The dining room at St.John’s Bread and Wine restaurant reminds me of my school days: white walls, wooden chairs, scrubbed floor, shaker pegs, institutional lighting and stainless steel kitchen. The room is open plan, the kitchen and bakery runs along the back wall and the dining room chairs either face the chefs or the big windows that look out on the trundling traffic of Commercial Street.
The first thing I notice is that everyone who works here is very young and very beautiful. Nobody ugly, fat or old works here. There must be pulchritudinous candidate selection procedures in place to eliminate applications from the less than aesthetically perfect. The second thing I notice is that the chefs actually serve the food, or maybe they are waiters dressed in chefs’ whites. After looking at all the impressive cakes and loaves for sale, I sit at a table overlooking the kitchen and order a pea and mint soup, potted pork and tomatoes with lovage.
Without asking for it the waitress brings me two fat slices of freshly baked sourdough bread with a little dish of soft, unsalted butter. The bread has a very good nutty brown colour, very large air holes and an excellent taste, wild and earthy. The food preparation is extremely simple and unadorned, pared and honed. The pea and mint soup is served with al dente fresh peas and fresh watercress on top. It is very creamy, rich, fresh and grassy with a great depth of flavour and a very velvety texture. I wished I could eat it again.
The full throttle of lunch time service is now in motion, as the small dining room fills with creative, media, banking and corporate customers. If you like people watching, this is the place for you. In walks a couple of Frenchmen, one of whom is dressed in white trousers, a blue and white stripy shirt, a bright orange cardigan, blue blazer and shiny tan, pointy brogues. He shouts at my tomatoes and lovage: “Oh, look at zose tomatoss! Save zem for me! Zey are bootiful, bootiful!”, gesticulating wildly at my dish, ignoring me completely.
The two Frenchmen sit at the table next to me, as I eat my way through the potted pork and much admired (and meritorious) tomato salad. The pork is delicious, very tender, creamy and rich, and there are thin slices of pickled gherkin and preserved sweet yellow pepper which cut through the fattiness of the pork with a pleasing agrodolce aftertaste. The tomatoes are heritage varieties, all sizes and colours, thinly cut with little green flecks of lovage, that lends a strong aniseed flavour, and an olive oil dressing with a light peppery flavour. The sourdough bread is used to mop up all the delicious juices. In fact everything on the Menu is perfect farmhouse country fare that you would eat with bread: smoked mackerel and horseradish; mussels, cider and wild fennel; courgette, butter beans and yoghurt.
The Frenchmen have ordered the raw angus beef and bone marrow and the speckled face lamb, carrots and aioli. The one wearing the bright orange cardigan is talking louder than ever, in an already loud restaurant, where there is no background music and the conversation rebounds from wall to wall in a tall ceilinged room that is very sparsely decorated.
There are shelves stacked with wine, which is sold alongside the bread, and you can also buy the two eponymous cookery books. A very elegant elderly lady comes in to buy a few loaves of bread, a few small fruit cakes for her little grandson squeeling in the buggy like a piglet, and the staff come out to chat to her and open the door for her exit into the street.
There is no waiting time at all between courses. St.John’s serves people who inhabit a commercial heartland, and they need to get back to their dealing positions, shops and offices. This is not relaxed South Kensington ladies-who-lunch lingering territory.
One chef brings over a plate of steamed asparagus with sea salt flakes and melted butter. He says “This is with our compliments.” The loud Frenchman leaps up, and hurls his arms into the air. He runs towards the kitchen, arms splayed to God, and shouts at the top of his voice “God bless the kitchen at St.John’s! God bless the heart, the mind, the spirit of St.John’s!” As he sits down, the whole room is silenced for a nano second, and you can see the chefs’ heads bowed in reserved British embarrassment. The nano second has passed, and the animated conversation resumes, as if nothing ever really happened.
I return my attention to my notebook, and I write and underline “This is the cuisine de la grande mere” because, if one had a French grandmother, this is probably how she would cook. Despite the St.John’s enterprising, and very British “Nose to Tail” franchised philosophy, which has now spread to every other gastropub in the land, this is the apogee of peasant cookery of old fashioned middle and southern European osterie, brasseries, bistros and farmsteads.
The apple and vodka sorbet is excellent: you get one big scoop in a little glass bowl, and the flavour is sharp, intense and fresh. There is no decoration, no tuile, no mint sprig. Everything at St.John is minimal, pure and ascetic almost. What they do, they do simply and well, with intent and attention. It’s a formula that works. Every other customer is a regular, there is a great deal of air kissing the head waitress, dressed in very dark navy tunic dress, whilst all the other staff are dressed in white.
“Why do you wear navy and white?” shouts the Frenchman. “Why don’t you wear orange?” He energetically opens the front of his designer, gold, monogram buttoned blazer to display the full thrust of his mandarin coloured cashmere. The head waitress smiles quietly, nodding her head in polite appreciation, eyes wide open and eyebrows arched.
94-96 Commercial Street
London E1 6LZ
Telephone: 020 3301 8069