Wednesday, July 09, 2008

St John and the rise of the London Gastropub

Originally uploaded by Suzi Edwards
One of the things that I love has been the evolution of the gastropub in London. It has democratized dining by creating a reliable middle tier of restaurant. It wasn’t that long ago that your choices would be either high-end fine dining, or scampi in a basket from the brewery-owned pub down the road. Not that there’s anything wrong with scampi, but there was something wrong with pub kitchens making sole use of the microwave or the deep-fat fryer.

Of course it’s not all good, and for a while there wasn’t a boozer that hadn’t stripped its floors, painted the walls white and put a terrine on the menu, but generally speaking, the gastropub has raised the standard of casual dining across the country. You no longer need to go all white linen and fish forks to get a good meal.

So I make a concerted effort to get to some of the gastropubs in London when I am here. Partly because when you earn Australian dollars and the credit crunch is in full-flight, you can’t afford to eat high-end every night, but also because I like this casual dining thing.

Strangely enough, any look at gastropubs begins, not with a pub, but with a restaurant. It’s called St John and when chef Fergus Henderson opened the doors in 1994, he caused a bit of a stir. St John is now always in the world’s top 100 restaurants list, which is amazing when you consider that many people wrinkle their noses when you tell them what you ate there. I still don’t think Frog has forgiven me for eating that squirrel. What St John did was to reinvent the London restaurant. The menu reads like paired down Hemmingway, with no place for adjectival fripperies such as “pan-fried” or “on a bed of”. You get what you order, so “langoustines and mayonnaise” or “lamb’s sweetbreads”, (pictured) will be just that. Luckily this is sourcing and cooking of the highest order and the langoustines are so fresh and sweet that you don’t really need the raspy mayo, so I just smear that, quarter inch thick, on their exceptional bread. The sweetbreads are seared and served with a hint of wobble and their frying juices. “Salad” offered some contrast. It takes big balls to serve a plate of butter lettuce with spring onions, but when it’s dressed with the best salad dressing you’ll have all year, everything is elevated.

Most gastropubs follow the St John menu taxonomy, with starters blurring into main courses, some dishes meant for sharing and those sparse descriptions. The great thing about St John is that it has been around for long enough to have spawned some imitators and for its chefs to have moved on to do their own thing. The former head chef at St John Bread and Wine, Tom Pemberton, has recently opened Hereford Road and, based on my lunchtime experience there, is going to do very well. It’s St John but in a less austere room, with a wonderful skylight and burgundy walls. We shared most of the starters, including some great crab on toast that was more tasty brown meat than white (a Good Thing, in my book) and some great sand eels. The chips were superlative, all scronchy and golden and perfect to mop up the blood and juices from an onglet. This is simple, seasonal food with nowhere for mistakes to hide, although I was a little underwhelmed by the globe artichoke.

Medcalf in Exmouth Market was one of the first St John-a-likes and is always a reliable place, especially if Moro is unable to accommodate. The battered old metal tables always annoy though, especially when they flake rust onto your hands. Head Chef Mark Spence has moved on from here and opened Market in Camden, a place that has been crying out for this sort of thing for as long as I can remember. The service is charming, the chairs all old wooden school chairs and the slip soles were as good as any I have eaten. Portions are massive though, so be warned.

The Anchor and Hope, with its no bookings, wait in the packed bar like calves waiting to be crated across Europe-vibe was on the Binky boycott list for a long time, but I relented at Christmas and had a wonderful game pie. I completely understand why restaurants go down the no-bookings route, but it still irks me. Luckily the food is wonderful and the hectic atmosphere makes this a buzzy, fun place to eat. They opened Great Queen Street at the tail end of last year, and it’s basically Anchor and Hope, but with bookings. Last night’s hastily grabbed meal shows a restaurant that almost knows what it’s doing, but lets itself down with distracted service. I’m not sure you can ever serve potato soup with cockles and laver bread to a Welshman and expect him to not complain at paying more than 50p and my terrine needed more larding, but this is a reliable place in the West End. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back but it’s a massive improvement on the Thai place that used to be there.

Hereford Road is at 3 Hereford Road, W2. 020 7727 1144.

Great Queen Street is at 32 Great Queen Street, WC2B 5AA. 020 7242 0622.

Medcalf is at 40 Exmouth Market. 020 7833 3533.

The Anchor and Hope is at 36 The Cut. They don’t take bookings, so there’s no point calling. Get there at about 5.30pm for the 6.00pm tables.

Market is at 43 Parkway, Camden. 020 7267 9700

St John has two branches and a very helpful website

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Anonymous Marco Abis said...

The only problem with St John is that I need a vocabulary every time I go there!!

5:11 AM  

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