St. John

Address: 26 St John St, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4AY
Bookings: no booking but advised
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 8/10

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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.

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 22.41.00We 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.

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 22.42.00It 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.

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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.


Iberica

Address: 89 Turnmill St, London EC1M 5QU
Bookings: Walk in
Day: Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.29.52Farringdon is one of London’s neglected food neighbourhoods, somewhat overshadowed by adjacent Clerkenwell, and entirely drowned out by the clamour around Soho’s ever evolving warren of innovative, exciting places to eat. But Farringdon is littered with a good batch of restaurants that can hold their own: St JOHN, Comptoir Gascon, Polpo, Sosharu and Foxlow spring to mind. And I can now add Iberica to the list.

Iberica fails the very first test of the arch food snob, its success having seen it evolve into a chain restaurant, and not even a chain with the decency to restrict itself to London! Led by chef Nacho Manzano, it has ventured outside the capital and now has outlets in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. But if the food is nice, then why hold an owner’s ambition against him?

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.29.36And the food is pretty good here. We started off with a charcuterie and cheese board, a trio of hams opulent in their redness and rich in their flavour, paired nicely with some goat’s and cow’s cheeses. Croquetas with Serrano ham were warm little golden nuggets of flavour, moist and light as a cloud. The fact that they were served in an uneven number almost drove an irreparable rift between my partner in culinary crime and I, but in an act of chivalry (and also afraid of losing a finger), I allowed her the extra croqueta.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.28.59A pair of miniature pork burgers with Pippara peppers were a delight to eat, sharp and flavoursome.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.28.39The low point of the meal was some asparagus on toast with cheese, which even a heavily touched up photograph can’t make look particularly appetising. The toast was bland and soggy, the cheese flavourless, and the runty little stalks of asparagus were pitiful even to look at. I ate them just to put them out of their misery.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.30.16A dessert of churros was wickedly nice, buttery, crisped on the outside, soft on the inside, caked in sugar. The only drawback was that the rich dark chocolate was literally scolding hot, as I discovered when I dripped some on my forearm as I manoeuvred a churro towards my mouth. I spent the rest of the dinner periodically dabbing at my arm with an ice cube.

Anyway, put your food snobbery aside and visit Iberica. Perhaps even the Glasgow branch.


Sosharu

Address:  64 Turnmill St, London EC1M 5RR
Bookings: Booked through Bookatable – 6 dishes and a glass of wine for £33.50
Day: Tuesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.35.01Sosharu is restaurant mogul Jason Atherton’s Japanese offering in London. It has received something of a mixed reception since opening in March 2016, a feeling that yet another restaurant in London (his 7th), in yet another cuisine, might be a gastronomic bridge too far.

But I have always liked it. It occupies a slightly precarious place at the very foot of our top 10 London restaurants list. It is always on the cusp of eviction in favour of a slightly bolder, more gripping number, but then salvages itself at the last moment with an interesting twist on something Japanese.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.34.41The restaurant itself is a big space opposite Farringdon station, the lights dimmed low, large wooden screens dividing the tables, and soothing, ambient music playing in the background, giving the restaurant the look and feel of a luxury oriental massage parlour or spa.

Thoughts of shiatsu massage and aromatic exfoliators are chased away by the arrival at the table of a pair of open temaki sushi, one tuna and the other salmon, a small bottle of lightly spiced mayonnaise sat between them. The temaki are cupped in toasted nori, and the effect is delightful, each bite cool and crispy, little sushi sandwiches which can be wolfed down in a couple of bites.

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Lined up on the side were six immaculate little sashimi pieces, some salmon, some sea bream, the others perhaps sea bass, the waiter’s heavily accented diction leaving me uncertain, but suffice to say it was something from the sea. These were a little limp and unloved, and slipped regretfully down the throat, the flavour washed rapidly away with a swig of diet coke.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.35.19We then shared a delicious, sprightly salad, which had been thoroughly doused in a sweet vinegar dressing which we both loved. The salad was littered with tiny little crisped grains of rice, which tasted for all the world like little pieces of popcorn, and worked well against the soft sheets of lettuce and chunks of refreshing pear and apple.

As if the restaurant was intentionally alternating the good and the bad, they then dumped a pair of pallid little chicken gyozas on the table, hidden away in a wooden bowl, the waiter escaping to the kitchen before we could lift the lid to reveal the disappointing contents within. The gyoza were watery, the skin soft and translucent, providing a glimpse at the soggy contents within.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.34.16In fairness, I should at this point note that we were eating the heavily discounted Bookatable set menu, and so may well have been receiving the runts rather than the highlights of the kitchen, but nevertheless, we are good people, and deserved better than those two gyoza.

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Finally, we were presented with a pot of steaming rice, a slow-cooked egg whipped-in, and chunks of soft, golden yakitori chicken on the side. This was delicious, warm and nourishing, heat and flavour radiating from the stone bowl that sat in between us. My partner in culinary crime grasped the ladle with the clenched fist of a woman with a purpose, and dug into the rice with gusto.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.34.27It was a strong finish to a roller-coaster of a meal. Yet again, Sosharu had ridden to the very edge of being cast out forever from Life at the End of a Fork’s exclusive list of finest London restaurants, only to redeem itself at the 11th hour. It is safe. For now…


Polpo

Address: 3 Cowcross St, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 6DR
Bookings: no booking
Day: Wednesday
Meal: dinner
Price: £
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.57.17Polpo is a regular pit stop for Life at the end of a fork when hunger beckons. Its Farringdon branch sits in between work in the City and the flat in Central London, and many of our walks home have been interrupted by a half-dozen dishes of its Italian tapas.

Given the mournful English weather, London isn’t renowned for alfresco dining, but Polpo does have a very thin strip of rickety tables slung out on Cowcross Street, next to a Subway sandwich outlet. The view isn’t the sort of stuff that dreams are made of, although a very good replica of Ruben’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ painting, hung, bizarrely, round the back of Fabric nightclub, can just be viewed down the end of an alleyway opposite.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.47.30Taking advantage of one of the (likely) few remaining warm days of the British summer, we stopped off the other evening for dinner. The summer sunlight was lingering, throwing fingers of gold across the tables, bathing the diners in a soothing warmth. Sitting down at one of the tables, we savoured the remnants of the summer, mindful of Jon Snow’s endless lament: “winter is coming…”.

We ordered some stuffed fried olives. I am not normally a fan of olives, finding them sour and unrewarding, but frying them in batter and stuffing them did enough to mask the actual flavour of the olives, and made for a tasty snack. Next on our table were some potato and parmesan croquettes, which were warm and nicely textured.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.47.14A crab and chickpea crostini was bland, and my partner in culinary crime turned her nose up at it after one small mouthful, leaving me to battle through as much of it as I could bear. The crab tasted as if it had spent more time sitting in the fridge drying out than it ever had exploring the freshness of the ocean, while the chickpea was entirely flavourless.

Finally, we ate a prosciutto & gorgonzola pizza. Everything on top of the pizza was pleasant enough, although to my palette the actual dough of the pizza was hardly cooked. It reminded me of one of those frozen pizzas you desperately try to heat in the oven at university so that the base is cooked enough to be edible, but without the ham, onions and mushrooms that top the thing being utterly incinerated. It is a difficult thing to achieve…

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.46.46In sum, Polpo is a decent restaurant… if you’re hungry and you’re walking right past it. But take Life at the end of a fork’s advice, and don’t travel far and wide to seek it out. And if you do, make sure they leave the crab in the fridge.

 


St John Bread and Wine

Address: 94-96 Commercial St, London E1 6LZ
Bookings: no booking
Day: Friday
Meal: dinner
Price: £££ (including alcohol)
Rating: 8/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.10Probably the best restaurant in the City, St John Bread and Wine is based on Commercial Street, a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street Station, in the shadow of Christ Church, Spitalfields. It is an offshoot of St. John restaurant in Smithfield, Farringdon, which was opened by Fergus Henderson in 1994, the eccentric looking chef with no formal training but a positive genius for taking neglected cuts of meat that people would normally run from in horror (think offal, or worse), and turning them into mouth-wateringly delectable dishes. Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.21St. John became a smash hit, nose to tail eating a culinary phenomenon, and Fergus Henderson a celebrity chef. In 2003, he opened his second restaurant, St. John Bread and Wine, which is where we found ourselves on Friday night.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.15.14St John Bread and Wine is a safe place to discover food. Its menu, changing and shuffling on a daily basis, is a treasure trove of surprises, rarities and oddities, along with the odd established classic. And because everything is always so fantastically cooked and flawlessly thought-out, closing your eyes and ordering bone marrow, or a serving of pig’s trotters, doesn’t really feel like such a risk. There is a sense of trust between diner and chef: if anyone can do it well, then St John Bread and Wine will do it well.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.31Having said all of the above, we weren’t remotely adventurous in our selection of dishes on Friday. We started off with a Welsh Rarebit, which I thought I’d never eaten before, only because I’d forgotten it was simply cheese on toast. However, true to form, St John Bread and Wine contrived to make the most childish of all dishes an excellent warm-up act: the cheese was loosened with milk and was a bubbling, golden colour, laid out on top of soft, absorbent bread an inch thick. A dash of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce gave the cheese a little sharpness.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.49Next up was perhaps the nicest pork terrine I have ever had in my life. It had an earthy, deep flavour to it, layered and subtle, and on at least a dozen separate occasions in the 24-hours since sitting eating the last forkful I have found myself day-dreaming of it, which is becoming a little worrying. A fresh tomato salad complemented it well.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.00A plate of cheeses ran the gamut of the farm, with goats, sheep and cow cheese, accompanied by quince and a stack of little oat cakes. Finally, we ordered venison, which came on a bed of white cabbage studded with little pieces of fried bacon. The venison was soft and succulent, the heart of each chunk almost as red as a strawberry.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.15.23My partner in culinary crime then ordered a bread and butter pudding with butter scotch sauce for dessert. The dish was so delicious that it rendered her speechless, which is an almost impossible thing to do, but always very welcome when it happens. She gobbled it down in record speed, scarcely pausing to breathe, before describing it as: “moist, warm… unbelievable.”Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.15.01

Anyone serious about restaurants must visit this place.