We spent Christmas eve having dinner at St John Hotel. The hotel, with an attached restaurant and bar, is the 3rd establishment by famed British chef Fergus Henderson, he who pioneered the “nose-to-tail” eating movement and together with Heston Blumenthal, was credited for revitalizing British cooking.
While I’ve not been to either the original or his sophomore effort, judging from photographs online, St John Hotel looks very much like its siblings. The overall aesthetic is minimalist and utilitarian, the oblong dining room looking into a clean and composed kitchen, the cooks’ faces betraying no signs of stress. The clean, uncluttered look extended to the menu containing items that sounded very British (welsh rarebit, puddings and pies etc). We had our server explain some terms to us, chose our dishes and drinks, and waited impatiently for the first courses to arrive.
The evening started on a fantastic note. For starters, I picked an unlikely combination of snails, bacon and lovage, a European plant that is a distant cousin to parsley. It sounded odd on paper but was in fact a lovely dish, a re-intepretation of classic French escargots, the light herbal flavors of the verdant green sauce harmonious with the more savory components. There was also a variety of textures between the chewy snails, crunchy croutons and the meltingly soft fats on the streaky bacon.
P ordered off the pre-theater menu, designed to feed those in a hurry to catch their shows at nearby West End theaters. The options are decidedly simpler than on the a la carte menu, and the husband’s starter of potted pheasant, exotic game aside, was pretty pedestrian. I did enjoy the sweet-sour accompaniment, what I had assumed to be spiced cherries but were in fact pickled crab apples.
In a foolish attempt to stick to a balanced diet, I eschewed meat for a big piece of skate served under a creamy cockles and laverbread sauce, a unique Welsh concoction. The skate was meaty and fine-textured, but I found the seaweed and cockle sauce too salty and the dish rather monotonous especially after ploughing through the generous portion. I should have remembered St John’s reputation for offals.
P’s duck was quite good paired with the buttery celeriac puree, tasting ever delicately of celery. We would have been impressed with the crisp texture of the skin and the moist meat underneath the confit-ed duck, if we did not stay in Paris. Alas, this rendition, while above average still had some ways to go before it can unseat our perennial favorite at Chez Josephine Dumonet.
Thankfully the evening ended on good note with a bowl of trifle. I’ve always associated trifles with celebrations, dished out of large crystal bowls during birthday parties and Thanksgivings, so it was fitting we feted Christmas on a bowl of sinfully good pear and sherry trifle. The pear was sweet and spicy from the liquor, the little dices of pound cake soaked up the precious juice, and the devonshire cream was absolutely glorious. We finished the entire bowl, calories be damned.
Our meal at St John’s Hotel left me a tad disappointed. I guess I was expecting every dish to hit it out of the park, so 2 out of 5 is not a good score. Maybe I had unreasonably high expectations, and we might have made some wrong ordering decisions on our part, but when a restaurant is as lauded as the St John’s brand, shouldn’t each dish leave me in awe and wanting more?
St John’s Hotel
Address: 1 Leicester St, London, WC2H 7BL