Finding a balance: the Blueprint Café & St. John Bread and Wine

There is, I think, a slightly unhealthy trend of rushing to the newest restaurants and (in the case of bloggers) trying to be amongst the first to write about them.

I am not without sin. Take my ‘Wish List‘ for November: I ate at the Young Turks in their first week; at Meatliquor on 11.11.11; and Mishkin’s will hopefully be ticked off within their first few services. It is probable December will be equally hype focussed.

In some ways it is an understandable vogue. It is exciting to experience places before other people do, to feel like you know what’s ‘hot right now’, and to form your own opinion before Giles, Fay, Marina, or whichever journo or bloggers you read tell you what that opinion should be. There are so many keenly awaited and potentially very good restaurants opening in this last quarter of 2011, why not take advantage and try them out whilst they’re sparkling?

But the rush to the new is also quite blinkered.

We are heavily influenced by PR agencies and too easily assume that just because something is new and heralded, then it will be good. Why? Because some strangers on twitter said so? Ever think there may be an agenda or bias behind those tweets, or that the hype might not actually be justified? Social media propaganda is not malicious, but the effectiveness of it is remarkable.

I wonder how many new restaurants regret that hype induced first month rush, when they are judged on the actual task of feeding people food, rather than hot air? A number of the places opening up in the next 6 months have some serious pedigree and may deserve their drum rolls. But even the best and most experienced have to get used to new systems, new staff and evolving menus. Would it be better to wait a while before you go?

The biggest danger in clamouring only to the newest openings is that you miss out on eating at the tried and tested places. The restaurant industry is famously difficult; so if somewhere has been open for a while, there’s probably a good reason for that. Indeed it is telling that two of my most enjoyable meals out in the last month or so have been at restaurants that are not at all new.

I had a superb birthday lunch with my family at the Blueprint Café near Tower Bridge a few Sundays ago. The food is classic café/bistro fare – terrines and pickles, cured and smoked meats and fish to start; rump of this, fillet of that for mains; ice creams, cakes, tarts and possets for dessert. It is eclectic but not dated and the cooking is totally assured and confident. Our mains, in particular, were quality – my pork loin with wild mushrooms was hearty and earthy and plate-lickingly good. I also massively enjoyed my smoked eel sandwich starter. The decor is a bit tired. But the view over the river and towards Tower Bridge is timeless and up there with the best vistas around. Most importantly, the overall experience was exactly right – chatty and informal atmosphere, with professional and friendly service and that assured cooking.

When we went, the Blueprint Café was absolutely in the groove and I’d wager they find that groove every day. I suspect that is something that comes directly as a result of the head chef, Jeremy Lee, having been cooking there for 17 years (as indeed he was on that day).* There aren’t many better combinations than a trip to the Design Museum followed by lunch at the Blueprint – whether in a large group or as a two. It’d also be great at night for a date – ask for a table next to the window.

A day later I went with about 12 friends to St. John Bread and Wine (you should always have more than one birthday meal). This is not the original St. John in Smithfields, but the baby version at the back of Spitalfields market. If you’re in a group of more than 8 or more, you can’t eat from the à la carte, but must choose a feasting menu. It’s a tiny bit of a pain that numbers and the menus need to be organised about 5 days in advance (only really because it feels a bit rigid), but I understand they need some element of planning. More of a pain is that when you are choosing your menu, the cost is not immediately transparent (I have a very amusing long email chain trying to get to the bottom of this). But once that’s all dealt with, feasting at SJBW it’s a great way to eat out, particularly as the food is brought over in large dishes for the group to serve themselves, which makes for an enjoyable communal meal.

The restaurant is set out in one relatively sparse room, with rows of bare wooden tables as if it were a canteen. The counter of the open kitchen stretches the length of the room, the walls are unadorned save for blackboards with menu option … it’s basically typical Fergus Henderson and I like it. The feast menu options are rustic, without being as offal focussed as the original St. John. You can have one or two options per course. I went for two.

We shared a couple of plates of snails, black cabbage and back fat (sorry girls, I know I told you the cubes were potato, but they were very definitely pure fat), which came in a really tasty and more-ish sauce, like a thick broth. Bloody pigeon legs and breasts were tender and served (if I remember correctly) as a salad with barley. Really good, though maybe not the largest servings.

The main courses made up for any hunger. One dish brought to the table was a large braised shoulder of lamb, cooked hyper-slowly so the meat fell off the bone with the touch of a fork. It’s easy to do this kind of lamb relatively well at home, but this was genuinely the tastiest I’ve ever had. Maybe the lamb was of particularly good provenance. Or perhaps it was braised in something particularly tasty. Or both. I loved the roast potato cakes served with the lamb too – basically thinly sliced potatoes, layered together, cut into cubes and roasted, the sharp angles catching the fat and crisping perfectly. Our other main dish was brilliant tender slices of black Angus flank, served with heaps of colourful roasted beetroot. Both the lamb and beef went down a storm with the gannets. Decadent yet homely desserts (outrageously rich chocolate terrine with crème fraîche; bread pudding with butterscotch sauce) sent us over the edge in terms of fullness, but also sent us all home happy.

New restaurants keep things interesting and drive competition and no doubt I will continue to go to them too early. But there are lots of places that have been around for years, and will still be around long after the current Twitter favourites have closed. Looking forward to restaurant openings is not wrong or in itself unhealthy. But there is a balance to be struck and it is good to stand back and check out the elder statesmen too.

*Jeremy Lee and his menu moved to Quo Vadis in Soho in January 2012.

Blueprint Café in 3 words

Assured. Amazing view.

The Bill

Seven-ish pounds for the starters; mid teens for mains; about a fiver for dessert. Reasonably priced wine list. You’re looking at about £40-45 for a three course meal and half a bottle of wine each. They do very reasonable fixed price lunch menus too. – above the Design Museum, SE1 2YD – 020 7378 7031

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St John Bread and Wine in 3 words

A real feast.

The Bill

Depending on what you choose, a 3 course feast is £30-40 per head. I think our menu was £35. You can share a reasonable amount of the house wine and get out for about £50 per head in total. – 94-96 Commercial Street, E1 6LZ – 020 3301 8069

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5 thoughts on “Finding a balance: the Blueprint Café & St. John Bread and Wine

  1. I totally agree with you and I think that may explain why I am not instantly flocking to new restaurants. My family used to run a restaurant and I find that you have to give it a little breathing space to set its pace and rhythm. I like going to place that are self-assured because they have had time to come beyond the first week. Speaking of which I must therefore try the two recommendations above as they have been languishing on my list of places to try. Or I should say my over-burgeoning list.

  2. This post speaks to me. I was thinking the same thing after being disappointed this year by a couple of new openings, but totally impressed by the ‘oldies’ that have been running like a well-oiled machine for years. There should definitely be a balance of trying out the new openings but also not forgetting there are good reasons why some restaurants that have been around for a while still draw in the crowds.
    If pushed to choose, I know where I’d spend my hard-earned money.

  3. SPOT ON!

    As blog reader, the most infuriating thing is the stampede bloggers make for the latest and greatest. Readers aren’t daft and know that PR companies and restaurants will have their best side on show and with a gratis evening in order to sway amatuer and professional critics alike.

    When I see “invited” or “as a guest” to new restaurants, it is a challenge to read on as this experience cannot replicate the experience of the paying customer. It just can’t.

    The most interesting pieces are those which are written long after Fay, Giles and Mr Gill have swanned in and out (if they bothered at all). Many bloggers often get carried away with the hype and fashion and overlook the places that are doing good business day in day out for years and decades…. these are the real gems of the London dining scene… like St John, BluePrint, Trinity, Rules, etc.

    Sure, we need new places, let’s not put them on a pedestal just because they are new….. Make them earn it.

  4. You’re preaching to the converted. I’m not a great follower of fashion, and I agree that it pays dividends to wait a while. However, I will disagree slightly with Gregory on his point about ‘invited reviews’. You can be invited and replicate the experience of a paying customer. The arrangement being that you agree with the restaurant in advance that you go in ‘blind’, and not reveal your identity until the bill arrives. I concede this doesn’t happen often, but I do know it’s possible from personal experience.

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