Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Review of St John Bread and Wine

Had dinner at St John Bread and Wine tonight (£100 for 2, plus service: 2 starters, 2 mains, 2 desserts, 1 wine, 1 water, 1 espresso, 2 wines + 2 eccles cakes + 1 sourdough to take away).

Overall pretty happy with it. Mallard terrine £6.40 was well flavoured but served too cold + girolles, parlsey and garlic £12.80 (served on toasted bread) was a generous size but the mushrooms lacked flavour and/or were overpowered by the garlic.

Braised Lamb Saddle, Carrots & Barley 14.00 was very good + very generous. My Partridge & Bread Sauce 19.50 was accurately cooked + served with nice cooking juices, + had a strong flavour. I can't say I enjoyed it though - I am not sure what all the fuss is about with seasonal expensive game. £ for £ I think they fare badly in comparison with some confit duck or chicken leg or a bit of beef skirt.

Desserts were Apple & Cider Sorbet (very nice but a bit sweet for me) and Prune Tart & Vanilla Ice Cream 6.00 (the tart was a warm tart fine + unfortunately the prunes had not been stoned. That was a mistake I presume - I can't think of a reason for leaving them in and not warning the customer. I think prunes work better in a frangipane tart but it was very nice nevertheless.)

Illy espresso gets a 7/10 and the house white VIN DE PAYS D'OC (2002) St John Viognier £15 was v good.

Service was a little patchy - at times they seemed more interested in chatting + playing amongst themselves: that's fine in this type of restaurant but only if your customers haven't been waiting too long for the bill, the coffee, missing a wine menu (no dessert wine for me then)...+ one of them greeted me as if I were the local big issue seller got lost.

Anyway, I would go back, + will for the bread alone: still the best in London.

AA Gill did a good review of the place in 2003, which I sort of agree with.
There were others [menu choices], though, that suffered from that English belief that hardship itself is a virtue. Such as duck neck, chicory and watercress. Eating duck’s necks is like eating soggy dog breath. The pig-cheek ham on sourdough toast was an exercise in competitive chewing for little reward except the satisfaction of knowing you’d done it and that your stool would be a thing of rough beauty. ...But none of this is really the point. What makes customers loyal to St John is that this, at last, is food that speaks their language and says decent, kind and quietly flattering things about them and their families. This is the restaurant that we might have got if George Orwell had married Elizabeth David. It’s that winning home-grown combination of casual austerity with flashes of spectacular opulence, like an old tweed jacket with a paisley silk lining. You can love this place as much for what it isn’t as for what it is. And that, too, seems to be very, very us.

It is the kind of place to go to celebrate simplicity and quality, it is not a place of luxury + doesn't pretend to be. It is not romantic.
I do feel there is a bit of a danger of this idea of hairshirted virtue disappearing up its own backside. The Italian equivalent of this type of food is served up in sawdust trattorias where full blown meals cost the same as the partridge I ate. And this is in Milan and Rome, hardly cheap cities. Unfortunately, there isn't really an indigenous equivalent in this country, so most homegrown attempts, in London at least, seem to end up positioning themselves as some kind of gastronomic saviour. If you are going to charge big prices for good produce served simply you need to make sure everything else is top notch (the service, the decour...) because the food itself doesn't require that much effort compared to more technically demanding menus. I guess I am only tangentially having a go at St John but I hope their good press is not going to their heads.


Blogger Sam said...

I am interested in the bread at Saint Johns.
You mention Sourdough. it seems you really like it.
I never really was faced with sourdough until I moved to San Francisco. It's everywhere here. I don't like it and sometimes yearn for the familiar bread of my previous life in the UK.
Crusty whites, floury bloomers, flat tins, split tins, granary, none of which seem to be common, or available even, over here, Stateside, in SF.
Specially I miss a lttle white loaf I used to buy every Saturday from a little local organic food shop on Royal Hill in Greenwich. The van used to deliver just a few, still warm, loaves at around 10am and I used to time my visit perfectly to make sure I didnt miss out on that weekly treat.

8 October 2004 at 01:06  
Blogger Peter A Rossi said...

I know what you mean about sourdough - it seems it is the fashionable bread at the moment. However, it is unusual amongst fashionable things in that it has some substance - it tastes lovely. For me, it is the combination of a chewy, springy texture, and a mildly sour, slightly fruity taste. The loaves do stay fresh longer than yeast based bread. I have bought bad sourdough in London + good white open textured bread (St John does a good one). A couple of slices of good sourdough and a bit of meat and/or veg makes a meal.
I can't say I have much affection for the bog standard english white loaf, except perhaps for toast, pan perdu + bread + butter pud. I have to say though, that english bread does best Italian bread by a long way. They make awful bread!
I remember during a brief visit to SF in Jan 2003 that there was sourdough everywhere, one make in particular (I forget the name). Down at the docks (where the seals are...I forget again) they were selling chowder + seafood in hollowed out loaves.

8 October 2004 at 21:24  
Blogger Sam said...

sounds like boudin in the Wharf which is too sour for me by far.Its one of the sourer ones

we have a place in SF called Tartine. Does the most wonderful bread called "Country Loaf" it's like a levain without the sourness.
It comes out of the oven at 4pm and only available wednesday though sunday.
it's a drive too - i wouldnt make the journey if it wasnt worth it.

I toast my bread 95% of the time btw
nothing like toast with butter and marmite...
or just plain hot toast and cold fresh butter

9 October 2004 at 00:34  

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