Different people had different things to say about St. John Bread & Wine and they were invariably good. But something that a Swedish acquaintance said got stuck in my mind. Our conversation drifted over to good restaurants in London over, well, dinner one night.
"You must go to St. John, their food is marvellous!" he exclaimed.
"Really? How's that so?" I got curious while shoving an overcooked steak into my mouth.
He paused, closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and after a prolong silence, he opened his eyes and said something that would probably be up there among the understatements of all time.
"You know, at St. John, when you ordered spinach, you are served spinach. Nothing fancy, just spinach."
I didn't know what to make of it at that point in time. But anything would taste way better than the pathetic rubbery steak in front of me.
A couple of months later, we finally get down to making a reservation at St John Bread & Wine. With high expectations, we stepped into St John on a Monday evening. For a moment, I thought that I had stepped into the wrong restaurant. The layout of St John at Spitalfields were sparten to say the least - bare wooden tables and chairs, without any frills. In fact, the interior looked like a local run down pub with lights fully lit.
The entire place was packed, which was a feat considering that it was late Monday evening. Once the host (the only guy dressed in a suit and looked totally out of place) confirmed our reservation, he led us to a creaky table. I was certain that the customers sure weren't here for the ambience.
After leaving us to our own devices for awhile, a stern lady came by and placed a single sheet (the menu apparently) in front of me. I was told by K that St John changed its menu according to what was in season: it was pheasant two weeks back and that was replaced by middlewhite (a breed of pigs originally from Yorkshire area). While there were fish on the menu, we noticed that they were served whole and both of us weren't keen to pick through bones so we settled for a slab of middlewhite with pig cheeks as starters.
While waiting, four thick slices of bread were laid in front of us with a small slab of butter. Considering that St John doubled up as a bakery as well, those bread were disappointing. They were cold and tasted as if they had been left in open air for some time, totally unlike that served at Hazev.
We were getting a bit restless when the pig cheeks (£6.40) finally arrived. A couple of fried strands accompanied with some token greens doused in mustard. We looked at each other in dismay. Half-heartedly, I popped a piece of the deep fried pig cheek into my mouth and for a split second, what the Swede said came back to me in a rush.
How should I describe it? The pig cheek was firm and didn't crumble when my fork thrust into it. But the fats literally melt the moment it entered my mouth, infusion my palate with its full flavour in an instant. That was how good it was. What was interesting was that the mustard doused greens came into play when I needed to cleanse the taste a bit - there was only so much fats one could ingest at one time.
Totally delighted with St John's pig cheeks, we couldn't wait for our middlewhite (£13.90). Like before, the middlewhile took quite a while. And like before, there was almost no presentation involved in the dish - a slab of still-pink pork with a thick crackle with four slices of lettuce carelessly cast beside it. I was wiser after what happened to the pig cheeks earlier and quickly cut myself a bite.
I guess what got people returning to St John Bread & Wine was that it served food the way it was. There was a time when a piece of meat (or a fish for that matter) could stand purely on its own as a dish. No condiments, no gravy, no fancy cut carrots immersed in sugar, just a simple slab of meat and that was exactly what the middlewhite was.
After TwinkleToe posted earlier about St John's Madelines (£3.70 for 6), I know I had to try it. It didn't disappoint. It came freshly baked and was piping hot. The interior was light and the slightly crisp exterior had just a tinge of honey. It was superb with a pot of English Breakfast tea.
St John Bread & Wine would definitely not be for those who placed a premium on the entire dining experience because it simply did not match up; the place was understaffed and service was hard to come by, not to mention the sparten décor. After requesting for the bill for quite awhile, a female staff walked over, inserted my card into a handheld payment device, handed it over to me and "Just follow the instructions" before striding off (there was an inbuilt gratuity request in the device). To be sure, I looked around and the people on the next table were dutifully figuring out the payment device as well.
As what my acquaintance said, "You know, at St. John, when you ordered spinach, you are served spinach. Nothing fancy, just spinach."
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