St John (all of them)

I have been eating from the hands of St John rather a lot over recent weeks: from the bakery in Maltby Street, a couple of trips to Bread and Wine on Commercial Road, to St John restaurant in Clerkenwell (HQ), and last night, for the first time, St John Hotel in Chinatown.

It’s not for sake of following fashion, rather because I like the style and the ethos: deceptively simple; seasonal; interesting; and ultimately tasty.

There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said. But I rather fancied just documenting a few thoughts. So, en bref 

  • I firking love the custard doughnuts and the Eccles cakes from the bakery. Eating one or both of those alongside a strong coffee is one of life’s great Saturday morning pleasures.
  • Whisper it, but I think their sourdough needs more salt and could have more tang. The Hackney Wild loaf from new pretender E5 Bakehouse is better.
  • I think HQ is 85% brilliant. Not everyone agrees. I suspect dissenters place a strong emphasis on being ‘wowed’ when they eat out. I personally like how it has staunchly stuck to its guns: non-racy honest food. Totally content and assured with what it does. Stylish, but not fashionable (even though it’s currently en vogue).
  • Part of HQ’s brilliance (which is also to say Fergus Henderson’s brilliance) is what and who has spawned from it.
  • I really like the stark interior, the way the only wall decorations are the shadows thrown by the angles of the room.
  • I enjoyed, on a recent visit, the fact that the dining room was filled by a disparate mix of people: lawyers reviewing contracts, extravagant individuals eating grouse and reading PG Wodehouse, middle-aged businessmen on the Burgundy, and Swedish chefs, aged about 19. In the bakery sat a worker in his 60s, dressed in his oily boiler suit eating Welsh rarebit, a very pretty student, and a man dressed in cords, spats and a tweed blazer.
  • We dotted a few of the classics amongst our order, including roasted bone marrow and Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese. Perfect. Whilst eating them, there was not a dish in the world that I would rather have had.
  • Our waiter had the flu, but seemed disinterested in any event. He appeared to have very little interest in the wine list or our dining experience. My companion received similar treatment when he returned a few days later.
  • For as much as I like the classics at HQ, I prefer the variety and daily changing small dishes at Bread and Wine. Ox heart and pickled walnut salad with deep fried potato slices. Maybe the best pig cheek dish I’ve eaten: the cheek was portioned in vertical slices, with the fat still firmly affixed; the fat (at least 70% of each slice) was rendered and them crisped to the point that the dish was effectively a plate warm pork scratchings; a stonking bitter leaf salad with a mustard and vinegar dressing cut the fat perfectly. I can still taste it.
  • The room at Bread and Wine can feel cramped, but is easily the most enjoyable.
  • The dining room at St John Hotel is more cramped still. Which is just about OK, but not so fun. It’s a school canteen with white table cloths.
  • The maître d’ last night was a toss piece. Pompous. Incompetent. Too young, perhaps. Eminently dislikable (to his colleagues as much as the diners who encountered him).
  • Small dishes were towards the level of Bread and Wine. A bowl of cockles, leeks and dulse in their juices and on fried bread was delicious. Spot on. Duck hearts, snails, shallots and croutons in a lovage sauce came close.
  • The bar in the Hotel building is surprising. A potential drinker walked up and back down the stairs in front of us without staying, describing the room as similar to that of a Travelodge lobby. That’s about right.

Probably nothing you’ve not read, heard or thought before. No bells or whistles, no flowery waffle at the beginning, no racy puns. Just plain and honest. Like St John.

St John in 3 words

Restaurants. Bakery. Ethos.

The Bill

Bakery – Doughnuts and eccles cakes £2-2.50, sourdough loaf about £4.

Bread and Wine and St John Hotel – smaller plates are generally £6-11, larger plates £14-17. See this post on feasting.

HQ – is £7 starter, £18 main, £7 dessert. Wine and 3 courses will be upwards of £45 per head. – St John St, Commercial St, Leicester St & Druid Street – 020 3301 8069
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10 thoughts on “St John (all of them)

  1. I’ve only been to St John & St John Hotel and the best food I’ve had was eating at the bar at the latter. The smoked eel mash with bacon – OMG. I felt the hotel was a bit weird; the bar is stark and uncomfortable, much like their dining room.

  2. totally agree! I prefer the atmosphere at bread and wine, and feel the food lives up to my expectations, whereas, as you suggest, the hq lacks the wow factor I perhaps expect. Have you had the little bun moment at the hotel? I have been lucky enough to, and it feels decadent in a modern way that traditional afternoon teas do not. How are things going for you work wise? i hope you have managed to make the transition from lawyer to whatever you want to be in the food world, which is oh so fashionable at the mo!

  3. Interesting that you’ve had a couple of disappointing service experiences Ed, as I’ve heard some truly shocking things about service at St John (HQ and Hotel) that’ve frankly out me off going – to me service is as important a part of the whole experience as food and atmosphere and I just won’t chance my time and money on somewhere where one might let down the other. Fantastic post as ever, really interesting and certainly not all stuff I’d heard before!

  4. There is obviously a problem with hiring service staff at the St. John empire at the moment. When I last went to Bread & Wine the formerly stellar FOH staff who have moved on hadn’t been replaced at the same level either and our experience at HQ was a bit bizarre, really. “Yes, that would also be a good choice” as a reply to every single option on their wine list was slightly infuriating and being largely ignored three days later didn’t improve impressions either. I love the food and what they have done for British ingredients on a more general level but, for now, Quo Vadis will probably get my vote when this kind of fix is required.

  5. I was a little worried a while back when I noticed quite a few senior members of staff all leaving at around the same time, none being replaced with anyone of the same stature.

  6. Chaps – How interesting. I have to say, disappointing service was just a very small point I wanted to make. But you’re right: it’s important and, when sub-optimal, really distracts from a good dining experience. If it really is a common issue, then I do hope things improve soon.

  7. Lizzie – you should definitely go to Bread and Wine. Both for a casual lunch and a few little plates, and also with a group of mates for a feast.

  8. The best Eccles cake, for sure. Before anyone starts talking with a Northern Accent, I am from that area.
    I had amazing food at St John. The best mousse served y someone resembling my granddad (seriously cool). Slightly caramelised the butter was, with my perfectly cooked slip sole. Looking forward to trying those Doughnuts in November.

  9. I’ve only eaten at HQ. Call me a bore but the roasted marrowbone (ordered every time) is to die for. I totally agree with Tony Bourdain – it’s the last meal to order if, unfortunately, you get that chance on death row. Simply sublime. Service? Never had a problem.

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