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Tuesday, 21 December 2010

St John Bread and Wine, 94-96 Commercial Street, Spitalfields

This is disheartening. St. John Bread and Wine has long been my favourite restaurant in London, and now I’m going to give it a less than glowing review. How disappointing. 

The problem was with the Christmas feasting menu. We were a party of twelve, and so were obliged to choose something for the whole table (bar one guest, who suffers with ‘special’ dietary requirements). We plumped for the goose, at £43 pounds per head for three birdy courses and a sorbet. At that price, it’s not just the goose that’s getting fat.

Now, I know goose isn’t cheap. But when a whole suckling pig would have come in at £27.50 per head normally (+£15 pounds each for the ‘festive’ version, with starter and dessert), and when £43 pounds would buy you about eight dishes on the la carte menu, it’s not unreasonable to expect something pretty bloody spectacular for the price, especially when, almost by definition, these kinds of lunches are also going to yield a pretty high wine spend for the restaurant.* In any other place, the price wouldn't have mattered, but SJBW is justly renowned for astonishing quality AND superb value.

Goose liver pate was fine in every sense apart from the best. Finely pureed and finely spread on a single piece of quite large toast per person, it tasted fine but rather underwhelming, even with little cornichons to garnish. I hadn’t expected full on foie gras d’oie, but a little textural interest wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The next course was rather lovely – confit goose in a salad of bitter leaves, with a tart vinaigrette that punched through the decadence of the crispy bird. Delicious, but there could have been plenty more. 

The main, of roast goose and goose fat mashed potato, was another partial triumph. Pink meat tasted rich and gamey, with a crispy, fatty skin adding a brash veneer. Remarkable, mischievous mash, saturated with fat, would almost certainly kill in large quantities. That’s how I’d like to go, at least. 

I say partial triumph, not because there was anything wrong with what we were given; rather, the looming non-presence of anything green seemed odd. Fat, rich goose and fat, rich mash would have benefited hugely from some slim cavolo nero, say, or sprouts, or peas, or leeks, or broccoli.

We finished with a perky sorbet. I imagine egg-whites gave the sharp lemon ice its delightfully creamy texture. As sorbets go, this was very good, though a sorbet is never really going to provide fireworks. A slight anti-climax, perhaps. 

In most London restaurants, our goose feasting menu would have been an unqualified success. But because of the insanely high standards set by SJBW, this sweet ensemble left a very slightly sour taste. With lots of decent wine, we spent £68 pounds per head.

I’ll certainly return to SJBW – it’s a wonderful restaurant. But I think I’ll avoid the feasting menu in the future, which means no large groups. A shame, since SJBW should be perfect for long lunches with lots of friends.

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10 

*The day before we ate, there had been some kind of accident at SJBW’s wine storage facility – £250,000 of wine was lost. Terrible.

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