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.

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.