Dinner with the White Rabbit and Piglet at St John Bread & Wine tonight, and I’m excited. The White Rabbit is late (naturally) and I’m left alone to devour half of the four thick slices of homemade bread that’s been sent to the table. With each piece that I tear and smear with butter, I tell myself it will be the last – wanting to save enough room for dinner – but half-an-hour is a long time for a hungry girl to wait. Not suprisingly it tastes amazing, when it’s only travelled a few feet from their bakery that I’m seated in front of.
St John Bread & Wine was first-born of the idea to find a home for the baking operations for St John restaurant. Fergus Henderson, caused a sensation when he opened St John in an old smokehouse near Smithfield in 1994. A chef revered throughout the world for his unpretentious and respectful approach to meat. He says, “It would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet”. And it was this ‘Nose to Tail’ philosophy of cooking and eating that first filled the restaurant and what’s now on offer in a smaller tapas style menu at St John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields. The menu changes seasonally and food is served as it should be – no tricked-up, fancy presentation or a confusion of flavours, just good produce that simply speaks for itself. And that’s why I’m excited.
Piglet and I enjoy a glass of French rose – ‘Plume’ NV Domaine Colombette, Coteaux du Libron (glass £5.40/bottle £21.60). It’s beautiful peach colour caught my eye on another table. And more bread.
I ask our waitress – who’s dressed in something of a chef’s white/lab coat (all the wait staff are) – what her favourite dishes are, and combine that with what I’ve seen the chef sending out to his mates at the table next to us.
First to arrive is the Foie gras and duck liver toast (£7.90). Imagine foie gras and duck liver whipped to light-as-air consistency and lathered lovingly on lightly toasted buttery brioche. Absolute heaven.
Apprehensive about ordering the Pigs head and peas (£8.10), I’m pleased to see it’s cooked like a stew. It appears rather fatty at first but the rubber band looking bits just melt in my mouth. Chunky pieces of pork with lovely fresh and slightly sweet peas. I don’t tell White Rabbit what we’re eating until she’s utterly convinced it’s delicious. But her facial expression says it all.
I keep thinking the last dish is going to be my favourite and then the Brown shrimp, kohlrabi and samphire (£8.50) salad arrives. Light, fresh and crunchy. Samphire is a new food love of mine – crisp and salty, the ‘Asparagus of the sea’.
It’s all about the meat tonight, although the Courgettes, lentils and yoghurt (£13.90) are just as hearty. Thick slices of zucchini (where I come from), perfectly cooked with tangy yoghurt and a little lemon in there somewhere that cuts through.
We struggle to think how we’ll manage to squeeze in the Ox cheek, watercress and potato cake (£16.10) but it falls apart at my touch. The meat almost a little sweet against the peppery watercress.
And then comes the Lleyn lamb, chicory and anchovy (£16.50). Perfectly pink.
I do have one gripe – about the tables. Little wooden square tables that look like old school desks. All the better for craming more people in to the small place but the legs are so narrow that you’re only option is to squeeze in and face directly opposite your dining companion. No good for our group of three – especially trying to share around so many plates. I ended up sitting side saddle for most of the meal.
You’re probably getting to know me by know and chances are I’ve checked out the dessert menu first. If you’re dining with me – I don’t care how “full” you are – there’s always room for dessert. It was Piglet who first informed me of the separate stomach, built just for post-dinner sweet treats (you can see why she’s my best friend). I sneak in an order for two desserts while my dinner companions are deep in conversation – the Chocolate and cherry trifle (£7.10) and Bread pudding with butterscotch sauce (£6.50). The juicey cherries pop against the sweet cream and bitter chocolate – this is my favourite. The pudding is lovely, but almost too sweet and a little tough.
St John Bread & Wine – 94-96 Commercial Street, Spitalfields E1 6LZ, London – 020 3301 8069