review: tail of a feast…
Some say that, between the two restaurants, the food at St. John Bread & Wine is better, or at least more consistent. I haven’t the wherewithal to make that judgment. But, I liked St. John Bread & Wine an awful lot the first time I was there in 2008, and I quite enjoyed it on my recent trip to Europe.
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The window on my lunch at The Sportsman had closed, thanks to a tardy flight.** But, serendipitously, another window promptly opened. As soon as I cleared customs, a text message from Food Snob popped up on my phone, a cheery welcome and a tut-tut for being so late.
He was on his way to meet a friend for a nosh at Spitalfields. Could I join them, he wanted to know.
I knew it’d take me a while to get into town, so I told him to get on without me; I’d be there anon.
By the time I arrived, hauling my junk from Heathrow, Food Snob and his friend – who turned out to be none other than Nuno Mendes of Viajante, where I’d be dining a couple days hence - had already cleared the majority of the menu. Joining them at the tail of a feast, I sat down and helped graze through the remaining dishes.
Here is what arrived at our table:
Pickled walnut, watercress. (£ 6.70)
Cold Middle White
Beetroot & Ticklemore
Milk ice cream. (£ 5.80)
To see all of the photos in this set, CLICK HERE.
Truth be told, if it weren’t for one dish, I’d be tempted to let this meal slide away, completely unreported.
This is not to say that the rest of the dishes were unremarkable. To the contrary, almost everything was solid.
But this visit to St. John Bread & Wine was much more of a casual hang-about with a friend and his friends rather than a meal. Food Snob is quite chummy with James Lowe, then-chef of the restaurant. And so, food arrived much as it would at a family meal, with an embarrassingly diminished bill to match.
This really wasn’t your normal dining situation (it rarely is when Food Snob is at your table).
But, I must tell you about the Swede cake, a caramelized block of thinly sliced rutabaga (which the Brits call “Swede”) softened under a slow bake. It was incredible.
The top was golden-brown, more of an ultra-thin skin than a proper crust, and dusted with salt crystals. Beneath, the tender strata offered a concentrated marriage of savory and sweet. It was comforting and satisfying, utterly delicious. I fear for my life at the thought of how much butter it contained.
That dish alone was worth the trip into town.
Otherwise, there were melt-away strips of lardo, clean and neat.
There was a beautiful, porky-pink tranche of Middle White pâté, wrapped in a beautiful rind of fat. With it came a sweet-tart scoop of fruit cheese.*** And a lovely salad of beets in different forms – shaved, whole, and sliced – with flakes of Tickelmore cheese and mâche.
The Ox Heart salad, alone, was slightly disappointing. The strips of heart were a bit tough, though they had excellent flavor, glazed and saucy with just a bit of spicy heat. The pickled walnuts were especially great.
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Food Snob loves cheesecake. So, not surprisingly a large wedge of it appeared, fluffy and rich, sided by a stack of rhubarb that was as pink as it was tart.
There was also a sticky sweet slice of treacle tart, served a la mode with a shockingly bland milk ice cream. Together, they were the perfect couple.
The rice pudding was terrific, topped with a pool of bracingly tart quince jam that, alone, might sear off your neck hairs. But, together with the creamy, almost custard-like, pudding, the jam was properly paired.
Though they were listed separately on the menu, hot chocolate pudding cake and brown bread ice cream arrived together on one plate. The pudding was perfect – a chocolate souffle dome floating on a pool of warm, dark chocolate ganache.
The brown bread ice cream was a wonder. Rockier than Rocky Road, it was crunchy and toasty, roasty and sweet. Above all, it was delicious.
What is so wonderful about St. John Bread & Wine is the honesty of the food. It is concise. It is flavorful. It is hearty. Despite the tireless complaint that London has not good produce and products, I saw nothing here worth a nit.
Lowe came out of the kitchen for a laugh before we rolled out onto the street. This would not be the last time I’d see Lowe, for I would bump into him and Food Snob a few days later in Paris at lunch, a total coincidence. And then I’d spend a couple of days with them a the Paris des Chefs conference. All of those posts to are to come.
A few days ago, Lowe emailed me to let me know that he had left St. John Bread & Wine. It is surely their loss. I wish him luck on his next adventure. I’m sure it will be a success.
St. John Bread & Wine
94-96 Commercial Street
* Among the very best of what I had at that first meal was a pig tail, breaded and fried. It was crunchy on the outside, and a hot mess of collagen, fat, and meat on the inside. It was delicious.
** Thankfully, I was able to I reschedule The Sportsman for dinner that night.
*** The menu said that the pate was accompanied by piccalilli. I’m not sure this was a traditional piccalilli. This was much more like plum paste, or quince paste, or some such fruit product, and not the relish I expected by that name. [Update: James Lowe emailed to confirm that the Middle White was served with Damson plum cheese (i.e. jelly).]