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St. John

Location: 26 St. John St., near Smithfields Market. London.

St. John carries the flag for nose-to-tail meat eating in the UK. I've read about it for years but didn't make it there until morganlf arranged for dinner there. Bonus: at long last, I got to meet her K. Once inside through the garage door, the whitewashed walls bring light to the bar. The space was once a driveway or a back alley, long since covered over and incorporated into the building which houses the restaurant itself. The all-white theme, deliberately reminiscent of a butcher's shop, is carried into the restaurant, up a few stairs from the bar. The ceiling is white, the row of sensible coat hooks which encircle the room are white, the linen is white.

The menu has the sort of terseness which comes from taking pride in an old school style of simplicity. It gets right to the point: "Squid and tomato"; "Guinea fowl & courgettes"; "Roast Middlewhite & turnips". Its a menu whose goals reward the reader educated in English food. Thanks to the past two years, I could explain to C. that cobnuts are a kind of Kentish hazelnut. Middlewhite wasn't actually on our menu - it is on the website's sampler - but it's a kind of pig. As for the intriguing "Fennel & Berkswell" and "Cheesecake and Marc", we had to ask. Berkswell, as it happens is a kind of cheese; Marc is a grappa-style of liquor.

We began with a solid round of appetizers. My roast bone marrow and parsley salad is their iconic dish. The bone kept the marrow so meltingly hot that I needed a extra napkin (provided) in addition to the dedicated implement for scraping it out on the slices of toasted hearty bread. Topped with a lovely parsley-and-shallot salad, the appetizer was slow to eat, but satisfying. C. polished off his lovely-looking beet, venison saddle, and pickled walnut before I could steal a bite. morganlf seemed quite satisfied with her tidily-organized skewer of bacon-wrapped snails, although, thanks to the bacon, it was a bit on the salty side. K. was reasonably impressed with the slightly tough slices of duck's heart served with celeriac mash. We were off to a fine start, although in retrospect, the appetizers were to prove the highlight of the meal.

For a main, I had meaty chitterlings and broad beans cooked to stewy softness, a well-balanced, very rich course which was a little too much for me to finish. morganlf's pigeon was on the bloody side, as she was warned in advance, which I think she found a little off-putting. K. and C. both went for the rabbit, which was exactly what it claimed to be: plain, unsauced rabbit, with a side of carrots and aioli. Since neither commented much on their dishes, I presume they found it competent but not overly inspiring. We ordered sides as well, nicely cooked greens and a rather spicy Welsh rarebit.

Although we were all fairly full at this point from a voluntary surfeit of meat, we pushed on to what is usually the most important course of any meal: dessert. We were, after all, celebrating a birthday, if a belated one. There were only two things wrong with my rich bread pudding, neither of which can in any way be blamed on the restaurant: I really wanted something light and fruity and ordered bread pudding anyways; and the dense, currant-flecked pudding, sided with vanilla ice cream, tasted just like Christmas pudding, and I really wasn't in the mood for Christmas that day. C. had a nicely tart plum crumble with Jersey cream, and morganlf ate a decadently rich bitter chocolate pudding with hazelnut biscuits and prunes. K. finished his meal with a cheesecake which tasted overcooked - mealy and awkward to eat, if with a fundamentally good flavor. Alas, much as orange liquor is a wonderful thing to taste of, it was not to K.'s tastes.

Service was excellent throughout, attentive and well-informed on both food and wine list. We chose a bottle of Malassagne Picpoul de Pinet, intrigued by the unknown-to-us varietal and the obligingly-useful description of it given by our primary server.

The meal's weaknesses were more a result of our tastes and expectations than many particular weaknesses on the part of the restaurant. (The cheesecake really wasn't a good one though.) The appetizers were solid, and there were minor highlights throughout the meal. Ultimately though, St. John succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do - straightforward, competent meats, often lesser-used cuts, whose accompaniaments are, by and large, classically English. This is traditional English cooking without the overcooked vegetables, and with a great deal of affection for those traditions. It's classy pub fare in a restaurant setting. It's a menu with Eccles cake and cobnuts. But for all this tradition, it's located at the edge of the City, with prices to match.

With few exceptions, what St. John does, it does well. Don't go there if you want anything fancy. Don't go there if your budget is tight. Do go there if you're hungry for highly-competent meaty English comfort fare.*

* Note: they do always have one veggie main each day.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
nou
Aug. 15th, 2007 07:27 pm (UTC)
I have heard elsewhere on the internet that St John has been slipping recently. I'm kind of tempted to never go back, to avoid tainting my very good memories of dinners past...

I used to pick cobnuts when I lived in Oxford — I didn't realise they were associated with Kent.

Thanks for posting this review; it reminded me that I'd been meaning to get around to adding St John to RGL! I put up a page with my possibly-out-of-date observations, and linked this review for a fresher perspective.
sollersuk
Aug. 15th, 2007 08:11 pm (UTC)
Mmmm... flessh... not sure whether I dare tell miapatrick about this.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )