St John, London (The Second Return)

St. John

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).

St. John - The Menu

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.

St. John - The Bread

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.

St. John - Beetroot, Boiled Egg & Anchovy

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.

St. John - Jerusalem Artichoke Soup

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.

St. John - Brown Crab Meat on Toast

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.

St. John - Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad

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.

St. John - Grouse

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.

St. John - Smoked Eel, Bacon & Mash

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.

St. John - Hare Saddle & Lentils

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.

St. John - Ox Tongue, Beetroot & Watercress

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…

St. John - Green Salad

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.

St. John - Welsh Rarebit

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.

St. John - Apple & Calvados Trifle


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.

St. John - Prune & Armagnac Ice Cream

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.

St. John - Pear Crumble & Custard

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.

St. John - Gingerloaf & Butterscotch Sauce

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.

St. John - Apple Sorbet & Polish Vodka

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.

St. John 2

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

St John on Urbanspoon

11 Responses to “St John, London (The Second Return)”

  1. 1 kent paul January 5, 2009 at 6:26 am

    What you see is what you get at a restaurant like St.John, you do not go there to be blown away by technique, but just to eat good honest well prepared food from Britains forgotten culinary past. As for the 50 best restaurants in the world award they are a joke and nothing more than a mutual chef back slapping event, i mean how can you not have a restauarnt like Schloss Berg on the list and who’s chef Christian Bau is one of the greatest chefs in the world yet Nobu London gets on there LLLLLLLLLLooooooooooollllllllllllll.

  2. 3 Neil Jackson January 5, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Well, cheers for the review; you’ve reinforced my preconceptions about St John and therefore I will go and eat there at some point (possibly just in the bar) out of respect for the place and how it changed the way we eat in restaurants. But sadly I won’t be expecting anything brilliant. I suppose this is a classic case of “box ticking” – something I wouldn’t usually subscribe to – but anyway…

    I’m planning another visit for the near future and so will require three or four restaurants. I’m thinking of a re-visit to Tom Ilic (great starters, mains – poor sweets and decor) and perhaps The Ledbury and Hereford Rd. Possibly Hibiscus – which I’m kind of unsure about but it interests me.

  3. 4 Food Snob January 5, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    You’re welcome, Neil.
    I think it is certainly worth trying, as long as you go knowing what to expect (the same thing, I suppose, one can say about all restaurants).
    And every meal cannot be brilliant (unfortunately!).

    Very good choices. Hereford Road, for me, is very solid, hearty (good) eating. Ledbury promising one star. And Hibiscus is cooking some of the best food in London right now, IMO.

  4. 5 kent paul January 5, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    I hope Claude Bosi gets his second star back, and Tom Aikens looses his because the way he shafted his suppliers was a complete and utter disgrace ginger t**t.

  5. 6 Les Wong January 5, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    Snob, great follow up. Your descriptions of the Smoked Eel, Bacon & Mash and Gingerloaf & Butterscotch Sauce are enough for yours truly to pay StJ a visit real soon.

    Two things I’m not too keen on:

    Tongue- The mere sight of that on any menu causes a psychological deliberation to bite on my own first and thus causing an irritating injury that lasts for weeks.

    Tom Aikens- His countless narcissistic poses for the camera only enhance the air of deceitfulness that surrounds him. Well put kent paul.

  6. 7 Food Snob January 6, 2009 at 7:42 am

    Welcome, Les.
    I always find that when it comes to good food, the description writes itself. But thanks.
    Tongue? Yes, not everyone’s cup of tea, but I guess the menu at St. John can get a little crowded with those sorts of items….

  7. 8 Loving Annie January 7, 2009 at 3:29 am

    Apple cider sorbet…..drool 🙂

  8. 9 londoneater January 7, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    So it seems like St John’s Top 50 inclusion is abit undeserved then? Hmm, food still looks very good though, i like kent paul’s description that it’s sort of what you see is what you get straightforward brit cooking.

    I will try this!

    kang at LE.

  9. 10 Food Snob January 8, 2009 at 2:52 am

    Well, I guess it is all relative…
    The food can be good indeed and it is an experience. I know people who left unimpressed and people who loved it and returned the next day.

  10. 11 gen.u.ine.ness January 8, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    hey FS,
    I can’t agree more with your interview. I have always thought of St. John’s reputation to be because of its ‘shock value’ and the whole novelty of head-to-toe eating. Seriously, if the general British public were as adventurous as the French, palate-wise, we would have more restaurants dishing up more offal and the so-called unfashionable cuts. Unfortunately, most people just want their fillet steak and chicken breast. Putting the head-to-toe eating aside, St. Johns’s cooking is quickly exposed for something a good home cook can easily put together. There-in lies the problem for me because I can’t justify visiting a restaurant that I can reproduce the same dishes at home.

    Side notes: I did manage my visit to the Square but have yet to write up about it. (Been quite busy with uni and moving to ashford.) Hopefully post will be up tonight if not tomorrow. Ashford itself is a culinary desert (the place itself is a dump). There is one decent restaurant in Biddenden but its pretty hard to get to without a car. 😦

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