Eating out: Hmm, jolly nice: St John's

91 Junction Road, Archway, London, N19, 0171 272 1587. Lunch Mon- Fri noon-3.30pm, dinner Mon-Fri 6-11pm. Food served Sat noon-11pm, Sun noon-10.30pm. Three-course dinner pounds 20. Service not included. Credit cards accepted, except Amex and Diners

WHENEVER I'm sent to review somewhere poncy, overpriced and not very good like Terrace or China Jazz, X always says to me: "What are we doing here? There's no way an Independent on Sunday reader would ever come to a place like this." And I go, "Yeah. You're right." Because she probably is. From what I understand, the typical Sindie reader is young, trendy, educated, and not desperately rich.

But the thing I always go on to say to X is this: "Look, we're fairly typical Sindie readers and if we stuck to the sort of restaurants we'd normally go to, there'd be hardly anything interesting to write about." Let's face it, if the food's reasonably priced, the decor unexceptional, and the cuisine fine but unambitious, you're not going to end up with a review which says: "Kill to get a table at this gastronomic paradise!" or "Die rather than tread within a million miles of this fetid roach pit!" You're just going to end up with something boring like: "Hmm. Jolly nice."

Which is precisely my problem with St John's, a hmm jolly nice gastro- pub, exactly like all the other hmm jolly nice gastro-pubs I've visited in the past five or so years. The decor's the same: spacious, high-ceilinged rooms with stripped-wood tables and mismatching chairs. The prices are the same: pounds 4-pounds 5 for a starter and pounds 9-pounds 11 for a main course. And the food's the same: the statutory sausage and mash dish; the modish fish dish and so on.

In fact, I've got to admit that St John's makes a nigh-on perfect place for a chilled, typical Sindie reader's Sunday lunch. The staff are laid back; there are free newspapers; the tables are far enough apart for you not to be bothered by other people's conversation or smoke; the clientele are young, trendy, educated and not desperately rich, and the conditions are baby-friendly.

And so to the menu chalked up on the inevitable blackboard. Snake the lawyer and I were the only ones who felt like a starter. I had the spinach, red onion and blue cheese tart, which I'd highly recommend. The pastry base was crumbly, the onions sweet, and the gooey blue cheese filling struck just the right balance between piquant and pongily overwhelming. It came on a generous bed of very fresh, crisp frisee.

Meanwhile, the Snake had something that no one else dared order: the sardines. X and I thought this was very silly because, as any fool knows, sardines are only good when grilled by an old bearded crone on a rock by the sea in Spain or Portugal. The sardines at St John's, though, proved an admirable exception. They tasted fresh, the skin was properly charred, the flesh white and succulent. And though they were perhaps a bit on the large side (the bigger the sardine, the keener you are to waste time trying to fillet it), this didn't bother the Snake one bit because he actually enjoys crunching bones between his teeth and sucking out fish eyes.

X, by now, was getting frightfully cross because by ordering starters we'd delayed the arrival of her main course. When her chicken orvieto arrived, she defended it as viciously as a female rattlesnake protecting its young, so I only managed to get one tiny taste of breast. But what I tasted was excellent. The meat was juicy and tender and the juice was delicious. Still don't know what orvieto means, though.

The Rat was equally impressed with his pork chop, especially since he couldn't taste the (in his opinion) scary-sounding honey and mustard glaze on top. And the Snake made it a hat-trick by voting his wild boar and apple sausages with red cabbage, mash and redcurrant jus a triumph, too. But for the mash - an important detail which we'll discuss in a minute - I agreed. I'm terribly fussy about my sausages and, although I think that the wild boar variety are one of yer gastro-pub's biggest cliches, I rated these ones pretty highly. Not only were they fully flavoured but they didn't contain any of those nasty, chewy bits which put you in mind of minced tail, testicles and trotter.

The only mild disappointment was my seared monkfish with a mussel and saffron sauce. It wasn't bad by any stretch, just uninspiring. Instead of being seared, the fish was covered with that oily black film you get when you try to barbecue meat before the flames have died down. And the mash.

No. The mash deserves a separate paragraph because this issue is So Important. The majority of the potatoes we're sold in this country would have Sir Walter Raleigh turning in his grave. They taste of nothing; eating them is an ordeal. The ones they use at St John's are no exception and, until the kitchens find a better source, they're wasting their time serving mash. And while they're at it, they should learn to mash all the lumps out.

It's a pity about St John's mash problem because in most other respects their kitchens are top notch. It's not the sort of food I'd consider it worth travelling across town for but if you lived in the area, I'm sure you'd find yourself coming back again and again. Jolly nice, you might go so far as to say.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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