Thursday, August 14, 2014
The problem with being a food lover in a great city full of fun stuff to do, is that at the end of the day - after doing all that stuff - it's hard to muster the energy for an evening of fine dining. We solved that dilemma by keeping our eating in London pretty casual for the most part, with the exception of two pre-planned meals: lunch at St. John and dinner at the Clove Club. Other places I strongly considered: The River Cafe, Wild Honey, Arbutus, the Ledbury (which was booked solid for the week) and Upstairs at Ten Bells.
I had heard about St. John from several people and it seemed like a great "only in London" dining experience. A chance to try some real British food. My main quandary was whether to do St. John Smithfield, or St. John Bread and Wine. Since this was our first visit to either and the location was slightly more central, I went with the original at Smithfield. Generally it seemed Bread & Wine might be more casual with a focus on smaller plates, but that's about all I could discern about the differences. When you walk into the building you pass through an airy enclosure holding the bar and the bakery counter - and then upstairs to the right is the dining room. It's white paper table cloths and rather formal service, but not quite fine dining exactly.
On the day we visited a large table in the center of the room was "Feasting" - which allowed them to order special dishes that aren't on the regular menu, such as heaping platters of whole crab and hog roast. It appeared to be a wedding party with the bride and groom on the far right, above. They were very chic and fab.
The menu at St. John changes daily - almost entirely. There are three things that are always on the menu. The bone marrow, the rarebit and the eccles cake (and possibly the madeleines, now that I think about it.) Other than that it's entirely fluid, and they actually post it ahead of every meal on their website. We had the bone marrow, broad beans & berkswell (a cheese) and the brown shrimp with cabbage to start - all of which are pictured below. The marrow was served with the traditional parsley, shallot and caper salad with a little mound of damp, gray salt. If you like marrow, and I do - it was terrific. The broad beans and berkswell was very good too - but the "brown shrimp and cabbage" was entirely different from what I was expecting, basically a slaw with parsley dressing and a few shrimp sprinkled in. For some reason I was expecting a hot dish, and I expected the shrimp to be a bit more prominent.
After receiving our first round, I realized the broad beans and brown shrimp were far more salad-esque than expected, so I canceled our order of an additional salad and substituted the welsh rarebit. I was really glad I did. If you were looking for a food that exemplifies the concept of umami, this is it. It's the English version of a Croque Monsieur - toast topped with a creamy strong paste of cheddar, mustard, worcestershire and ale - with even more worcestershire broiled on top. I thought it was amazing, but I think James thought it was a bit much. In any event, the recipe is here, maybe I'll give it a try around the holidays.
Finally, we capped off the savory portion of our meal with the braised rabbit with borlotti beans and aioli. This was nice, but somehow seemed a bit wan. We also considered the Plaice and the Kid Chop, so maybe we chose poorly. We weren't really interested in the "faggots" or the pigeon. The restaurant specializes in offal - Fergus Henderson, the chef, is basically the originator of "nose to tail" eating - so you can expect to see it all on the menu.
Things took an upswing with dessert. The Eton Mess was a delightful jumble of fresh strawberries, strawberry coulis, meringue and whipped cream. James had the Eccles cake with cheese - which was very similar to mince meat pie and almost as savory as the rest of our meal. A word about the wines. We asked for a white burgundy, and wound up with a Pouilly Fuisse. It was ok, but we really should have done better in that price range (49-50 pounds) given their focus on wine. James had a dessert wine with his eccles cake - it cried out for dessert wine for sure - but I seem to recall he wasn't too crazy about it. They weren't really a negative, but overall I thought the wines should be more of a positive under the circumstances.
Our feasting neighbors also had the Eton Mess for dessert - the groom poured the strawberry coulis over the wedding cake style dessert himself.
After dessert, we ordered the "madeleines" since they are a specialty of the house and were highly recommended in several reviews. All I can say is, they weren't madeleines. They looked like madeleines, with the humps and everything, but they had a scone-like biscuit flavor instead of the tender texture and buttery rich flavor of a madeleine.
Overall I enjoyed St. John and I'm glad we went - but there are a few drawbacks that give me pause. The service was just the slightest bit "sniffy" and I never quite settled into that warm, jovial feeling you want to have during a great meal. I think you have to enjoy a certain level of adventurous eating and be willing to give some deference to the restaurant in order to enjoy the experience. There's a smidge of that "lucky to be there" factor that many find off-putting. Altogether with that and the fact that (most of) the food we ate was good but not phenomenal, I'm hard pressed to say whether I'd rush back there if I found myself in London again tomorrow. Unless the invitation is for feasting - with platters heaped with whole crab and mounds of Eton Mess. In that case, count me in.
Posted by Alice Q. Foodie on Thursday, August 14, 2014