I suffer from a condition that, I suspect, a lot of Londoners have - it's the kind of condition where we're always striving for that next buzz, the next discovery of something new, exciting, fresh, perhaps a hint of one-upmanship (admit it). In this town where restaurants seem to be opening every other minute, there's a relentless scrabble to get to it first, get to it quick, get it while it's hot.
Last week I made plans to meet a friend for dinner, and I hurriedly rattled off my internal Rolodex of new places we should go and be adventurous at. Nope. I pulled out my iPhone list of places I want to try. On that wet, dark January night none of them appealed, and I floundered. A message came through. "Sudden feeling. St. John?" I leapt on my bike.
I'm shaking that condition off now. I don't want to get there first. I don't want to be the first-week-nerves guinea pig, bombarding them with my expectation. I want them to settle into their stride and relax into it a bit. I want to be looked after by people who are relaxed, perhaps old hat at this. That's why I'd floundered.
St. John Bread and Wine opened in 2003. 2003! I was mid-way through my A-Levels then. The room is warmer than the original Farringdon location, which I find austere to the point of frosty. The menu reads like a dream of things I just really want to eat, and when the waiter came to take our order, we spent 10 minutes doing an entire U-turn of it with him.
Roast shallots with goats curd and mint (£8.40) came topped with a tangle of mustard-dressed rocket. The kitchen forgot about the mint entirely, though given we didn't notice until almost the last bite perhaps it wasn't necessary. The shallots were roasted to complete sweetness and collapse, with only a hint of shape left to them. The sharpness of the mustard dressing, the pepper of the rocket and the cream of the goats curd made us want more each mouthful, each bite. It's the fourth time my friend has had this, testament to how good it was. Obviously the bread is stellar, being St. John's bakery hub - right in front of me, I kept eyeing up loaves to take away, and doughnuts oozing with filling under a tented canopy.
Cold middlewhite pork with dressed leaves and radishes (£8.80) was exactly what it was. Why don't I ever have any leftover roasted meats to create this with? The salad itself had a tangle of bitter leaves, offset by another mustard-heavy dressing. Oh, if they could bottle that dressing I would buy it by the gallon. Nose-clearing, tangy joy.
I was going to use this as the opening photo but apparently not everyone eats fish heads, and some are a bit squeamish about this sort of thing? As soon as we saw the hake head on the Specials board at £24.60 for two, my friend insisted it was the most 'me' menu item ever, and therefore it was destiny for us to order it. I think that's in reference to the Malaysian fish head curry that I insisted we include a photo for in my cookbook, which scared the hell out of everyone. Fergus Henderson, Chef Patron of St. John, once said
This was served with leeks slathered in aioli. The head was roasted, and included some neck for extra meatiness, the pearly white meat pulling away from the skin and bones easily. I really love hake; substantial yet light and with just the most delicate texture. We dug around that head, pulling out the best nuggets just behind and under the eyes, stopping short at the eyeballs themselves. The leek-y aioli accompaniment was good, though the aioli a little on the timid side for me. I felt a little hard done by in the lack of potato filler. No fish n' chips?
Still, it made room for dessert, which my unconscionable friend ordered three of while I popped to the ladies. Hokey pokey ice cream, all three enormous scoops of it, the chocolate terrine with brandied prunes, and of course one cannot pass up on the madeleines, pictured top. Never pass on the madeleines, for they are the best £4.50 (per half dozen) you'll spend. Our table was awash with puddings, and envious eyes darted over at us. There we were, on January 6th, decadence personified. I regret nothing, not that light, moussey chocolate with the fudgy prunes and tangy creme fraiche, no. Not the cold crunch of the honeycomb swirled within the ice cream that we could barely finish, save dipping our already honey-sweet cakes into. Even less so when I had a slightly stale madeleine to accompany my cup of tea the following morning.
With service and a bottle of house white, labelled by St. John simply as 'Blanc', our bill reached us at just clear of £90. We spent 3 hours there, whiling the evening away, happy as clams.
94-96 Commercial Street