St. John Bread and Wine
2019 marks 25 years since Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver’s St John first graced the London restaurant scene. It’s only fitting, then, that Gulliver and Henderson should receive an early birthday present from Fay Maschler, in the form of a warmly positive review of the Smithfield original’s Commercial Street sibling, St. John Bread and Wine.
Given its name, it would be a genuine surprise if the house sourdough were anything other than “ace”; given the place’s sterling reputation, it would be almost as much of a shocker if everything else weren’t equally “beguiling.” Fortunately, “everything is a strong suit here”: Innes Log, its “creaminess contrasting with knuckled-under acidity and eat-your-greens virtue” is nothing short of “a triumph”; roast pigeon is accompanied by a “powerful sanguinary gravy” and some “uncommonly well composed” sides; a savoury of Welsh rarebit — taken after some “alluring” puddings including damson ice cream “with the texture of chewy velvet” — provides “the ideal landing pad.” The signature stark house aesthetic and terse menu descriptions might come on a little “Presbyterian” at times, but as two and a half decades of contented diners know all too well, within these whitewashed walls, the scope for “enjoyment” is practically “boundless.”
From nose to tail to Flank, next, as Jimi Famurewa finds precious little to recommend the Stratford branch of the meaty mini-chain.
To be clear, not everything is “irredeemably bad”: there’s an “effective” mini double cheeseburger, and “fine-crisped” potato gratin is appealingly “drenched in a fragrant, gutsy pan stock.” Come pudding, a McDonald’s-aping deep-fried apple slice offers “a rushing flood of buttered, cinnamon-spiked sweetness.” But otherwise there’s a sense that the kitchen “hasn’t quite come together yet”: in one corner, smoked cheese croquettes with garlic ‘pizza dip’ are “eerily flavourless”; in the other, barbecued cabbage is “overpowering to the point of inedibility.” Naan is “limp” and “timidly fired”; glazed pig head and trotter patties are “cloying” and come in “stiff mini sub rolls.” It’s all such a shame, because on paper this is the stuff of “fantasy” — a “lively carnivorous whirl” of ingredients and combinations that would engender “pure excitement” in any diner that isn’t vegan. Yet, “enticing gastronomic trigger terms” like ‘beef fat’ and ‘smoked’ “don’t amount to much without careful, focused execution.” Perhaps this is simply a question of catching “a kitchen on a bad day.” Then again, “in this age of fledgling food concepts with sites scattered across multiple food courts, markets and pub takeovers,” maybe Famurewa’s experience at Flank represents “a living parable on the dangers of spreading yourself too thin.”
For barbecue done right, Famurewa might have been better of revisiting one of his former favourites — like Lagom, the brewpub-inhabiting Hackney outfit reviewed in similarly positive terms by Jay Rayner this week.
Rayner takes the trek to ast London in search of “good food, fairly priced” — and that’s exactly what chef Elliot Cunningham’s kitchen delivers: this is “bold live-fire cooking that throbs uncompromisingly with flavour.” Pork with fermented chilli and jaggery is “a plate of caramelisation and melting fat”; Sutton Hoo chicken bears “the high waft of the smoke it has been embraced lovingly by for hours”; the meat “peels away from the bone without being dry,” the skin remains “crisp.”
Rayner finds that while Cunningham may be “exceptionally good” at the usual “hunks of meat” approach to barbecue cookery, his way with vegetables is perhaps “more striking” still. Golden beetroot roasted until soft then dressed with “a fine acidic emulsion punched up with molasses” is “the best plate of the stuff” the Observer critic has eaten in years; mushrooms come “smoked to an almost meaty intensity”; there is a white cabbage coleslaw “full of crunch and salt and vinegar,” and potatoes “the colour of polished gold, with undulations and crevices and curled bits”. Each dish may be a “simple idea,” but the idea is “expressed” so “vividly” and with such “care” that “the key ingredient gets to shout its name.” Sure, Lagom may be lacking in the usual “fripperies” associated with eating out — and might come across as “uncomfortable and noisy and chaotic” to some — but on the plus side this means prices remain genuinely “decent.” In sum, the Hackney Church Brew Company can count on at least one convert: Rayner arrives a “tourist,” but leaves “ready to be a regular.”
Giles Coren seems set to become much the same at Ben Tish’s new Fitzrovia restaurant Norma — once it opens properly, that is. It may still be at the ‘friends and family’ stage, but in a world where Instagram is disrupting the idea of what “open for business” actually means, a critic popping their head through the door when things are so nascent no longer feels as scandalous as it might once have done.
Some things, at any rate, are unlikely to change between now and the point at which the general public gains admission. This place is “just so, so pretty,” for one thing: “tiled and arched and beautifully lit, with soft golden seating and marble-topped tables, romantic nooks and supersweet service.” And the menu, with its oh-so 2019 blend of snacks, raw bar, antipasti, pasta, and large plates will likely still scan as “incredibly thrilling and unfamiliar”: deep-fried spaghettini fritters with parmesan cream; raw red prawns (“of course”); “gleaming” violet artichokes with pine nut puree; lardo “draped over sweet, hot tomatoes and crisp, cakey toast”; and English rose veal with a “compelling” smoked eel mayonnaise. It may all be too early to state this confidently — and this week’s verdict on Flank is an object lesson in menu expectations vs reality — but for Coren all the signs are that Norma will become a “little jewel of a restaurant”.