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.
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.
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.
St John Bread & Wine Spitalfields