First, let us get the problems out of the way. The wine list is appalling. Not only do they have largely crap wine but it is also laughably expensive. Would you pay £33 for a Vin de Pays de l’Ardeche blanc from those swine Chapoutier? I wouldn’t. This problem can be easily solved, they have some great beer including offerings from the wonderful Meantime Brewery. We drank them dry of the Oktoberfest-style beer. They have 750ml bottles of the excellent Meantime London Porter if you feel you need a large bottle of something on your table.
The second problem is the dining room: it is very stark, with high walls and lots of tables crammed in. This makes it seem very loud and busy. If you want a peaceful, relaxing meal this dining room will not provide the right ambience. When you go to Saint John you’ve got to be prepared for a bit of bustle.
Now we can turn our attention to the food. And what fun we had with it. The menu was short but we all felt they had several options we could happily go for. As usual when presented with a pleasing menu I was groaning and grunting with anticipation. I’ll go through the starters in order of increasing brilliance.
Rolled pig’s spleen with bacon was well presented, and whilst the flavour that was there was good, it didn’t taste so strongly. When you order something that would petrify fussy eaters you hope it would have a touch more character.
Daniel ordered smoked eel with celeriac. The eel was perfect, strongly flavoured with a good smoked character and not the slightest bit silty. The celeriac was a good combination with this. This may not have been the best starter we had by cripes was it tasty.
Roast bone marrow with toast is one of the signature dishes at Saint John, and it has never failed to impress me. If you remember the dog food adverts which claimed to be ‘filled with marrowbone jelly’ you’ll have a pretty good idea of the texture of the marrow which you have to scrape out of the bones. Sure, it may look like another dish to scare the hard of eating, but the taste! Oh the taste! If you should visit Saint John at least one of you should order this and pass bits around, you’d be missing a lot if you did not.
Finally, we come to what was universally agreed to be the best starter, potted beef. Now, we have had truly excellent potted beef at Hawksmoor and I never thought I would have better, but this stuff was the nun’s nethers. Incredibly rich and meaty with an incredible depth of flavour. The texture was also an improvement over Hawksmoor’s offering, less slimy with more meat fibres. It is just great when you have a favourite dish somewhere different and they surpass your previous experiences, and your expectations. We loved this totally.
Moving onto the main courses provided us with even more laughs and giggles. ‘Non-Stinky’ Jeff ordered tripe, which seemed a brave move to me as I cannot stand the texture of the stuff. He said it was well worth trying, but having it once, probably as well prepared as one was ever likely to have it, was enough. He also said the texture was not totally pleasing. He loved the bacon bits that came with it and I am not in the least bit surprised, they were clearly of the highest quality. I neglected to ask who their bacon supplier was, alas.
Dan ordered pan-roast lemon sole with fresh tartare sauce. He said the tartare sauce failed to enhance the fish, which was quite superb. I agree the fish was wonderful, not over cooked in the slightest and with a great flavour. I suppose they should have provided a bone dump-bin as the plate was somewhat crowded with the fish on it and there was not a lot of space for general filleting manoeuvres. Alternatively, they could have filleted the fish before serving it, but I suppose it would have looked less impressive that way.
Then, of course, there were Daniel and my main courses. I’ve said before, when sweetbreads are on the menu I cannot help but order them. Daniel had eaten this concoction of lamb’s sweetbreads with bacon and carrots a couple of months ago and he told me they were lovely. He was wrong, they were super special (special in the very best way). Long time readers may know we had almost exactly the same ingredients at [link2post id=”714″]Hix Oyster and Chop House[/link2post]; they were abysmal, these were amazing. I will do almost anything to eat good sweetbreads and for these I’d kill. Kill lambs, anyway.
We did order some side dishes. Dan and NSJ said the potatoes were excellent but I was more interested in the best welsh rarebit I’ve eaten. Great stuff, really cheesy with a lovely Worcestershire sauce flavour.
You’ve got to be a bold diner to enjoy a meal at Saint John, but surely all the best people are bold diners? Internal organs are not cooked better than here in many places. Sure, the wine list can be skipped, and it is a bit noisy, but you’ll go out full of innards and charged with life. Saint John is still one of the best, and easily one of the most enjoyable, restaurants I’ve been to.
Contact details: Saint John Restaurant, 26 Saint John Street, London EC1M 4AY. Telephone 020 7251 0848
Many thanks to Jeff for the pictures and, indeed, all of the boys for being such wonderful company.