Tuesday, 12 January 2010

St. John Bar, Smithfield

I was a little surprised when my vegetarian friend suggested meeting up at St. John Bar in Smithfield for a bite to eat. The St. John group (Bar, Restaurant, Bread & Wine, and a soon-to-be-acquired new hotel/restaurant site in Covent Gdn) has a reputation for serving flesh and bone in prodigious quantities. I shouldn't have been.

The way they treat their meat says everything that needs to be said about the cooks and the kitchen, so vegetables are bound to be treated likewise - with utmost respect. A memorable starter I had in the restaurant a few years ago was simply a large bowl of impossibly fresh peas in the pod. How they picked, transported, and served them in a short enough time as for them to retain their intense sweetness, I'll never know.
When we first moved to London, Jon and I had an expensive habit of eating out somewhere special once a month, and St. John Restaurant became a regular hangout. 8 years later, the blinkers are off, and our expensive habit suppressed (with regret). The bare, white-washed Bar and Bakery you walk through to reach the Restaurant offers a more affordable taste of former architect Fergus Henderson's gutsy and seasonally-inspired food.
The menu, as you'd expect, changes day to day. On a snowy, bitterly cold Tuesday night in January, the savoury offerings were as follows:
  • Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad (Fergus's signature dish)
  • Bread and butter
  • Olives
  • Salad
  • Welsh Rarebit
  • Cheese and Chutney Sandwich
  • Egg Mayonnaise and Watercress Sandwich
  • Middlewhite [pork] and Mustard Sandwich
  • Terrine
  • Crisp Pintail Legs with Watercress and Pickled Walnuts
  • Parsnip Soup
  • Whole Crab and Mayonnaise
  • Cheese and Biscuits
Unfortunately, the majority of fish and vegetable dishes (Mackerel with celeriac, Fish soup, Cauliflower, leeks and butterbeans) had been crossed off, leaving Imogen with only 2 or 3 options. With a delicious, but slightly under-chilled, glass of Picpoul de Pinet and a half pint of Meantime Stout, we ate: A LOT of bread and butter, a beautifully dressed salad, parsnip soup (she), Welsh rarebit (me), and Crisp pintail legs (me). Cue giggles as I watched the barman key parsnip soup into the till as "gay soup". Professing innocence, he claimed this nickname was borrowed from a recent customer who, on being offered a parsnip alternative to the sold-out potato soup, chose the term to express his indignation. So potatoes are acceptible to a hardcore carnivore, but parsnips a step too far? I'd have loved to have seen his expression when presented with a bowl of raw peas...
The duck legs were intriguing. Apparently, wild Pintail ducks feed largely on small fish so I was told to expect a "hint of fish" in the flesh. The small legs had been slow cooked and fried, and the flesh was rich, dark and intensely gamey. A sure sign of well-sourced wild fowl.

The Welsh rarebit was as it should be, predictable in the best sense of the word. A thick piece of toast smeared with a rich combination of strong Cheddar, mustard, and beer, served cermoniously with a large bottle of Worcestershire sauce.

To cleanse and refresh, we nibbled at a generous plate of dressed salad leaves. Whenever I visit a St. John establishment, I have their signature salad. There's something special about the creamy mustardy dressing, and I just can't replicate it at home for some reason. I'm sure it's simple enough - maybe they add sugar, or use a particular white wine vinegar? Anyone know?

Without pause, we tried two sweets: not-overly-sweet damson ice cream, and an exceedly rich mound of bitter chocolate cream with stewed prunes. Both were around the £7 mark, decidely expensive compared to the rest of the menu, but servings were again generous. Our gluttony proved our downfall, and neither of us finished (my chocolate cream was wrapped, on request, in cling film for me to take home and finish in my own time).
We left heavier and happier, with no complaints, but did regret our over-indulgence, and eyed up with envy a packet of Gaviscon someone - with foresight - had placed next to their plate of cheese and biscuits on the bar.

Time to send St. John a tweet: what is the secret of your divine salad dressing?

Friday, 8 January 2010

2010 destination wish list

The first thing I do when I get a new diary is flick to the "notes" pages and make a list of all the places I want to eat that year (new and established).

Here's my 2010 list. Overly optimistic, perhaps, to aim for all of them. Which should I visit first? Any favourites?
  • L'Anima
  • Bar Shu
  • Wild Honey
  • Wolseley for breakfast
  • Yauatcha
  • Quo Vadis
  • Hibiscus
  • Le Gavroche
  • Anchor and Hope
  • Hawksmoor
  • Dinings
  • Ledbury
  • Eastside Inn
  • Baltic
  • River Cafe
  • Riva
  • Age & Sons, Ramsgate
  • Barrafina
  • Franco Manca
  • Cay Tre
  • La Trompette
  • Umu
  • Skylon Bar
  • Downstairs at Terroirs
  • Pollen St.
  • Galvin La Chapelle
  • Dean Street Townhouse

Friday, 1 January 2010

Hummingbird Bakery: Sweet Nothings

I have wanted to write a scathing review ever since I started this blog, but nowhere has been awful enough to warrant one. Well, the time has come, and what better way to get 2010 started than by having a good moan.

Everyone is going cupcake crazy. Born, it seems, in 2000 when Magnolia Bakery played a starring role in SATC, super-sized cupcakes have muscled their way to the UK, with sickly-sweet murmurs of nostalgia. Retro boutique bakeries are popping up on every high street, cupcake decorating parties are all the rage, wedding cakes are now cupcake "towers", and MAC are even naming lipstick colours after them. Type in "cupcake" on Amazon, and over 130 eponymous baking books pop up.

Having read a well-crafted article by Catherine Phipps about baking books in the new food quarterly, Fire & Knives, I was moved to mention my visit to Hummingbird Bakery last month. I've avoided the trend so far. Keener to invest calorie intake in a decent bar of chocolate, a creamy potato dauphinoise, or a heart-stopping slab of warm crackling, the "cute" cakes simply don't excite me. As Catherine puts it, I prefer a "cake with guts", "something that has substance and flavour over style, and is more than just a fluffy concoction seemingly designed to make me feel sick".

However, a rare Friday afternoon off with a friend, and the suggestion of tea and cake, found us in South Kensington, not far from one of Hummingbird's three London bakeries. 3pm on a Friday afternoon, the place was full of tourists, queuing in the rain for a piece of fashion's latest fad. We grimaced, yet joined them. I won't lie, they look gorgeous, sitting plump and pretty in their display trays.

The first sour note, once we were through the front door and shaking off the rain, was the atmosphere. Stone-faced staff and pushy tourists (the sort you see fighting over Prada handbags at 9am on Boxing Day) joylessly passed each other credit cards, and bickered over the seating. There was no smell of baking - funny that, this being a "bakery" - and no warm welcome.

Next came the cakes themselves. I chose vanilla with chocolate frosting, and Nina chose the ubiquitous 'red velvet'. These are not a small indulgence - they were enormous (and pricey)! My first bite just delivered a mouthful of cloying sugar frosting. My second, of the cake itself, delivered no taste at all. The cake was crumbly and dry, and I could not detect any flavour. Enough said.

Eating cake is all about indulgence, so what's the point if they taste of nothing? The market is saturated with these sweet monstrosities, so my hope for 2010 is that this age of nostalgia takes us back into the kitchen, to the heart of home baking, and we tire of the Big Macs of the cake world.