The virtues of simplicity

26 St John Street, London EC1M 4AY. Tel: 0171-251 0848. Open for lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday, lunch only Sunday. Average price per person £25. All major credit cards accepted. price etc ST JOHN
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The Independent Culture
WHETHER it is something to do with its being so near Smithfield - the restaurant is in St John Street about 100 yards north of the meat market - or whether, as seems more probable, it is a carefully thought- out policy, there is a rather bare and basic feel about the food at the St John.

The decor certainly sets the same theme - it is architectural and rather striking, a high white room laid out on the lines of a school dining room, wooden chairs and tables with white paper cloths arranged in rows, with bare, white-painted girders supporting the roof, rows of black lamps hanging on black rods, a wooden floor painted pale grey, and a stainless steel serving counter to match the stainless steel bar in the lower room where you come in.

There are also windows looking out on more white-painted outer rooms - one little windowed cabin off the main restaurant serves as a kind of private dining room - and the waiters and waitresses wear long white aprons and baggy white jackets.

The lady who takes the coats deserves some sort of award for being so garrulous and affable and uninhibited. She told us that the restaurant used to be a shed where they hung hams, and that you can, in some ghostly way, get a whiff of curing ham.

The clientele, on the evening I ate there at least, is smartish but not excessively fashionable: a table of old-fashioned country gents and their ladies, ostentatiously smoking cigarettes between courses, a few groups of young businessmen in dark suits with briefcases, a few courting couples, a table of butch gays in beards and lumberjack checks, two aunts and their young niece, and your plump critic with his willowy spouse, scribbling notes on the paper tablecloth.

The menu, surmounted by what appears to be a flying pig with a discreet a, b, c, d and e drawn in to indicate the various cuts of pork, also makes a virtue of simplicity. It is headed "Supper", and does its best to evoke a modern pie and mash establishment. There are, for example, apart from what we eventually chose, whelks and pickled onions at £3.50. When your mouth has unshrivelled from reading that, there are deep-fried sprats and tartare sauce, lambs' brain terrine, Jerusalem artichoke, spinach and red onion, and rock or native oysters which are individually priced at 95p or £1.10 apiece.

A very charming and intelligent waitress had joined us by this time. My wife got in first and ordered roast marrow bone and parsley salad, and I was left with the only other alternative I could face, which was smoked eel and bacon soup.

The wine list is very selective and professional, ranging from £8 to £53.50 a bottle. We asked for some 1992 Corbires at £11.75, which was more than adequate.

Whatever other shortcomings the restaurant may have, the marrow bone alone is worth the trip. Three big chunks of bone of the kind the King's dwarf stuck Gulliver in during dinner in the Land of the Giants, roasted in the oven and brimful of the most delicious marrow to be spooned out and eaten on brown toast. The parsley salad, too, was memorably good. My soup was fine as far as its ingredients were concerned, but really too watery and weak.

For the main course my wife decided to have roast pigeon and lentils. By this time I was getting quite carried away by nostalgia for the good old days of Victorian cockney knockabout, and ordered tripe, onions and mash.We could have had Dover sole - which was, at £15.50, by far the most expensive thing on the menu - baked courgettes, tomato and crispy bread, cold roast sirloin, green beans and aioli or pork and liver sausage and fennel. Under that were what looked at first sight like vegetables - broccoli, new potatoes or salad, then Welsh rarebit and cheese.

The pigeon was very small, okay but no more, and served with warm lentils, and for some reason with near-cold leeks which seemed to me on the stringy side. My tripe would have made a costermonger laugh a good deal, being laid out in very small, thin, delicate strips with an accompanying slice of braised onion on a mound of mashed potato.

Not a lot was going on by way of cabaret: my wife had purposely taken the chair from which I could have spent the evening admiring the long- legged beauty at the next table, and I had to content myself with sitting with my back to her, comparing her bright and passionate conversation with my wife's admittedly more amusing shafts of destructive wit. At the old gents' table they all got up and changed places and smoked a few more cigarettes, and at one point a very cocky-looking cook resembling something out of Happy Families bounced through the room in blue check trousers and a goatee beard. Otherwise it was pretty quiet.

Puddings at the St John form a very limited list: crme caramel, plum and almond tart, rhubarb and cream, vanilla and coffee ice cream, or apple crumble. My wife asked for the Welsh rarebit. It was made, the waitress told us, with Guinness. Having had a very good Welsh rarebit two days before at Fortnum's Soda Fountain, I found the St John version a bit of a let-down: dark and heavy and syrupy on limp toast.

The St John partially redeemed itself with the apple crumble, which really was excellent: firm chunks of sweet cooking apple tasting of soft brown sugar, and what little crumble there was very light and unsoggy.

We had two pots of camomile tea, which was unexceptionable, and the bill for two came to £50.52 without the tip. Under the Service Not Included stamp on the print-out it says "Nose to Tail Eating". I'm not sure it's the happiest of mottoes.