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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

St John Hotel, 1 Leicester Street, Soho

Manzi’s was the first posh restaurant I ever went to. The year was something like 1990, I was eight or so, and we were up in town to have lunch and see Les Miserables. I don’t remember much about the meal, but I definitely enjoyed it, for how grown-up it made me feel and for the inklings it gave of another world, full of pleasure and ritual and butter. I think I had some sort of white fish with a creamy sauce – possibly turbot, possibly champagne-based. Though my memories are faint, I have long seen that trip as a kind of beginning: of a love affair with good cooking; of a fondness for tradition in food and history in restaurants; of a life-long tendency to overspend on eating out; and of complete incomprehension of musical theatre. 

When Manzi’s closed its doors for the final time in 2006, it had been serving seafood in Soho for 78 years. It’s difficult to imagine any new restaurant enjoying that kind of longevity in London again. But with St. John Hotel, on the old Manzi’s site just off hellish Leicester Square, owners Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver promise to give it a good go.


We went for lunch the day before Easter, when London was hot and empty. A cool dining room was sparsely populated, peaceful and, for those who know the other restaurants in the group, comfortingly familiar. 

I started with lamb sweetbreads, butter beans and wild garlic, a friendly mixture of thick, beany stock and sweet offal. It was marvellous, almost conspiratorial, the kind of dish you’d sooner run away with than share. £8.20 is hardly cheap, but when something is a good as this, almost any price would represent a good deal.

Another starter, of potted pigeon with quince and toast, didn’t quite reach the same heights, but it was still superbly fatty, peppery and lumpy. 


For mains, we ordered ‘Snails & bacon’ and ‘Broad beans, artichoke and Berkswell.’ Now, I’m not normally one for vegetarian main dishes, but with broad beans so smooth and artichoke so delicately fennelly, this was a great option. Berkswell cheese, grated on top and mixed through, brought everything together in a messy, brilliant mesh. 

And then snails and bacon. Until this point of the meal, I thought St. John Hotel was doing a competent impression of St. John – were that the case, it would still be a far better restaurant than most. But the snails and bacon were better than anything I’ve eaten at St. John, or at St. John Bread & Wine. Frankly, they were better than most things I’ve eaten. The snails, braised in cider, stood out sweet and tender against luscious, caramel, smoky bacon chunks and soft, sweet shallots. Underneath it all, a thick piece of fried bread soaked up the liquor, rewarding every mouthful with satisfying crunch. I’d return for this dish alone, day after day, if I could, and I don’t care that it cost £19. After all, that’s the same price as Behind the Black Door, Sarah Brown’s Downing Street memoir. 

Desserts maintained the ridiculously high standard. An enormous piece of custard tart featured gravity-defying, crème brulee-like custard dusted with nutmeg and cinnamon. This was so good it was almost moving (or at least, when it was finished, I nearly cried). 

And as a final flourish, a bitter chocolate ice cream. In Nose to Tail Eating (my favourite cookbook of all time), Fergus Henderson admitted that he had yet to achieve or even eat the kind of chocolate ice cream he wanted. Well that was then. I don’t know if Mr. Henderson likes head-chef Tom Harris’s version, but it was certainly the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever tasted. 

A glass each of the excellent house white and a couple of coffees brought the total bill to £86 for two. St. John Hotel is not cheap, but it’s better than, say, Dinner by Heston (which was really great), and therefore good value in my book. I can’t remember having enjoyed a meal so much in London, and I didn’t even have to sit through a musical afterwards.

Phil Letts’ take: 10/10

St. John Hotel on Urbanspoon

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