less together, allowing me to enjoy mixing and matching mouthfuls of each…mmmm! The madeleines (top left) were brought first and brought the warm, comfy, happy aroma of baking with them. On tasting, the slightly crisp delicate coat yielded a fluffy centre, all of which dissolved instantly in the mouth. Then came the Gooseberry Crumble & Custard (bottom left). I rather like the humble old gooseberry; it is like rhubarb in use and tartness, just less cool. The white porcelain bowl could barely hold back its gushing, eager contents: the golden crust struggling to conceal the wealth bubbling beneath. The gooseberry filling had a satisfying balance of sweet and sharp. Broken almond pieces studied the firm crumble enjoyably enhancing the crunchiness of each bite. The accompanying custard was excellent; slightly runny, not too sweet and lukewarm, it tempered the thick, sugary, burning hot pud. A hint of vanilla was a nice addition. Finally, the Chocolate Terrine & Crème Fraiche arrived (bottom right). The presentation was austere: a clean thick brick of dark chocolate and one spoon of milk white crème fraiche. The taste was decadent: the chocolate, deeply dark in flavour, had a playfully defiant consistency making each indulgent spoonful a game of push-and-pull. Having to fight for it only made it better. This is what a chocolate dessert ought to be. On the other hand, the crème fraiche, there to tame the chocolate’s intensity, proved superfluous and pathetic in its pacification.
I would certainly return to St. John once it reopens: hopefully in not too long, but just long enough for that waiter to forget my face. As much as I enjoyed the marrow bones, loved the bread and adored the puddings, I felt short-changed by the mains. Having tried four in all, only the devilled kidneys were a hit. The petty attitude of the waiter disappointed too. After all, a tip is not an obligation, it is a reward; as far as I am concerned, you get paid a wage to do your job and a tip for going above and beyond that. However, in good Christian fashion I will forgive him. I just pray this disciple of St. John will forgive me…
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