St John Bread and Wine
Few have championed British cuisine more than Fergus Henderson and his St John restaurant. Many regard his book Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind Of British Cooking as the saviour of British cuisine, steering it back on course at a time when British food seemed destined for insignificance – offal, organs and other unusual off-cuts all making a comeback. Almost 8 years on, his Spitalfields outpost, St John Bread and Wine, is still drawing in the crowds, rammed to capacity with loyal EastEnders every time I walk past.
Sadly, in the 3 times I’ve been here to date though, I can’t say that I’ve been wowed or won over by the food at all. Deep-fried Skate Cheek goujons on my most recent visit were faultlessly deep-fried, but what lay beneath the crumbs was rather bland fish meat accompanied by a green fennel aioli of some sort which tasted a little strange (and got less and less appealing the more aniseed built up on my palate). What was really getting me green with envy though was the table beside us who certainly looked like they were faring much better with their starters – Purple Spouting Brocolli with Duck Egg and Smoked Sprats with Horseradish looked far more appetizing.
Our Hereford and Stout pie was a bit of a mixed bag. The Short crust pastry though wonderfully fragrant with that buttery just-baked aroma was a little too thick and heavy for my liking. And though the Hereford Beef was extremely tender from the obvious hours of slow-cooking, I found the gravy far too thin… its composition flat and one-dimensional, lacking sweetness to balance the salty, roasted-malt flavour of the stout. Yet again after a few mouths, I found myself more interested in what neighbouring tables were having… the Wigeon with Chestnuts and Coleslaw was proving to be a hit next door.
Thankfully, dessert was something to cheer about. I went for one of their board specials – a Hot Chocolate and Coco Nib Pudding, with Brown Bread ice-cream. The pud was toasty-warm and wonderfully comforting… the chocolate rich but helped on by a light, almost soufflé like texture. The ice-cream was the most intriguing thing I had all night – creamy and packed full of vanilla plus clusters of nourishing stoneground wholemeal bread. Yum-meh.
And what of the namesake bread and wine? Well, the bread, a brown sourdough-like variety, though deliciously tasty, was stone cold when served. I don’t mind cold bread, but what really frustrates me is when its served with a block of butter that is still hard and totally unspreadeable so you end up eating large rectangular lumps of fat. Either warm up your bread (you’re supposed to be a bakery after all) or give your butter a few minutes at room temperature to soften for heaven’s sake. The winelist here is completely French which results in a bit of a lottery for me as after all these years I still don’t have the slightest clue what French Wines I like (other than Burgundy Pinot Noirs of course). The end result – a confused and overly full-bodied bottle of the Languedoc blend Minervois which didn’t work at all.
For all the good things Fergus has given to British cuisine and how close by SJB&W is to my house, I desperately want to like this place more. Maybe the secret to eating well here (as I suspect my neighbouring diners will attest to) is staying away from the familiar and putting your faith in Wigeons, Sprats and other never-heard-of-before-thingy-ma-jigs.
94 Commercial Street, Spitalfields E1 | www.stjohnbreadandwine.com | Friday 3rd Dec 2010