Whether Defoe would have preferred the prissy and politically correct usage of 'Welsh rarebit' over the original, rather abusive 'Welsh rabbit' (meaning the Welsh could not afford meat) is doubtful, somehow. Another solution would be to call it cheese on toast. However, dish for dish, St John's menu is an affectionate, if somewhat trendy, update on tuckshop grub.
The place itself is plain, and impressive for it. Set in an old smokehouse, the vaulted room is cleverly divided into an airy bar and then a massive dining room, with at least one additional space toward the front. Brick walls are plugged with bright white paint, the floors painted battleship grey. Combined with the furniture, the place has the beautiful austerity of a black-and-white film, where only the customers and waiters introduce colour.
The look is attractive, the brand of beauty as clinical as an antique operating theatre. Functionally, the flat whiteness of the lighting makes it difficult for the eye to focus, lulling diners into a dreamy stupor.
The team behind the restaurant is pretty much the same as that behind the running of the French House Dining Room in Soho, central London. I recognised two French Housers at St John: manager Jon Spiteri, and Fergus Henderson, chef. Mr Henderson is son of the architect, Brian Henderson, a partner in the massive commercial firm YRM which was responsible, among other things, for Gatwick airport.
It was young Henderson, the chef, who designed St John so well. And while he is just as good at the stove as the drawing board, it is his privilege and diverse curiosities that have, in the past, undermined him as a cook. He has occasionally seemed to be visiting, rather than joining, the trade. When his interest flags, so does quality. Henderson will need extraordinary discipline once this place fills up. In the past, even in the tiny French House, he has lacked it.
I stopped going to the French House because of the kitchen's practice of sending out herring so overcooked in its marinade that the flesh had gone to slush, or chicken that was blood-rare. A chef who had worked his way up through tough brigades would be less likely to have countenanced such gaffes. He would have had it drilled into him that sloppiness is an insult to his craft, the waiters, the customers.
I hope, but cannot guarantee, that Henderson has matured. A lunch served earlier this week to a small showing of customers at St John certainly showed a heartening improvement. In fact, it was very good. 'Yellow' beetroot soup, studded with, among other things, bits of bacon, was perfect.
The bone marrow had the richness and savour one craves from the dripping pan. Guinea fowl was impressively moist, its crisp skin perfectly seasoned.
The roast pork belly, served in a great swath the size of a slice of prize-winning watermelon, was good but faintly absurd.
There was enough meat (and crackling) for two men or three women. To the side, the roast pumpkin was served in large rough quarters. The upshot was about as rustic as, say, an Englishman's second home in Tuscany.
Big restaurants often employ bakers. In the case of St John, this is a young veteran of Alastair Little's kitchen named Dan Lepard. His bread is respectable, his puddings homely and pleasing.
In keeping with the concerted old Englishness of the menu, there was bread and butter pudding, pear and prune tart, eccles cake and Lancashire cheese and something called 'chocolate and walnut surprise'. The surprise was an excellent steamed pudding, not too sweet, wearing one of its walnuts like a pin in a cloche hat. It came perched fetchingly in a puddle of creme anglaise. The pear tart was, again, generously proportioned, well made and judiciously sweetened.
Full marks, too, for a classical wine list which, refreshingly, is ungreedily priced yet almost exclusively French. A 1992 chinon, sold by the glass for pounds 2, by the bottle for pounds 9.90, was elegant and good.
Natch, there is some sort of fizzed-up, perfectly good, wet-tasting water in an impressive bottle. Service, from fleet young waiters, was courteous and polished.
THE Brackenbury, a nifty restaurant named after its street in west London, has been such a success that it has spawned a second establishment, this time named after its neighbourhood in west London: The Chiswick restaurant.
Only the exceptional quality of the wine list and the familiar face of the charming manager, Clive Greenhalgh, signals the connection. Where the parent restaurant is cosy and surprisingly affordable, The Chiswick has a cheap, hard quality about it. The walls are a sort of lavender blue, better suited to the changing room of a bridal boutique than a restaurant. The furniture is poorly co-ordinated modern. The noise level is piercingly high. Most strangely in the circumstances, the food is expensive, with only one of the main courses the night we ate priced less than pounds 10. (This, by the way, was quiche.) On that night, the service was stretched so thin as to be infuriating. The quality of cooking, too, was uneven. However, at its best, in the case of grilled mackerel in a rich mustard sauce, or a meltingly rich chicken liver pate studded with meat and served with buttery brioche, it was as classy as food gets. Roast pigeon served with cabbage and a madeira sauce was fine, though a 'fondant' potato looked and tasted more like something that had done duty with a Sunday roast. Seabass in a saffron sauce flecked with tomato and basil needed salt, badly, and at the same time was overpowered by the astringency of its expensive yellow spice. I keep encountering this dish, never done well, and wonder which glossy book popularised it.
A tarte tatin was fine, but a quivering little mound of blueberry jelly served with lightly candied berries and creme fraiche was pure delight. We drank a bottle of 1990 cahors, and liked it so much that we drank another.
Mainly, The Chiswick simply needs what builders call 'snagging'. There is one big problem, however. If it wants to charge serious prices for serious food, it has the chef but not the room.
St John, 26 St John Street, London EC1 (071-251 0848). Meals from pounds 15-pounds 25. Limited vegetarian choices. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat, dinner Sat. Sun lunch. Major credit cards except diners. Bar: 11am-11pm Mon-Sat, Sun 12noon-3pm.
The Chiswick, 131 Chiswick High Road, London W4 (081-994 6887). Approx pounds 30-pounds 40. Limited vegetarian choices. Open Tue-Sun lunch, dinner Mon-Sat. Access, Visa.
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