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Tuesday, 24 May 2011

St John Restaurant, Smithfields

St John Restaurant has won over the hearts and appetites of many. Two good family friends recently told me it was “definitely their favourite restaurant in London”, but is this a daring eatery only for the super keen meat munchers, those diners able to bear squeamishness inducing dishes? I went along last week for dinner to investigate for myself the truth behind St John and its reputation.

Located opposite the wonderful Smithfields market (the oldest wholesale meat market in the UK), it is immediately apparent how and why St John became this carnivore canteen, a concept that has defined the restaurant’s purpose ever since opening. The building itself is a former smokehouse, a large white property that has been impressively transformed since its abandonment in 1967. Painted all white with bare tables scattered about, I was struck at once by the clinical layout. Though plain, the decor encourages a relaxed atmosphere that is far more welcoming than most high end restaurants.

After a brief drink at the bar we went through to the dining room, an expansive hall that reminded me of my school with a slightly unpleasant smell of steaming broth flavouring the air. A kind lady hung my jacket on one of the torturous hooks that line the wall... I wondered about the poor carcasses that would have previously hung there.

Freshly baked bread was delivered with our menus. It soon became apparent, that although St John is not suitable for vegetarians, it certainly offers a range of dishes that venture far beyond offal and innards... a fact that many seem unaware of. Knowing my own meat threshold, I decided to have a main and dessert. The mains arrived steaming, Braised Duck Leg, Turnips & Bacon for me and Rabbit Saddle, Carrots & Aioli for him. Both were presented primitively on the plate, no fancy decorating or unnecessary fuss, the rabbit looked quite funny plonked next to a whole carrot! The duck was cooked perfectly, rich and soft, falling easily off the bone. The accompanying turnips were pretty tasteless and a little under seasoned for me. I preferred the rabbit, an absolutely delicious hunk of meat, full of flavour.

For me it is the bakery that is the most enticing attraction at St John. An adorable addition to the dining room that sits next to the bar. After peering in on our arrival, I was very excited about how these baked treats may be included in the puddings. We had Poached Peaches & Toasted Brioche, and Apricot Crumble & Vanilla Ice-Cream. Both were a success, wholesome simple puddings, made with the freshest of fruit. To take home I asked for half a dozen homemade madeleines, they came with the bill in a brown paper bag, the smell so sweet and appetizing that other heads turned as they arrived. Oh and they tasted absolutely heavenly too, providing us with a perfect little breakfast the following day.

It was great fun being at St John and having a nice meal without worrying whether I was wearing the “right” outfit, or talking too loud. There is a laid back vibe and no stuffiness and this definitely affects the dining experience. However the meal for two still cost £60 (for two courses with a drink each) and with such brilliantly fresh ingredients I expected more... the highlight of a Michelin star restaurant shouldn’t be the little cakes at the end, should it?

Visit St John website here.

1 comment:

  1. As an American, I enjoyed this visit to an un-touristy spot. Yes that carrot was plonked. We don't eat much Rabbit over here. I am relieved to hear the offal was missing. My neighbor has a fun food blog: Envie Recipes. She is fantastic. Have a peek at her cooking and beautiful posts.