Tuesday, 19 August 2008
St. John, Smithfield
Halfway through my starter of Rolled Pig's Spleen at St. John, and who should wander in but Fergus Henderson himself. Looking healthy and happy with his trademark inch-thick pebble glasses, he soon settled into a corner table with a few friends and held court while a succession of people congratulated him (I assume - I wasn't close enough to eavesdrop) on the newly refurbished restaurant. At the bar was gastronomic superstar Mark Hix, who I didn't see eating anything but his presence alone was presumably enough of a blessing. And during the course of the evening I think I spotted Fay Maschler amongst a healthy smattering of food critics and food lovers. St. John, where the British food revolution started, is as much a pilgrimage as a meal out for true foodies, and although not exactly hushed in the echoey whitewashed warehouse room, there was certainly a good deal of reverence from what I could tell of the other tables.
And yet. As if I haven't been in this situation enough before to learn, it's really never a good idea to build up somewhere too much, as you can only be disappointed by the reality. St. John, restaurant to the stars and voted an incredible (literally) #16 in the Restaurant Magazine top 50 restaurant list 2008 (above L'Arpege and Alaine Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée!) served me a perfectly pleasant meal which wouldn't have been out of place in any half-decent gastropub in the capital. But #16 best restaurant in the world? The mind boggles.
Back to my meal, then. Now I've never had rolled pig's spleen before (shocking, but true) so I have no way of knowing if this is better or worse than your average rolled pig's spleen. But although the bacon was clearly of high quality, the offal was tasteless albeit with a pleasant texture. I wasn't sure what to do with the accompanying little pot of vinegar, as when it was paired with the meat it completely overpowered it, and on its own was just odd. Pickels were decent and sliced onion was just that. So far so ho hum.
My main course, fortunately, was much nicer. Chitterlings (pig's intestine, in case you were wondering) were rich and salty and resembled pleasantly boiled bacon. With them were little boiled radishes, which were a bugger to spear on my fork but had a lovely subtle flavour. Around the table we variously had a pretty standard smoked mackerel, fresh if hardly mind-blowing Brill steak, and a good liver and bacon.
My dessert was "Eccles cake and Lancashire cheese". An unlikely combination, you might think, but it worked surprisingly well - the cheese wouldn't have stood out served in a cheesecourse, but its bland creaminess went nicely with the sweet raisins and pastry. And I suppose none of it was cynically priced and service was good. But unless there's something crucial that I'm missing, this is just a good gastropub, this is not a world-beating restaurant. Credit where credit's due to Henderson for cooking up parts of a pig which must cost next to nothing in wholesale and turning them into something people are prepared to pay for. But after the novelty of eating Sheep's Appendix has worn off, the elephant in the room remains - people don't often eat offal, because it usually doesn't taste very good.
The supremely ironic thing about my experience at St. John was the similarities with another restaurant that has forged a brave new gastronomic path recently. Constraining themselves to use only ingredients from an oft-neglected and inexpensive source, serving competently cooked dishes in attractive surroundings and charging premium prices, and most importantly trading on the novelty of the sourcing of said ingredients and the environmental benefits thereof, St. John has a natural sister restaurant - Saf. True, one is purely vegan and one uses offal, but I believe the connections are too strong to ignore when you consider the Raw Food Revolution is supposed to be the next big thing after nose-to-tail eating was ten years ago.
Despite the glamorous surroundings and star factor, I was left distinctly underwhelmed after the bill (£50 each since you ask) was paid and the last dregs of a rather nice Muscadet sur Lie were drained from the bottle. The best thing I can say about St. John is that you are likely to try unusual and interesting cuts of meat that you will not find anywhere else in the country, and you will have them cooked well and served with a smile. The worst thing I can say about St. John is that, most probably, you won't want to try them again.