Wednesday, 15 May 2013
One Leicester Street, Covent Garden
It's always sad when a good restaurant dies, but when said restaurant bears the hallowed St John name, the soul-searching is that much more intense. Back in late 2012, when it was revealed that their 3rd outpost would be just off Leicester Square, the news was met with widespread approval; anywhere even half-decent to eat in that part of town is welcome, and what better people to wow the tourists with British cuisine than those who kicked the whole thing off? And when the operation stuttered, stalled and finally collapsed, it's a testament to the goodwill heaped upon the St John brand that people pointed the finger of blame at the area, the building, the clientèle, anything but the business itself.
The unfortunate truth is, though, that the St John thing was never going to work in a poky Georgian townhouse in W1. The cathedral-like atmosphere and whitewashed walls of the ex-smokehouse in Smithfield was - is - a unique and precious gift and eating there is as much about the building as the food. The team did their best to impose that famously minimalist décor on a building that was singularly ill-equipped to cope with it, but it never worked. The restaurant was echoey and impersonal, the hotel rooms boxy and noisy, and the upstairs bar had all the personality of a dentist's waiting room.
And yet, thanks to the priceless pedigree of the Henderson/Gulliver partnership, the food at St John Chinatown was always worth any other discomforts. In the dying days of the previous administration I went in one lunchtime for a plate of snails, duck hearts and lovage, which was lovely enough to distract me from the fact I could hear every word of the conversation on the table next to mine. The good news is that same chef - Tom Harris - is still manning the stoves, only now his food gets served in a room you actually want to be in.
Cockles and Jersey Royals in a saffron/tomato broth was a bowl of joy for £8, and was as good an advertisment for the St John school of cooking as you could wish for. Congratulations are in order, too, for managing to source the most freakishly massive cockles I've ever seen - each was the size of an oyster and packed loads of flavour.
Razor clams would have perhaps been nicer warm, but they were otherwise very good, a minimalist salad of tomatoes and dill highlighting the main ingredient without overwhelming it. Nice to not have a big sack of clam guts to eat around as well, which happens far too often for my liking (hang your head, 10 Greek Street).
Lamb sweetbreads are the kind of things that make me go all wobbly with delight even when only modestly prepared, but here, resting on a bed of artichokes and celery and glazed with a rich, sticky sauce that only the very best chefs can pull off without making treacle, they were nothing short of perfect. If you ever make the trip to 1 Leicester Street yourself, and I strongly suggest you do, you should order the sweetbreads. And thence if you ever go back, you should order them again.
Monkfish and anchovy may have approached the levels of the sweetbreads, too, had they not been unfortunately overcooked and dry. The spice coating on the fish was good, though, and there was an interesting interplay of textures with the breadcrumbs and the crunchy (and slightly scary sounding) "rape greens".
So while not perfect - and how many places are? - 1 Leicester Street has, with the use of skilful remodelling and with the retention of its highly skilled chef, morphed from a Formica'd, clinical space serving nice food to somewhere you could happily spend all day in, munching on oysters and white wine and generally just enjoying life. Oh, and that awful upstairs bar, forever to be filed under "what were they thinking?" in the Big Book of Restaurant Design Car Crashes, is now cozy and stylish, with a kind of 60s James Bond vibe and a counter you can actually sit at. It is a proper, grown-up restaurant, comfortable and confident and gimmick-free. This one's going to stick around.