Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Postcards from London 2012 - A Review of St John Restaurant & Bar, Smithfield, London

Happenstance recently saw me shivering on a cold and grey London evening.  After an informal survey of friends familiar with the local eateries, St John, that renowned purveyor of rustic British meaty treats, was sitting at the top of the list.  But it couldn't be any St John (they now have three branches), no no no, it had to be the original near Smithfield Market.  I didn't need much tempting.  After all, this was the home of the roasted bone marrow and parsley salad so exalted by Anthony Bourdain in, well, every book and show he's ever done on England.  I can't remember the exact words, but I recall something along the lines of "when you eat this dish, angelic choirs sing, seven generations of one's ancestors smile down on you from heaven".

A short stroll away from the Barbican, St John is hardly your archetypal Michelin-starred restaurant.  Furnishing is simple and diners are packed cheek-to-jowl (or should that be nose-to-tail?), with tables literally pushed up against the other.  Elbows bump, surfaces are hard and the tables are dressed with butcher's paper; this is certainly no place for a romantic dinner or a private business dinner.  But that's hardly the market it's aiming for, and it's heaving on a wet Monday night so the diners obviously aren't too fussed.  Goes without saying, of course, that they don't serve amuse-bouches, hors d'oeuvres or any such bourgeois flourishes here.

A view of the open kitchen
Well after an introduction like that, there can only be one way to start.  

Entrée: Roast Veal Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad (£7.20)

I love bone marrow, but I think the ratio of the various components is slightly out-of whack.  Two of the four marrow bones do not yield much of the good stuff, and there is just too much of the toasted sourdough, great as it is.  The parsley salad, anointed with lemon juice and capers to cut the fattiness of the marrow, is way too acidic given the modest amount of marrow.  The dish as a whole is pleasant enough, but despite our proximity to Christmas, there's no way the angels are gathering en masse to celebrate this particular plate.  OK, maybe there's a very minor cherub whistling a show tune on a street corner somewhere, but that was about it.

To go with our starters, a 2011 Picpoul de Pinet "Les Terres Rouges" from Les Vignobles Montagnac (£26.30 for the bottle, £10.30 takeaway) is recommended by our sommelier.  It is a basic and rather quaffable wine, lightly floral on the bouquet with the slightest mineral hint.  All the same, I feel rather stupid drinking it, knowing that the restaurant sells it retail for just over a third of the price I paid.

Main Course: Pheasant and Pig Trotter Pie (£34.50, for 2 to share)

I order this in the spirit of "stuff myself over the next week with as much game as I can", and thankfully one of my companions falls in with the plan.  This is as beautiful a pie as I've seen in a while: an old-fashioned lard and hot water crust with that gorgeous egg-washed surface, the rich, dark sauce bubbling on the edges, trying to escape its pastry prison, the missing marrow bone from my entrée trying unsuccessfully to hide itself in the pie.  I need to take a closer look.

The pheasant is nice and moist, and so it should be, floating as it is in a sauce rich with melted fat and jelly from the trotter.  The description of the pie as "for 2 to share" is rather misleading.  Even with the help of our simply-described "Greens" (£3.70), my pie-pal and I are forced to call time two-thirds of the way in, and we're both fully-grown adults with an appetite.  Thankfully the staff are more than happy to pack it up in foil for takeaway - now try doing that in your everyday one-starred restaurant!

Dessert 1: Steamed Ginger Pudding (£7.20; pictured below)

Simply beautiful, the best English-style pudding I've had in a long time, and for me, one of 2012's best desserts.  It has some resistance to the spoon so it's not particularly light, but it makes up in flavour what it lacks in elegance.  Candied stem ginger contributes a lovely crunch and spiciness.  Add a dash of fresh pouring cream and I swear you can hear the angels warming up in the distance.

Dessert 2: Meringue, Pear and Cream (£7.20; pictured right)

Because one pudding is never enough. The meringue and cream are delightfully light, while the poached pear simply melts in the mouth.  A scatter of toasted hazelnuts stops the thing from being mere spadefuls of off-white mush.  This would have been a clear winner on any other night, except of course we've just had a superlative ginger pud.

This three-course Michelin-starred meal cost me just over £30 excluding drinks, easily the cheapest starred dinner I've had.  I must admit I feel a little let down by the bone marrow, but that may have been a matter of expectations having been unrealistically heightened rather than any real fault of the dish itself. Everything else was smashing.  

I'm not sure I'd be in a hurry to come back so soon as I'm not from around these parts and there's a heck of a lot more to discover in this town.  But by the same token, if you're not from around these parts, it's a "must-do" in the truest sense of the word.

26 St John Street
Tel: +44 20 3301 8069

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