Monday, 28 September 2009

Simple Pleasures at St John Bread & Wine

I've been meaning to visit St John Bread & Wine for longer than I can remember but somehow I'd never quite got there. I've even had reservations in the past that I've had to cancel for one reason or another. The perfect opportunity to try again that I couldn't miss came when I was planning a day out to celebrate my husband's birthday at the end of July when it just so happened that St John Bread & Wine was a natural mid-point (at around lunch o'clock...) between Murdock's in Old Street (where I'd booked him a traditional wet shave as part of his birthday present) and London Bridge (for the train back to Frank's Bar in Peckham where we were meeting friends for early birthday drinks). I love it when a plan comes together.

St John Bread & Wine is the sister restaurant to St John, a larger restaurant in Smithfields, and is thought of as being less formal with a menu structured around sharing plates. The menu reads a bit like a timetable with dishes being available specific times throughout the day - breakfast, elevenses, lunch (with some plates available only from 1pm onwards and then, only until they run out, which they often do) and supper from 6pm.

It was a bright sunny day and the sun streaming in through the large windows which run along the front of the restaurant lit the dining room up. It's not a huge dining space, but the ceiling is incredibly high which means the room has a sort of warehouse feel about it. It was fairly empty when we arrived and never really filled up completely. I'd love to go when it's full - on a Friday night perhaps - to see what the atmosphere is like then, because it's unusual on a Saturday lunchtime. Not in a bad way, don't get me wrong, it's just a little quiet and empty. What's great about that is that you don't have to shout over the table next to you to make yourself heard! I can picture myself there with a bunch of mates, ordering more food and drinks as more people arrive.

I like the simplicity of the menu. You know what you're getting, like 'Peas in the Pod' or 'Hake & Samphire'. There's no messing around with poncy dish names on the menu here. They say it like it is. And the style of the food matches that no nonsense approach. The produce is top notch and so incredibly fresh. There's no need to dress it up. Many chefs these days talk about showcasing the fresh ingredients or letting the produce speak for itself. Here it's not just talk, they actually achieve it.

In addition to the printed menu (which changes twice a day), there are also specials up on the blackboards around the room. The wine list is good and varied, with many available by the glass (and also to buy and take home which is just what I did on my second visit a week later...). On this occasion we started with a glass of rose each and then moved on to sample some of the reds by the glass. Although it works out more expensive drinking by the glass it does mean you have the opportunity to try different wines, which I like. So many restaurants only serve a limited number of wines by the glass (and at often rather elevated prices) so this was refreshing to see.

We decided to order some dishes to share and then a meat dish for Andrew (it was his birthday after all). The first dish I chose was Peas & Ticklemore. Fresher than fresh raw peas, straight from the pod and thin slices of ticklemore cheese with pea shoots, herbs and a lemon oil dressing. The peas were crunchy and sweet. The cheese was very subtle and it's texture married well with the peas, leafy pea shoots and the viscous lemon oil (which had just a hint of natural lemon rather than being too citrusy or overpowering). A lovely fresh start to a meal and the portion size was perfect for two people to share.

We were undecided on our next choice (not an uncommon state of affairs for two of the most indecisive people to walk this planet). We fancied trying a fish dish, of which there were a handful on the menu, but with my forays into fish being fairly limited I wasn't sure whether I would like the cuttlefish which had caught our eye. After a conversation with the knowledgeable waiter who explained how the dish was prepared and what to expect from the cuttlefish, we did plump for it (Cuttlefish with Heirloom Tomatoes). It was the right choice.

Cuttlefish is not at all what I expected. Our waiter explained that it was braised, tossed together with a mixture of colourful heirloom tomatoes and dressed with a simple olive oil vinaigrette flavoured with fresh marjoram. The texture of the cuttlefish was unusual, but certainly not unpleasant. Nothing like any other fish or seafood I have ever eaten, it has quite a meaty texture. It was rich, slightly sweet and most definitely 'earthy' and took on the flavours of the braising liquor and the dressing. The tomatoes were much needed to cut through the richness of the cuttlefish, especially the green ones which had just the right amount of bite to contrast with the soft fish. I couldn't have eaten the whole plate myself, but then that's the whole point of St John Bread & Wine's concept of plates to share.

Andrew declared his Middle White Faggot & Peas to be simply delicious. He'd never had faggots before and wasn't entirely sure what to expect. He needn't have worried - the single faggot came sat on a bed of cream sweet peas with plenty of the faggot cooking juices. Hearty yet stylish.

Maybe it was the wine, or just the fact that when you're relaxing over a long lazy lunch you don't want it to end, but we both decided there was room for another dish before we considered the desserts. I'm so glad we did. Although simple (again), the Brown & White Crab served with toasted sourdough was good. There was plenty of both the brown and white meat - in fact there were some lovely big pieces of white meat which I tried to snaffle whilst Andrew wasn't looking. My only criticism would be that the toast was slightly too oily and could have done with being a dry toast to contrast with the rich crab. That certainly wouldn't stop me from ordering it again though.

The only real let down of the meal was the dessert. We both love all things almond and decided to go for the Raspberry & Almond Tart. Whilst it was OK it wasn't anything more than that which was a little disappointing. I've made many almondy tarts with summer fruits so perhaps I was expecting something far superior to what I can create with my own fair hands, but it just didn't deliver for me - there wasn't enough almond filling and the pastry was a little too thin and soft.

All in all, St John Bread & Wine was perfect for a splendid lazy weekend lunch. There is a relaxed feeling and service is calm, friendly and spot on when it comes to explaining the dishes. I could almost taste the dishes from our waiter's description of them! The dishes have a distinctive style which makes this a restaurant which knows exactly what it has to offer and does so sublimely.

I went back just 1 week later with my mum, for a second visit which confirmed my opinion that St John Bread & Wine is all about top quality, simple food. The Smoked Mackerel & Horseradish was just that - a large piece of delicately and naturally smoked mackerel with a small dollop of horseradish creme fraiche. Paired with a simple salad of lettuce leaves and herbs and Jersey Tomatoes & Wild Marjoram made for a second stunning lunch.

St John Bread & Wine Spitalfields
94-96 Commercial Street
E1 6LZ
Tel: 020 7251 0848

St John Bread & Wine on Urbanspoon


  1. I've only been to St John but have heard good things about Bread & Wine. And I adore cuttlefish (it's a common ingredient in Chinese cooking)! The idea of a lazy weekend brunch sounds very appealing...

  2. Great review, really like the look of the Middle White Faggot and Peas. Despie working just down the road for years, I've never been to St Johns. (apart from to buy bread) - next year.

  3. It's been ages that I would like to go to St John and after having read your post, it is definitely at the top of my list! Your pictures are beautiful and with noon approaching, it makes my hungry!

  4. I would say that St.John B & W is my most visited restaurant in London. I love the location, atmosphere and the food. I have had overall really great meals with them, and you are so right about it being a great weekend lunch destination. I went for my birthday lunch in August (drank too much wine of course!), but left feeling very relaxed and content. It is too bad that you weren't overly impressed by the desserts, I always order the madeleine, which are baked to order, and alone are worth a vist to St.John B&W.


  5. I made myself fairly hungry just writing this post up yesterday! I'll certainly be back there again soon - so many places to eat but so little time...

    I knew you'd been a few times Cailin from your tweets. Maybe I just made a bad choice on the desserts. Second time round we didn't stay for dessert. Next time. I do fancy trying the madeleines (I made them at home again recently and they're sooooo tasty), but for me they are more a breakfast thing and I am never up in town in time for breakfast at the weekends!

  6. Helen - In what way is cuttlefish served in Chinese cuisine? Does it have the same rich flavour and texture?

  7. I haven't been to St John Bread & Wine, but have always liked the concept of it. It's been added to my 'must visit' list.

  8. I've only been to St. John but also have almost been here a couple of times. I love the simplicity of it and I am very pleased to see faggots on there. I love them.

  9. Love this place! Need to find another special occasion (read: excuse) to go back...

  10. ...great! It's a tighter kitchen than the other one.

  11. A lovely post. It's such a special place, and your write-up has reminded me to go again as soon as possible!

  12. I absolutely love this place - one of my favs. Have you had the madeleines? Freshly baked to order - you can take a box home and scoff them on the couch! Heavenly.