It seems St. John is simply a must visit for any foreign foodie. Typically, eaters and epicures from across the world, whether they be in London to consume Chinese, Indian or haute cuisine, each show their fealty to Fergus and make homage to Smithfields. And such was the case with Aaron (A Life Worth Eating), DB and Ulterior Epicure. This was their first foray to St. John and my third (the other two consecutive visits being before its summer refurbishment).
I made the schoolboy mistake of forgetting to bring my camera, so all the pictures are thanks to Aaron bar the green salad, which is from Ulterior Epicure and possibly shows where Aaron’s priorities lie.
Bread & Butter: St. John Bread. St. John serves its own bread, which is baked below by the bar. It has soft, wholesome centre with firm crust and fairly open crumb. Doled out in dense, thick slices, it has good savour and is a very effective sponge. Discs of creamy butter are brought out with it.
Starter 1: Beetroot, Boiled Egg & Anchovy. Quarters of beetroot, halves of boiled egg and fillets of anchovy arrived with spinach and capers in a light olive oil dressing. The pickled beets had sweet-tartness and the boiled egg was creamy and rich. Anchovies added salty concentration as did the capers sour. The slightly bitter spinach substantiated the salad.
Starter 2: Jerusalem Artichoke Soup. A simple, seasonal soup of Jerusalem artichokes with only onion, garlic and a touch of milk and butter too, had nice nutty sweetness to it. It also had good body: the knobby tubers had not been blended finely, so though smooth, still had palpable graininess. To borrow a friend’s description, it had chenille-like consistency.
Starter 3: Brown Crab Meat on Toast. Two pieces of pain de compagne, well charred, were thickly spread with brown crab meat, enriched with a little mayonnaise. The shellfish had deep flavour, but for me was a tad creamy and cloying, though the thoughtfully supplied lemon helped cut through this.
Starter 4: Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad. Four roasted bones, like Gaudi designed edifices, were served oven-hot with a garden-fresh salad of flat leaf parsley, capers and shallots, spoonful of sel gris and two crusty slices of trademark toasted sourdough. This is the St. John signature that people flock here from far and wide to find. Using the furnished lobster fork, the hot marrow was mined onto the toast and then garnished with refreshing salad and sprinkling of strong saline grains. Gooey, oozing, fatty marrow; fresh, peppery parsley; sweet shallots; zesty capers, a hint of lemon; sharp salty smack; crunchy bread: yummy, as always.
Main 1: Grouse. The oven-roasted game bird, brimful of watercress, was brought with bread sauce and toast spread with offal and Madeira pâté. The crispy skinned grouse had flavourful, medium-rare flesh, but muddy meat cradling its undercarriage. The seasonal sauce, spiced with nutmeg, offered little in my opinion. The offal of liver, heart and other parts was rather toothy and intense, sweetened by the wine.
Main 2: Smoked Eel, Bacon & Mash. Two sizeable fillets of smoked eel rested upon rashers of Old Spot bacon, which in turn, sat atop mashed potato. The eel, soft on one side, firm on the other, had lovely taste, but the mash was rather bland; I imagine it was there to offset the saltiness of the bacon, but as I did not eat this, I was, possibly, unable to appreciate the potato’s presence fully. The bacon was made from the world’s oldest pedigree of spotted pig, noted for its fatty, slow maturing character.
Main 3: Hare Saddle & Lentils. Roasted medium-rare saddle of hare was partnered by Puy lentils, watercress and celery. The dark, falu red flesh was lacking the stronger, earthier flavour expected from hare, but its former savage subsistence was testified to by the bits of shot spat out. Puy, served rather al dente, were nutty and peppery, complementing the watercress; cuts of celery comingling among the lentils, were crunchy and juicy.
Main 4: Ox Tongue, Beetroot & Watercress. Pink pieces of pan-fried ox tongue were teamed with more pickled beetroots, watercress and horseradish. The tongue, preserved in brine, then boiled before being put in the pan, was softer and more delicate than expected, although still with robust savour. Horseradish presented some perkiness, but a stronger spiciness would have been welcome, whilst beetroots and watercress gave textural variation and depth to the dish. The potent partnership of horseradish and beet is a common one in East European and Jewish gastronomy. In perverse retrospection, I compared the ox tongue’s texture to that of, what I would assume, a person’s tongue to be like…
Side 1: Green Salad. A plate of piled-high mixed green leaves garnished with horseradish vinaigrette accompanied the mains. Mustardy rocket, bitterish watercress, mild oak leaf and sweetish butterhead lettuce were linked with spicy horseradish heat. This dressing was delicious and the highlight of the crisp, crunchy salad.
Side 2: Welsh Rarebit. The second supplement was Welsh rarebit. A thick tranche of toast came totally coated with cheddar cheese imbued with mustard, Guinness, cayenne and Worcestershire sauce. The result was sharp, piquant, nutty, creamy warmth. However, it had to be had quickly before the cheese set and also, once through the cheddar crust, it was pretty much stodgy white bread.
Dessert 1: Apple & Calvados Trifle. A brimming bowl of apple and calvados custard, layered with cream and covered with chopped up almonds was next. The trifle was tasty and creamy, with moist apples and crunchy nuts changing the consistency nicely. The calvados came less than uniformly distributed, so some spoonfuls were alcoholic whilst others sober.
Dessert 2: Prune & Armagnac Ice Cream. Decently strong Armagnac ice cream implanted with plump prunes was plated with a pair of skinny shortbread biscuits. The ice cream was smooth; the prunes, juicy; and the biscuits, crumbly.
Dessert 3: Pear Crumble & Custard. A picture-perfect pear crumble was presented with a miniature pot of vanilla custard. The pear compote was piping hot; the fruit was delicately sweet and succulent, but lacking enough flavour to make an impression. The streusel was very good, as was the runny custard. A tarter fruit would have been preferred.
Dessert 4: Gingerloaf & Butterscotch Sauce. A warm ginger sponge, soused with butterscotch sauce, was served with wintergreen ice cream. The cake, surprisingly and scrumptiously moist, was covered in rich, hot butterscotch. The ice cream, contrastingly almost minty in taste, was an excellent foil. The heat of the ginger slowly melted the ice cream, mixing it with the syrup. Very satisfying.
Dessert 5: Apple Sorbet & Polish Vodka. Scoops of apple and apple cider sorbet were supplied with a shot of Polish vodka. The two components could not necessarily be compatibly consumed and the one of us who drew the short straw simply downed the shot. The sorbet itself was smooth, cold and clear.
Food-wise, St. John continued where it left off for me: some dishes were pleasant; some were plain; with palatability picking up with puddings. The high spots from the savouries included the always-agreeable roast marrow, smoked eel and ox tongue; from the sweets, the gingerloaf and butterscotch was the best. The cooking was well done and quite constantly so, but some of the ingredients, especially the meats, had less flavour than I would have expected or liked; my recurring complaint with this restaurant. I also found the repetitive use of beetroot, horseradish and watercress bordering on wearisome. The fact that I like these ingredients saved St. John my being cross.
I quite like the canteen feel of the place. The clatter of cutlery and clang of crockery; the clamour from the open kitchen; and the egalitarian bench seating system all come together to create an enjoyable, unassuming dining experience. We even ended up getting on rather well with a very friendly neighbouring table.
I have doubted (like Thomas) St John’s ranking as one of the world’s top tables before and that question still stands. The food had none of us on bended knee, kissing houndstooth hems – I certainly remained perpendicular (or on my bottom) the whole time – but I can see the attraction.
With regards to the refurbishment, to be honest, everything looked pretty much as I remembered it. Maybe a new floor has been installed…
26 St. John Street, London, EC1M 4AY
tel: 020 7251 4090
nearest tube: Barbican, Farringdon