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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'