Friday, 15 June 2018

St. Leonard's, Shoreditch

Looking back over the God knows how many years I've been writing this blog, it seems that my most breathlessly enthusiastic and hyperbolic reviews have been of places that are about more than just great food. Great food is obviously a given - this is after all why you're here - but it's the stories that often turn a great experience into a special one. I'm thinking of Yianni's journey from flipping the best burgers in Britain to opening the industry-altering #meateasy popup in New Cross, the discovery deep in the rolling Lancashire countryside of two women running the platonic ideal of a food pub, or when some Italian food enthusiasts decided to open a tiny no-reservations pasta bar in Borough and it ended up being exactly what thousands of Londoners had been waiting for. It's these stories, the unusual or surprising circumstances leading up to the creation of fantastic food, that lift the whole experience into something else.

The conception of St. Leonards (that sounds like a Catholic order) has, it must be said, very little of the unusual or shocking. It is the simple story of some extremely talented people who, with one popular and successful restaurant - Brunswick House - already under their belts, decide to open another one. They find a medium-sized site recently vacated by the Spanish restaurant Eyre Bros and open it out into a bright, clean space; they hire a phalanx of charming and dedicated front of house staff dressed in smart monochrome to work the floor; and they kit out a vast kitchen with a centrepiece wood- and charcoal-fired hearth, over which hang various tantalising cuts of beef on the bone and tuna collar. And then, finally, they serve some of the most exciting and innovative food London has ever seen.

OK, so, maybe St. Leonards is special after all. Restaurants like this do not come around very often, and nor do they happen by accident. Jackson Boxer and Andrew Clarke have pooled their considerable experience into a menu of such stark, beguiling beauty that if you took it to an open mic poetry night you could read it top to bottom and receive a standing ovation. Certain phrases attack the senses even if you're not exactly sure what they imply - "soy butter", "buckthorn mollases", "tuna bone caramel", "XO crumb", and the less the menu explains, the greater is the desire to discover them for yourself.

Attention to detail - precise, exquisite attention to detail - is everywhere, even when a dish is literally no more than a product of clever sourcing, such as this Noir de Bigorre ham, sliced to order into soft, salty, nutty folds. Noir de Bigorre ham has apparently been produced in the countryside around Lourdes for longer than the Iberico pigs from Spain, and though nothing is likely to beat a top bit of Belotta to my heart any time soon, this certainly gave it a run for its money.

If you're anything like me you will fiercely resist anyone mucking about too much with oysters, and though I have enjoyed the odd baked bivalve in my time - most recently at the short-lived offshoot of Mien Tay Mrs Le's - usually I want nothing more than a squeeze of lemon. But here are St Leonard's dressed Lindisfarne to completely change everyone's mind on the subject. Wild black pepper infused pickling liquor (I mean try not loving that concept, I dare you) and pickled garlic scapes complimented and elevated the lean oyster flesh to create an extraordinary mouthful of fresh, briney sweetness. I never want oysters any other way again.

Then, a cherrystone clam, its shell shining blue like fine Wedgewood pottery, dressed in a smoky, earthy Sichuan peppercorn oil and topped with daintily chopped spring onions. All St Leonard's strengths were on display in this one bit of seafood - the playful use of Asian spices, the interesting and rarely-seen main ingredient, the beautiful and precise presentation.

Some neat oblongs of mackerel next, their silvery skins glittering beneath dandelion stalks. Underneath, a layer of dense, umami-rich soy dressing - "soy butter" - which I did my best to mop up with the mackerel before finally resorting to using my fingers. I didn't care if anyone was watching.

"Chawanmushi" is apparently a kind of savoury custard, here combined with foie gras for extra levels of meaty decadence. On top sat a few pieces of smoked eel - always impossible not to love - and crunchy pieces of pork skin. So foie gras, smoked eel and pork scratching. Together. Yes, it was brilliant.

Sweet baby onions, charred on the hearth, would have been a decent little snack even of themselves, and actually quite similar to a course at famous Scandi weeds-and-pickles restaurant Noma I had a couple of years back. But here they came on something called "tuna bone caramel", which I can best describe as possibly the greatest fish-based sauce you'll ever taste in your life. God knows how many laborious techniques go into its production, or how many grinding man hours, but the result is a thick, dark sauce somewhere between bagna cauda and treacle, so dangerously addictive it should come with a parental advisory sticker.

There are few things more reliably rewarding than a bit of charcoal-grilled bavette, even when not particularly good quality beef. Of course St Leonard's use the best beef they can get their hands on - from Swaledale of Skipton - and so the result is a tender, powerfully-flavoured dish, overhung with woodsmoke and topped with grated cured bonemarrow for bonus beef.

Maybe I don't need to say anything about the next dish. Maybe all you need is the photo above, for an object as overwhelmingly beautiful as that to do all the talking. Or maybe all you need are the words "monkfish, buckthorn mollases, beach herbs" and you can let your mind fill in the details of the firm, blinding white flesh glazed in sweet syrup, the ethereally light hollandaise underneath, the pile of salty succulents above, plump with freshness and life. As much as any dish at St. Leonard's should be a must-order - and there's some competition for that particular role - I'd wager you'd leave with the greatest regret leaving not having tried this bronzed beauty, an absolute masterclass in fish cooking.

Sorry, perhaps I need a second to compose myself. I should try and offer a bit of balance, some sour lemon to cut through the oozing cheesecake of hyperbole. OK then, here you go - the rhum baba wasn't very good. Dry and woolly, it was certainly soaked with a generous amount of rum but the alcohol could still not prevent the sponge from sticking to the roof of my mouth. So, yeah, St. Leonard's isn't perfect.

But "salt caramel & East India sherry tart with cardamom ice cream" was perfect, displaying a willingness for bold experimentation that had been a feature of the savoury courses. With an expertly-judged smooth, light filling and great soft ice cream, it was everything you'd need in a caramel tart.

I began this post with the desclaimer that St. Leonard's has no intriguing backstory, no rags-to-riches journey from street food to bricks and mortar, no heartwarming reality TV triumph against adversity. For lazy restaurant bloggers and overworked food journalists the lack of a "hook" could mean it doesn't grab the attention - or headlines - as much as other places. It doesn't even have a car lift to accommodate paparazzi-shy celebrities.

But the very fact that St. Leonard's isn't an "accident" or an "experiment", and has no eye-catching gimmicks, could perhaps in the end be the very reason for its success. It exists because certain people want it to exist, and because those same sickeningly talented individuals have nailed, at every turn, everything that makes a restaurant great, while ignoring any irrelevant extra bells and whistles that don't. Make no mistake, there's every bit as much of a revolution going on here as in that strange dark space above a pub in New Cross back in 2011, or at the end of a two-hour queue in Borough, but hiding in plain sight as a "normal" restaurant in Shoreditch means that St. Leonard's stands even more of a chance of knocking you sideways. It certainly did me. And it's only a matter of time before it does to you, too.


I visited St. Leonard's at the tail end of soft opening, so received 50% off the bill as you can see above. A more normal price per head would have been about £80.

1 comment:

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