A number of staffers at britishfoodinamerica have been steady customers of Fergus Henderson’s St. John in Clerkenwell since it opened during the last century. Our devotion to his culinary ethos extends longer than that, for many of us also were regulars at Henderson’s first venture, the dining room that teetered above the French House in Soho. Henderson closed the operation over the French years ago, but now has extended his reach into the East End with St. John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields and returned to Soho with St. John Hotel.
He and his restaurants have been justly celebrated by both press and public for their distinctive application of traditional British foodways, their way with offal and their attention to detail. The quality of ingredients remains peerless, and the devotion to artisanal sources, heirloom breeds and pristine produce undiminished. If H. H. Richardson, the peerless American architect strove for forms that he described as ‘QUIET!’ for their clean, muscular tension, then Henderson (who, it is endlessly noted, trained in architecture too, is the master of QUIET! food. These are deceptively simple preparations that can knock you sideways.
St.John in the hot pot
St. John is by no means cheap, but remains good value set against the tariff at restaurants of comparable ambition, even if finding a bottle of wine that does not break the bank can be tough. We have not yet been lucky enough to visit Hotel, but its opening got us thinking about the relative merit of the other two spots.
The Clerkenwell setting of the first St. John would be hard to beat anywhere; as any follower of the food press knows, the restaurant finds itself quite consciously set, as in a play, within a disused smokehouse, which makes the space iconic both for its reference and in its scale.
Often the bar is too busy for the tenders to hear your order unless your rudeness prevails, which, after some time, it does, and usually for Worthington’s ‘Four X,’ but we should not pillory St. John for popularity: That is a good even if admittedly inconvenient thing that should be handled with care. At this time we must admit that at times neither patrons nor staff handle themselves with sufficient care, and that ‘Four X’ is not our favorite cask ale, but that would be to quibble. They do always have something in cask and that undeniably is a plus.
Once you climb the metal stair into the famously plain if slightly careworn dining room, however, you may encounter a chilly host or icy hostess who is unlikely to register any recognition even if, like many of us, you are a regular, but getting past an uncongenial maitre d’ is a rite of passage at many an ambitious restaurant, and St. John quite deliberately seeks not to prefer some diners over others, a sound policy if taken a little far in recent years.
Waitstaff can also disappoint, both in demeanor, which at times ranges from aloof all the way down to surly, and in verve. It is inexcusable, for example, when a restaurant fails to deliver the wine before serving the food, and this St. John serially has failed to do. Some waiters there also have become adept at looking through diners attempting to obtain their attention.
Why do we return? We do it for the food of course, but there again, the restaurant can falter. Guinea fowl may not be the easiest bird to cook but at this level of ambition there is no excuse for its cremation; and kidneys, while easy to cook, do need cooking and ought not to be served raw. This was not fashionably bloody offal, which in the case of kidneys we anyway find uncongenial, but rather something akin to the hearts torn beating from sacrifices atop the pyramid at Tenochititlan. Even so, both of our tablemates who noted the chilly and chilling bloodlines earned a contemptuous sneer from the waitress.
As deflating as these disappointments have been in contrast to the expectations that St. John elicits, it must be said that in culinary terms they represent aberrations. We never have tasted a potato like the boiled potatoes at St. John, with so concentrated an essence of earthy savor. Little birds--snipe, woodcock and others--are deftly roasted in the traditional manner, and all manners of cured meats and offal shine. The marrowbone salad is justly renowned and a steak and kidney pie for two has been lusty perfection. Desserts never have failed us, cheeses are kept well and Eccles cakes sublime.
Given this ragbag of the (mostly) good and (sometimes) bad over in Clerkenwell, we walked into St. John Bread & Wine without settled expectation; perhaps the place benefited from that, because our experience could not have been more congenial. B&W lies along the wide Commercial Road across from Spitalfields Market near Hawksmoor’s spooky and muscular masterpiece, Christ Church.
94-96 Commercial Street, London E1 6LZ Tel. 020 7251 0848
This reach of the East End is one of the grubbier, hipper, more manic zones of the grubby, hip and manic city that London has become outside a few sedate precincts of the really rich, a zone where the smell of trundling diesel competes with curry and tobacco for ascendancy. It also is redolent of romance. The seventeenth century Huguenot houses that bracket Christ Church are broody with ghosts, Brick lane beyond is a culinary Banglaworld and the quirky shops ranging north provide hours of opportunity for social anthropology and excessive expenditure. There are beigels [sic: East End usage] and salt beef too.
The room itself is unimposing at B&W. It lacks the drama of Henderson’s smokehouse to the west, and, weirdly for a room in such an expensive part of the world, runs in narrow parallel to the frontage of its building. This geography has required the alignment of tables in long serries, much like the refectory of a grade school. High hooks on the far wall holding piled coats and the big open kitchen contribute to a sort of easy chaos that mirrors the bustle without.
On arrival the congenial hostess greeted us like old friends and our courteous waitress fielded all questions with energetic patience. Our food was nearly flawless; flavor leapt from an Arbroath smokie folded into mashed potato and topped with a properly runny duck’s egg; delicately cured ox tongue offset by pickled chicory, barely molten Stinking Bishop cheese spooned over those astounding new potatoes previously encountered in Clerkenwell, and on and on. A salad of tender mallard, berries and bitter greens might have been dressed with slightly less acid and lamb breast deep-fried after roasting might have emerged from a decent Chinese kitchen, but if it did lack a lot of interest was ably executed. These paltry foibles, however, did nothing to dampen our mood.
Desserts are ridiculous. There is actually a blancmange (with prunes) and Spotted Dick and bread pudding (with butterscotch sauce), even parsnip cake. Henderson always stocks good British cheeses and in addition to the Stinking Bishop offered Childwickbury, Haffold, Strathdon Blue and Tumworth on our visit. You cannot go wrong.
We could not have been happier, and the tariff is considerably gentler than at older and grumpier brother in Clerkenwell. Alas, no draft beer at Bread & Wine, but (the name... ) bottles and loaves to go. As a consolation the Golden Heart two doors down at number 110 is a friendly public house serving a good selection of cask ale.