I can't decide whether it's the psychiatric ward uniform or its total disregard of food presentation that makes St John Bar and Restaurant a unique English icon. Other than its £300 roast suckling pig that has a minimum requirement of ten guests, St John is known for its madeleines, which are made on the spot and require a minimum waiting time of fifteen minutes. One thing's for sure, you can never accuse St John as pretentious and probably for that reason alone, it will never ever be considered as part of London's fine dining scene. Not that its loyal customers ever give a hoot really.
We were at St John Bread and Wine along Commercial Street quite some time back and have always wanted to pay its flagship restaurant near Smithfield Market a visit. Interestingly, the building that St John currently occupies was a former ham and bacon smokehouse. Other than a lick of white paint, the interior has been left pretty much as it was when St John first took over the premises in 1994. The floor still is a patch of bare pockmarked concrete with unplastered brick wall all round. A skylight installed 20 foot up high dominates the main hall, which is now the bakery and bar section. The main dining area (former meat packing rooms) is a short flight of stairs up.
Lunch service ends at 3pm and it was five minutes before that when we arrived that afternoon. The host greeted us warmly and quickly led us to a table. Another staff promptly came us to us two minutes later and politely reminded us that the kitchen was about to close and whether we were ready to order.
Wife cocked her eyebrows across the table. That wasn't what we expected at all for the service staff at St John Bread and Wine was at best indifferent bordering on rude. In fact, we went to St John Bar and Restaurant fully expecting to be treated like dirt (which says tons about its food really). We felt much better trekking all the way down to Smithfield Market already.
That said, we were a bit disappointed that pigs' cheeks weren't on the menu that day but were intrigued by pheasant and trotter pie (£34) that the opposite table ordered. Though it says on the menu that the pie is to be shared by two, it can easily feed four light eaters judging by its size. Perhaps we will have that when we have company for our next visit.
Anyway, our orders arrive exactly five minutes later. Either the kitchen was almost done for the day or the cooks were anxious to call it a day. I'm fine either way so long that the dishes turned out fine. The mussels, celeriac and red onion (£7.80) was refreshing to the palate and the bit of lamb lettuce that the mussels were perched on added to that. A nice little appetizer it is.
My smoked haddock (£17.80) came with saffron and accompanied with parsnip. Unlike the salmon at Medcalf, there is no mashed potatoes to distract from the smoked haddock. Instead, three clunky slices of honeyed parsnip laid on its side. Haddock sliced away cleanly and its subtle saltiness was nicely complemented with the sweet parsnip.
Wife's middlewhite (£23.50) came with chard and white beans. The chard reminded us of the Chinese 'mei cai', which is sometimes served with chopped up pork. Naturally, we found this dish quite to our liking. Loved the middlewhite's cackling skin though the dish can be served warmer. However, I thought that this one is a bit overpriced - a similar dish ordered at St John cost just half of that earlier in the year. Surely the addition of chard can't bump up the price by that much, can it?
No meal at St John can be without the mandatory madeleines. Half a dozen still cost £3.70 as before. We made sure that we ordered this right before the end of our main courses so that they would arrive just in time. While the madeleines weren't the best looking cakes but St John's madelelines tasted exactly as I remembered them to be. Almost crusty on the exterior with a soft, moist, and slightly sweet interior. Top it up with a pot of Earl Grey and it can easily beat any scones and cream.
There was a flash of "St John Bread and Wine" service at the end of our meal when a sullen looking waitress hovered around our table and literally grabbed any empty plates at the first possible instance. We felt as if we were overstaying our welcome despite the restaurant still half filled. Then three separate tables started to chorused birthday songs one after another and all was forgotten as we joined in the applause.
St John remains my top choice for traditional English food. That said, I'm not sure whether it would be the place to dine at if you are to have only one dinner in London. While the food's quality is consistently good, its service remains hit or miss. But if you are looking for a quirky English restaurant, look no further than St John Bar and Restaurant.
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