An old friend who used to live in London and now lives in Hong Kong was back in town last week, and he wanted to eat pig products, English-style. Obviously, that meant St. John Restaurant. Sadly, the Restaurant had no available tables on my friend’s only free evening, but its more casual sibling, St. John Bread and Wine, did, so off we went last Tuesday night.
Our chatty party of five felt right at home in the spare, high-ceilinged space, which buzzed with noise and good cheer. Like the slightly-fancier St. John Restaurant, SJB&W turned out to be a fun place to meet friends (and it follows that it’s a not-so-fun place for a romantic night out).
There were about 20 small plates and three larger “mains” on the menu and blackboard. Feeling hungry, we ordered eight small plates and two of the “mains.” The menu, it turns out, is a masterpiece of understatement, because most dishes turned out to be much more wonderful than their one- or two-word descriptions would suggest. For example, one of our party, perhaps feeling guilty about the meat-fest to come, ordered the menu item listed as “salad.” It sounded like a throwaway item to me, but the salad turned out to be so crisp and beautifully-dressed that at the end of our meal, some of our group still mentioned it fondly.
My favorites of the evening were the whole crab and mayonnaise (pictured above) and the foie gras & duck liver toast (pictured below). In the first dish, the claw meat was sweet and firm, and the crab’s brown meat was decadently creamy and rich (the foie gras of the sea, anyone?). As if the crab weren’t good enough on its own, the zippy mayonnaise was so tasty that when I ran out of crab, I just slathered it on slices of bread.
As St. John is the place to eat if you like offal, it was no surprise that the foie gras & duck liver on toast was excellent (though not sure what’s up with the redundant name . . . presumably the foie gras was of the goose liver variety?). Hot, crisp bread smeared with a fragrant, rich liver. Simple is great.
The Speckled Face mutton was braised lamb meat at its fall-off-the-bone best, but at £27 for two, I wouldn’t have ordered it if I’d had exclusive control over the ordering at our table (a girl can dream . . . ). I think my braises at home are just as good, really. Same goes for SJB&W’s Cobb chicken & griolles (£13.90).
Two disappointments were the Bobby beans & duck egg (above) and the Stinking Bishop & Potatoes (below). The beans were pretty dull and could have used a dressing with, say, more vinegar and anchovy for a kick that would complement the creamy egg yolks.
As for the Stinking Bishop – I wished the cheese had tasted as strong as it smelled. But in fact, the beautifully-named cheese was too mild to be paired with the mild potatoes (however sweet and creamy those potatoes were). The raw scallion didn’t rescue matters
Blood cake, prunes and bacon were a tasty-though-gelatinous accompaniment to the yummy breads, and the Lamb, Bread & Green sauce was a forgettable plate of meat-n-mint.
With £60 worth of wine and service, our tab came to £40 per person. Having enjoyed the vibe, food and service at SJB&W, I will definitely be back, but the next time I go, I’m going to order a lot fewer dishes in order to save room for dessert. I have, after all, heard nothing but rave reviews of the fresh-baked Madeleines . . . .
For another point of view on the place, click here for a Londonelicious review from a year ago, as well as Dos Hermanos’s recent SJB&W post (coincidentally, it appears we ate there on the same night).
St. John Bread and Wine, 94-96 Commercial Street, E1 6LZ; 0207 251 0848; closest tube station: Liverpool Street