Address: 26 St John St, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4AY
Bookings: no booking but advised
As I have said before in these pages, St John Bread and Wine used to act as a food oasis during the long, arduous journeys (approximately 15 minutes, if walking slowly) between where we work in the City and the minuscule, grubby flat I used to occupy in Aldgate. Like nomads seeking refreshment after days in the desert, we would slump down in its chairs, swig on a diet coke, and scan its fresh, ever evolving menu, sure of nourishment and refreshment.
Given the importance of this restaurant to us, it was inevitable that we would seek out the original, St John, named after the street it sits on in Smithfield. For a restaurant that does magisterial things with meat, and particularly with pigs, it is perfectly located, just a leap away from Smithfield Market, where meat has been sold continuously for almost a thousand years. I have walked to work past this market with the dawn breaking, and had to step over little rivulets of blood as animal after animal is hauled out of the back of trucks to be sold to restaurants across London.
We have tried to get into St John on a number of occasions, only to be turned away due to lack of space, so it was with some excitement that we took our seats last week. St John is much like its offshoot. It serves many of the same things. It has an adoration of the pig. It has the same look and feel, the simple, hard white walls, the spartan furnishing, the mildly uncomfortable chairs, the serious, well-informed serving staff. It is much larger.
The core ethos is the same though. There is a no nonsense feel to the place, as if there is no time to fuss over anything except the quality of the food. And that’s fine by me.
First to the table was a brown crab on toast with half a lemon ready to squeeze. It was a delight, the crab soft and fresh, perfectly moist, kicked into gear by the lemon, the toast fresh and crunchy, made at the in-house bakery. We followed this with a Welsh rarebit, a thick layer of cheese infused with mustard, served on a massive wedge of bread an inch thick, Lea and Perrins sauce sprinkled on top. This was solid, fortifying food, a simple dish done very, very well.
It would be wrong to go to St John and order nothing made from a pig, a bit like driving through Arizona without stopping at the Grand Canyon, or holidaying in France without donning a beret and eating a baguette. So, we ordered the pork and pistachio terrine, which was earthy, coarse and powerful, full of chunks that I couldn’t quite identify, but that I knew were delicious.
The only dish that disappointed us was a roast mallard with braised red cabbage. It was somewhat dry, and it must have been a lean, lanky duck, because we found ourselves with considerably more bone than meat. This may have been an unintentional blessing, since both of us have sworn to lose weight this year, but any benefits will have been cancelled out by finishing with a bread and butter pudding, a great ball of vanilla ice-cream melting rapidly on top.
I explained to my partner in culinary crime that even the most disciplined dieters have one “cheat day” a week, where rules are discarded for the day, and you gorge on whatever you like. We are just having our entire years’ worth of cheat days in January…
There is also some change in our top 10 restaurant list: St John is in, Ember Yard is out. To deny this mecca of food a spot in the top 10 would be a culinary crime.