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St John Restaurant Review

Drew Smith and conversations with granny

Published on April 25th 2012.

St John Restaurant Review

St JOHN is, I might term, a political restaurant.

It is lovable off-ball, wide ball, curve ball and it makes me smirk when I see it mentioned on a list of London or even the world best restaurants.

It is also political in that it is wonderfully, errrr, English. Eccles cake with a wedge of Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese is illuminating here in the way most of the Eccles cakes in your life probably have never been, the currants inside like vegetarian caviar.

Perhaps it is, but I would not take my aunt there or even a visiting business associate who might be puzzled by the iconic beef bones with marrow and rough and tumble of a parsley salad. I only ever go with people who like food.

You could imagine an episode of Gordon Ramsay going round the former smokehouse and complaining that there are no canapés, no seabass, no filet mignon, no wood fired oven. No Gordon, we have our own bakery.

StjohnpigStjohnpigThe first part of its politics is that it is genuinely seasonal in a way that would terrify most chefs let alone caterers. The menu is re-written daily, in fact twice a day. It picks up the unexpected and cooks it, not perhaps in unexpected ways but revivalist.

I am looking here at chitterlings, fried and served with lentils. How do you like your chitterlings done granny?

They are insides, gran, of a pig. Ok I understand you might not want to know. Digestive thingies. Your tubes, gran. Have the langoustines instead - yes they are still in their shells. No that is not Helman's either. Shall we just have some nice asparagus in melted butter?

There is usually though something that ought to just about please most tastes, most moods, most situations. It is food you probably do want to eat not prissy statements or ego food.

StjohnlangoustinesStjohnlangoustinesA party of business suits have a big table out the front and are sharing a whole suckling pig. Back here in the dining room proper - and it is a dining room in an old fashioned sense - we are being offered roast suckling kid instead – that’s goat, granny - with chicory and anchovies. Yes gran suckling does mean that.

There is a certain sense of audacity, even bravura in a main course that is just courgettes and butter beans, never mind duck hearts with beans and pickled walnuts. Part of the politics is just picking up ingredients that other people do not eat - nose to tail, as Fergus Henderson likes to call it. This appeals to the kind of people who were taught to eat everything up and not leave anything on their plates or in this case not leave anything lying around in the market. A socialist make do. Eat it all up and save the planet.

The star of the first dishes above was actually the octopus with potatoes and red onions, the fish a tad overboiled but integrating pinkly with the lushness of the potato and softness of the onion and given a green swirl of leaves run through it. Great with their own bread which comes as arched slices, about half a loaf per table.  Most people around were going for the fish too - whole lemon sole on the bone with tartar, smoked haddock with saffron mash.

It is also political in that it is wonderfully, errrr, English. Eccles cake with a wedge of Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese is illuminating here in the way most of the Eccles cakes in your life probably have never been, the currants inside like vegetarian caviar.

The bread pudding is brown bread, and covered with a scoop of butterscotch ice cream. The ‘30s, ‘40s, the ‘50s food of England, long forgotten, if any of us really remember it at all. This is what school food should be, Jamie, you learn a lot.

You learn perhaps English food was not always as bad as we think it was, that it had pride and vision and vocabulary which was just dislocated by world wars. Don’t you agree, gran?

StjohnecclesStjohnecclesOf course its reputation and gongs means that it is not so cheap despite the ingredients mostly being off cuts (note to aspiring chefs, yes you can get your margins down by changing the menu this way).

It's more expensive than the twin Rochelle Canteen run by Fergus's wife Margot which if anything has the edge – or maybe the word is touch -  culinary wise, being that much smaller, that much more focussed and often a shade more French, but only open at lunch.

On the same day, you think the menus might be similar, but they are not, and she is serving ox tongue with horseradish, skate with monk’s beard and anchovy which shows the breadth of the approach.  But all round St John is the restaurant with airs and graces in a laid back sense that they know what they are about without having to explain it all, and less caffe and less hugger mugger than their Spitalfields bakery. Not too busy either on a wet Monday lunch.

We drank, of course, the excellent St John claret which took the bill over £50 each. Like the claret, I would also say that it has got better over the years.


St. John,  26 St. John Street EC1M 4AY  020 3301 8069 (Rochelle Canteen,  Arnold Circus London E2 7ES 020 7729 5677)

Rating: 17/20
Food: 8/10
Service: 4/5
Ambience: 5/5

PLEASE NOTE: Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away.

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