Yes, the Bible has a lot to say about life and death. But it also has a lot to say about bread. There's transubstantiation, and the episode with the loaves and the fishes. I'm already a convert. I don't just love it for mopping up. I love it for its smell. I love it for itself. I am still amazed at the flavours a baker can pull out of a grain. Especially when you consider that flour has no real flavour to start with. So when I heard about Bread & Wine - a new bar, bakery, restaurant and wine shop that had opened in the City of London - I figured that I owed it to myself.
I chose my companions - literally, the people with whom I was breaking bread - with care. I settled on two dear friends who had just finished the Atkins diet. They were happy with their weight loss (a total of 22lbs in one month), but unhappy with the "ketosis breath" that came with it. So a high-carb venue seemed a good choice. We would have an orgy of bread and butter.
Bread & Wine is in Spitalfields - that fashionable area where people actually wear the clothes you see in the style supplements. We had chosen to book on a real flip-flop Friday, when the sun made the young and the beautiful look more young and more beautiful. Even the Bread & Wine building, which used to be a bank, managed to look glamorous.
There was no art on the whitewashed walls. Just signs saying that Bread & Wine could not accept any responsibility for personal belongings. The space felt quite New York, but that was probably the humidity. And, unfortunately, we were sat at a table that lay outside the sweep of the air conditioning. Hell, if there were any fire hydrants ...
Bread & Wine is an offshoot of St John, that champion of British food with a carnivorous bent in nearby Clerkenwell. Its cookbook is entitled Nose to Tail Eating. Its logo is a pig sectioned up into butcher's cuts. So the message is clear - nothing gets wasted at St John. Where else can you get a rolled pig's spleen these days? Or braised lamb's tongues?
But Bread & Wine was different. I ran my eye down the blackboard, expecting to see inner organs on the list of specials. But no. It's a place where vegetarians could have a good night. As long as they are prepared to keep looking straight ahead when somebody orders the potted oxtail and pickled red cabbage (£5). Which I promptly did. The oxtail's sage and thyme jelly demanded two slices of bread to do it justice.
That's the big idea: the menu is full of dishes that go with bread. Luckily, the bread arrived without crusts. I've been involved in too many crust arguments in my time. Physical therapists - living, I'll wager, in America - now declare crusts can contribute to problems with the temporomandibular joint. Basically, we don't need the mastication; it causes jaw tension. I still say: "what the hey - walk on the wild side".
My first guest ordered a perfect English salad, what she called "a Beatrix Potter salad from Hilltop Farm". I smiled like I knew what she meant. But it was a mess of summer herbs, raw peas and a spring onion that, apparently, Mr McGregor would have been proud of. The salads of my childhood were different. There's still no restaurant brave enough to put salad cream on the table or serve up salmon from a tin.
My tomato, goat's curd and mint (£6.50) looked like art on the plate. The tomatoes, roasted on the vine, were buried in the foothhills of soft, curd mountains. But the mint turned it all into an adventure in taste. An adventure that it would have been a crime not to share. The only shame was that my second guest had ordered pea and lovage soup (£5). Who on earth wants to share that?
The pigeon (£10.50) arrived with two heraldic breasts rampant. Had I been patient enough, the meat would have melted in my mouth. But the capers and radishes in vinegar made me impatient to chew. The food, like the halibut, which came with a salad of slithery cucumber and crisp samphire, was a brave mix of textures and acidity, and only the best quality ingredients.
Don't be put off by the look of the cheeseboard. I wasn't. Which is why I can now tell you that the wrinkled, grey rind of the Wigmore hides a creamy, sweet interior. Traditionally, ewe's milk cheese, such as Wensleydale and Swaledale, is hard. This was semi-soft. It's clearly a cheese that needs to be turned out quickly, which is why restaurants get nervy about ordering it.
So well done, Bread & Wine. It's not all about the bottom line.
The restaurant hots up at 9pm. Literally. Something to do with the exposed kitchen. So, apart from the Eccles cakes at £1.50 (a St John favourite), I was pleased to see a dessert list that was light and breezy. My gooseberry jelly (£5) arrived all soft and yielding. The molecules were there because they wanted to be there. Not like those jellies held together with chemicals. It was simple and elegant, like Bread & Wine itself. This place can't fail. E
St John Bread & Wine, 94-96 Commercial Street, London E1 (020-7247 8724)Reuse content