A second visit to St. John, a first visit to St. John ‘Bread and Wine’
Although the GLC’s first outing to St. John in Smithfield divided opinion, we kept an open mind for our lunchtime visit to St. John Bread and Wine near Spitalfields Market. The venue itself was originally intended as a home for their baking operation until increasing interest turned these modest beginnings into a fully-fledged restaurant.
As appearances go, St. John Bread and Wine looks almost identical to St. John in Smithfield. The outside facade is typically pristine and white to the point of being stark, and the black, stencilled St. John’s lettering hammers home the ever-growing brand.
St. John’s Bakery
Inside is typically minimalist with the wooden tables arranged with exam hall precision, and other than the lack of tablecloths the key difference between St. John Smithfield and the Bread and Wine restaurant is the bakery. There’s no noticeable smell of baked bread in the afternoon, but the bakery is omnipresent, situated at the front of the restaurant and the table is immediately populated with two different cuts of appealing fresh bread.
Sharing at St. John
Although the menu wasn’t explained to us, a little pre-reading on the St. John site explained, “guests [are] actively encouraged to share dishes as they’re ready from the kitchen” a la Duck and Waffle.
To start proceedings we opted for a bottle of the GLC’s new-favourite bitter, Meantime IPA and a portion of crispy pigskin and tarragon. Straight out of the blocks, the pigskin was one of the standout dishes and was served as fritter-like shapes being both crunchy on one side and nicely fatty on the other.
Next to arrive was the smoked cod’s roe and duck egg. It’s a difficult dish to cut into four pieces, but tasted fantastic. The eggs were perfectly cooked and the cod’s roe was surprisingly subtle, complimenting as opposed to overpowering the dish.
At this point the purple-headed broccoli and mussels both arrived, so we dutifully tucked in. The mussels were a good size and the cider sauce was gorgeous, although again, it’s a difficult dish to share, especially when everyone’s got flat plates.
Not all it’s cracked up to be
Next up was the quail, frisee (a leaf vegetable belonging to the daisy family) and anchovy, yet another tricky dish to share, but it was at this point in the meal our patience started to crack. Whilst we didn’t expect Michelin Star service, it would have been nice to have the odd dish announced rather than having them casually and noncellantly plonked on the table. It might also be an idea for the waiting staff to keep an eye on the cutlery used and collected from the table during the many dishes served, to prevent diners having to re-request cutlery. Gripes aside we raided the carcass of the quail using as many calories to cut it up as we did to eat it, nevertheless it’s a very tasty dish.
Pig’s cheek, dandelion and aioli (a Provençal traditional sauce made of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and egg yolks) followed, and was, without question, the second stand-out dish of the meal. The cheeks were succulent and flavoursome with plenty of fat and the aioli sauce was tremendous.
By the time the our grilled herring with bacon and mash turned up, I was starting to question the “dishes as they’re ready” ethos. Switching from meat to fish and back again does not always bring out the best in a meal, especially when the herring in question had hung onto part of its blood-red intestine.
Finally, and rather arbitrarily, a soggy-looking, but surprisingly tasty butternut squash, lentils and yogurt was plonked down for our enjoyment.
For desserts we ordered coffees, along with the honeycombed ice-cream and the poached rhubarb and spiced ice-cream. The latter was served, rather amusingly with each constituent part in a separate dish. Although again, this is where a little thought wouldn’t go amiss as we were served our coffees before dessert. Surely I can’t be alone in thinking this should be the other way around, and shouldn’t be something you need to specifically request in a restaurant of this calibre? It was also at this point we spotted the ‘specials’ menu chalked on the wall, suffice to say this missed opportunity didn’t add to our experience.
I have to say; I entered St. John for a second time with an open mind and an almost positive bias to both like it and to make another effort to understand what all the fuss is about, but I failed. The food’s OK, but nothing special – we only had two standout dishes out of the 10 we ordered. In fact, the order they were served in made me feel a tad nauseous afterwards. I appreciate St. John divides opinion and some people think it’s the best thing since sliced bread (sorry), but I just can’t see it. For a chophouse experience I’d choose Hix, and for a tapas style meal the Duck and Waffle wins hands down. Also, if you’re going to have a pig as your logo and make a claim for ‘nose-to-tail’ eating, have more pig on the menu and serve more off-cuts! I remain to be convinced I’m missing something special.
St John Bread and Wine
94-96 Commercial Street
020 3301 8069
We spent: £75 p.p.
Nearest Tube: Liverpool Street