June 11 2011
On the balconies outside Manzi’s, the old seafood restaurant on Lisle Street where fathers would buy their impecunious offspring lunch while visiting them in The Smoke, were emblazoned three foot-high words: Langouste, Huîtres, Moules.
Manzi’s is no longer – fathers don’t shell out so readily now, perhaps – but the words are still there, adorning the new, long-awaited St John Hotel. They appear as the first three items on the restaurant menu, too, although langouste – spiny lobster – has been usurped by langoustines. Oysters are natives (there was still an “r” in the month); the moules are, in typically terse, tempting St John menu-prose, described simply as “mussels”. The recipe will change with the seasons, so you will need to ask how they come, which is part of the menu’s allure.
The original St John, near Smithfield, opened in 1994 in an old smokehouse whose lofty walls witnessed the birth of what co-owner and chef Fergus Henderson calls “a kind of British cooking”. It has been hugely important in fostering a new confidence among London chefs: you will find its influence and alumni at Great Queen Street in Covent Garden, the Anchor & Hope in Waterloo, and Hereford Road in Bayswater. A second restaurant opened seven years ago in Spitalfields.
Henderson and business partner Trevor Gulliver’s third site has, as its name suggests, found space for bedrooms above the shop: they, too, are white and uncluttered, but hardly spartan. The restaurant is on the ground floor; the kitchen – as at the other sites – is open to view; and the food, at an early lunch, was terrific.
The sourdough bread, from St John’s standalone bakery in Bermondsey, is exemplary: light and pliant in texture and rich in flavour, perfect for mopping up the sublime juices of quickly fried sweetbreads with little artichokes and broad beans. Lightly pressed pig’s head (another delicacy on the daily changing menu) was equally accomplished, its wobbly cubes of jelly sparkling like diamonds. St John has always embraced offal as a long-lost friend – “nose-to-ail eating” is the mantra – and this new sibling is no exception.
There is also plenty to tempt the squeamish: beef and watercress pie, for instance, its pastry burnished deep gold, the watercress adding unexpected savour and aroma to yielding chunks of beef. St John’s own-label syrah cabernet, a sunny, inky southern French red, was a perfect foil.
Puddings included a lemon sorbet with vodka (perfect with a glass of fizz, like a deconstructed sgroppino, the famous Venetian digéstif), mounds of fragrant, fluffy madeleines, rhubarb trifle and blood orange jelly. An espresso and a vieille prune in the bar rounded things off nicely, and the idea of sloping upstairs for a nap, to return for supper, seemed deeply appealing. I resisted; many, I am sure, will not.