One Leicester Street

Update: One Leicester Street closed. Tom Harris cooks at The Marksman, an excellent pub/restaurant he owns with fellow St John alumnus, Jon Rotherham.

In its new coat of graphite grey, One Leicester Street doesn’t jump around, waving and screaming so as to compete with the nearby cinemas, chain restaurants, sweet shops and ice cream parlours. Rather it sits patiently and discreetly; a becalming haven for those in the know.

This pretty much reflects the food that travels the short distance over the open pass and into the small dining room: subtle, quietly confident, and very welcome.

By way of background, One Leicester Street houses a restaurant, first floor bar and other floor bedrooms on the site that, just a few months ago, was painted white and named the St John Hotel. Or was it St John Chinatown? Dunno. Anyway, sadly, the St John Hotel operation entered into administration in the latter part of 2012 and was rescued / snapped up by Singapore hotelier Loh Lik Peng in the early part of this year.

The misfortunes of the site as it functioned under the St John banner were not, I don’t think, on account of the food. Larger business and legal forces were at work. Indeed, given the restaurant received a Michelin Star in the latest round of dustings, the whole administration thing felt surprising to those of us who aren’t in the know. There was also a surely it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it kinda hunch when the administrators and subsequently the new owners came in.

Happily, the overhaul hasn’t been too dramatic.

Chef Tom Harris remains in the kitchen, now as chef-patron, and most of the kitchen and waiting staff look familiar, save their white uniforms have been replaced by smart blue aprons and stripy shirts. Maybe the most obvious changes are to the room itself, which has been given a similar lick of paint to the outside of the building.

The effect of the change in aesthete is that it is at once more sophisticated and more comfortable than before – it’s strangely warm and cosy, given the grey-scale theme, and is just the right side of formal to suit both pleasure and business. Attractive and colourful illustrations on the various menus add a subtle but effective splash of colour to the room.

The chef hasn’t thrown away his St John grounding overnight. Rightly so. Indeed a few of the old favourites remain – the duck hearts and snails in a lovage sauce (although was there lardo before?) and the crispy puffed pig skins and cod roe. But maybe there has been a tiny loosening of the shackles.

It’s not, like, mental: the menu is still written in typical St John style (three ingredients; limited to no descriptors); you still order from a selection of smallish plates to share; and many components are familiar (razor clams, pig cheek, sweetbreads and goat curd). But on the plate, things feel a tiny bit racier than might have got past Fergus. Jazzed up razor clams. A positively showy monkfish dish. There’s even room for shaved ice (with tea).

Don’t get too excited, mind. The kitchen’s presentation style is still pleasingly restrained and natural. No blobs, smudges or foams and just the occasional crumb.

We started with devilled pigs skin – which mirror the prawn crackers of its Chinatown neighbours – and their light and creamy smoked cods roe condiment. Quality. Crab fennel and monks beard followed shortly after. Fairly generous amounts of chilled, sweet white crab meat, the occasional wave of salty monks beard, atop a thin crouton and a savoury dollop of loosened brown meat. Really nicely balanced, great textures and very enjoyable.

Things warmed up after that. Braised broad beans with wild garlic and grated berkswell came in a bowl with a dark green broth. Minty, sweet green veg, subtle and salty sheep’s milk cheese. It was properly tasty Spring food. Then a hunk of Dexter brisket, blackened on the outside, ruby red within, served with punchy horseradish cream and pickled beetroots. This reminded me of the Dabbous smoked pork dish – though the beef is the knowing adult to the brasher, porky teenager.

I didn’t love the fawn coloured dish of lambs sweet breads, artichokes and celery. Not because of its appearance (actually, it looked great), rather the sweetbreads were fairly small, floured heavily and fried, so they kind of resembled chicken nuggets in taste and texture. I prefer larger, moister, glazed glands.

It was difficult to choose from the five dessert options. In the end, we plumped for and enjoyed a bowl of decadent and creamy vanilla yogurt, yoghurt crumbs, tart blood orange and meringue – though it would have been too sweet for just one of us to get through.

The showstopper, though, was the brown butter and honey tart, which looked so simple and spartan as it arrived sharply cut on a plain white plate, but jumped to the top of my list of desserts eaten in 2013 (or ever) upon first bite.

Ye Gods, flavour wise it was an awesome combination of salty hazelnut beurre noisette and a rounded, malty honey. But the sucker punch was the just-firm texture of the custard. To prod it with a spoon started the most glorious and long lasting wibble that is still gently reverberating in my left love handle as I type. I’ve never seen my Dad cry, but I’d wager he’d shed a tear over this x-rated tart.

Who would have thought that something that looked so plain would have such an impact? But this probably sums the food  up. It’s understated and deceptively polished, delicate, precise without being lightweight or boring, and majors on balance of flavour above all else.

So there you go. I really liked One Leicester Street. It’s kind of same, same but a bit different and (dare I say it) a bit better than its previous guise. It’s refreshingly safe, rather than spectacular and you wouldn’t go there to have a party, I don’t think. But for twos, threes, fours, maybe up to sixes wanting quality food in smart but unpretentious surroundings, this is bang on.

Make sure you have the tart.

One Leicester Street in 3 words

Understated, polished, effective.

The Bill

We paid £50 per head for that food (which was plenty), service (which was nice) and a great bottle of reasonably priced Bulgarian Soli (which was around £25). – One Leicester Street, WC2H 7BL – 020 3301 8020