With the exit of Michelin starred, St. John from the The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list a couple of weeks back – probably the most notable thing to happen to it in recent memory – I finally found the motivation to give it a whirl. Supposedly, the diminished British contingent on the newly published list isn’t a reflection of weakening standards in the UK; but rather a bolstering of talent internationally. I’m as cynical as they come, so always suspect a level of politics and favouritism in lists of this kind. That, and a total lack of transparency mean they do little for me other than stir some intrigue.
Anyway, St. John had been included and hopping around the top 50 since 2003, which leaves me scratching my head, because I fail to comprehend how anyone privileged enough to be on a panel of this sort, could possibly fail to identify fifty restaurants on the surface of the planet which better it. I mean, don’t get me wrong; this is a good restaurant, with plenty going for it – but is it amongst the very best this world has to offer? Not a chance; not in the reality I inhabit.
The Georgian building began life as a smokehouse until 1967, and has since been used as a greenhouse, a Chinese beer store, a squat, and even to house the odd rave. Apparently the interior has seen little change over that time. The installation of a bar with 20ft skylights; a bakery and kitchen; and a meagre coat of white paint, are about the size of the difference. The bar area has an understated, almost canteen-like feel. The worn, wooden floorboards and overall cheapness is part of the no-fuss charm. The main dining area exudes the same ‘used and abused’ demeanour and is bustling with city-workers pumped so full of wine, it borders on raucous.
I’m always a fan of kitchens that are somewhat visible to the diners. The willingness of a kitchen to expose itself demonstrates a reassuring self-confidence in its running and competence. There’s something palpable about the smoke, the smells and the clatter of the chefs, which makes it all less clinical. It reminds you that you are about to be fed; and that food didn’t materialise out of nothingness onto a plate in a waiter’s hands – somebody made it.
Roast bone marrow & parsley salad £7.20
The cooking is British and proud, ranging from Arbroath Smokies to Welsh rarebit to guinea fowl. I start with the signature dish of roast bone marrow, served with a parsley salad and toast on which to spread the nutritious marrow, as you scavenge it from the bone, like your cave-dwelling ancestors would have. Marrow is all about the salting, and this is one of the best examples in how to do it right.
Braised octopus, potato & red onion £8.50
A cold octopus dish rounds out my starters. Tentacles that were braised in their own juices and white wine, plated up with slices of potato and red onions. The tough tentacles harbour the essence of something formidable and meaty from the sea.
Braised Tamworth, shallots, mustard & mash £19.10
Another braised offering is my main. The fat-ridden shoulder of this Tamworth swine must have been simmering in juices for quite some time: it offers no contest to my knife which glides through, effortlessly. The flavour isn’t the strongest and needs some help, which comes in the form of a well-balanced mustard sauce and creamy mash. This is a good example of what I call, ‘solid’. Not a dish I’d go home and tell my friends about – if you believe I have any.
Chocolate slice & prunes £7.50
Desserts are good. The chocolate slice has the kind of richness a choc-head like me cries out for on a down-day. A dollop of cream and two prunes soften the hit for wimps that would find it too much on its own.
Madeleines half dozen £4.20
I end with a half-dozen Madeleines, which are little sponges baked in moulded pans with shell-like depressions, to give them their characteristic shape. The inners are just about moist and light enough to pass for pleasing.
My bill including service, came to £60, for two starters, a main, two desserts and two cokes – for a regular human being, chop that down to about £40 per head, which isn’t too bad at all. The hospitable pricing extends to the wine list, with most bottles landing in the £25-£45 range; but it doesn’t reach as far as the service, who say all the right things, yet leave me with an aftertaste of the disingenuous; and a front of house who looked at me with the scornful eyes of someone who’d wronged his family, when I asked to be moved to a table by a window.
That aside, I can still say that I enjoyed my meal at St. John, though it didn’t rock my world. I’d go back to try the rarebit and Eccles cake which were being doled out to seemingly happy customers. I don’t get the feeling that being dropped from the ’50 Best Restaurants’ list will have any impact on its ongoing success. They must be doing something right, because every seat had a bum in it.
food : 8/10
service : 6.5/10
ambience : 7/10
value : 7.5/10
St. JOHN Bar and Restaurant
26 St. John Street, London, EC1M 4AY
020 3301 8069