“I see a white door and I want it painted grey…”
St John Hotel crashed and burned on the site of One Leicester Street in quite spectacular fashion. It had stumbled into life in 2011 after months of delays, issues with the building being cited, and within a year of opening we heard the first rumbles that they may be struggling.They gained a Michelin Star but shortly after went into administration; it was sad to see them eventually wind up, the guiding hands of owners Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver not enough to keep things going. The triumphant whitewashed abattoir chic of St John has been painted over, white sterility has left the the building — dark grey is the new credo.
Same chef, same room (re-designed and softened with muted grey, a long banquette), different owner. Singaporean hotelier Peng Loh has taken ownership of the site, adding to his brand Unlisted Collection which includes six boutique hotels and twelve restaurants across Singapore and Shanghai, as well as Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, home to another culinary luminary in Nuno Mendes at Michelin starred Viajante.
Chef Patron Tom Harris swiftly gained a Michelin Star for St John Hotel before it all went tits up, and the fact that he remains behind the stove (after ten years with St John) should compel anyone who dined here before to come rushing back. The old menu was invariably thrilling and gutsy at the same time. I remember a cocky dish of Bacon and Beans; the cockiness seemed to continue with a £28 price tag, which looked hilarious beside humble ingredients, but it was indeed a sharing dish and I loved it.
Two visits, back to back, both for lunch:
SMOKED COD’S ROE, DEVILLED PIG’S SKIN (£7)- Huge puffs of salty crisped pig skin on a smear of cod’s roe. Sets the palate sparking and has me hankering for ice cold beer. Twisted meal starter. Addict insane.
PIG’S CHEEK HAM, PEAS, WALNUT (£7.40) – Pretty dish of thinly sliced slivers of cheek, shavings of walnut, and some pea shoots and freshly podded peas. Elegant.
SNAILS, DUCK HEARTS, LOVAGE (£8.80) – Shocking green of blitzed lovage catches the eye, then the hunt is on for nuggets half submerged. Oh, here’s a duck heart just cooked to pinkness. Oh, there’s a chunk of snail lurking behind some crispbread. Translucent pig fat draped across the top is strangely mesmerising.
CRAB, FENNEL, MONK’S BEARD (£9) - Delicately sweet white crab meat, a tangle of monk’s beard, and some brown crab meat in the mix too.
COCKLES, JERSEY ROYALS, SAFFRON BROTH (£8) – Gargantuan cockles from Dorset that look more like Palourde clams, huge plump sods in a rich saffron broth. Politely turned new potatoes complete a thoroughly wholesome dish.
RAZOR CLAMS, TOMATO AND SAMPHIRE (£8) - Plump razor clams simply adorned, with a lick of olive oil and lemon juice.
LAMB SWEETBREADS, ARTICHOKES, CELERY (£12) - Pan-fried with just a dusting of flour, a delicate crust, this simple ensemble did its job very well.
MONKFISH, RAPE GREENS, ANCHOVY (£16) – The only real mis-fire with a slightly overcooked couple of meaty fillets.
SHAVED ICE, EARL GREY AND PEAR (£6.50) – As a dessert dodger, this was joyful. Lemony ice shavings doing an impression of a posh Slush Puppy. Subtle scent of bergamot from Earl Grey poached pear. Cute silver bowl.
The wine list crept up on me. It’s a creeper. A first impatient flick through searching for gems appeared to reveal nowt to thrill, but it was probably the teeny script which made it a chore. Another read on a second visit began to uncover some thoughtful choices. Bone janglingly dry (in a good way) Assyrtiko blend from the volcanic soil rich island of Santorini from Hatzidakis (£35); one of the grand daddies of Burgundy and a gentle legend, Paul Pernot and his benchmark Puligny-Montrachet 2010 (£89); thrilling Riesling from Boy Wonder Tim Schäfer Fröhlich, a ‘conversion’ German wine that will put the myth that Germans don’t make dry wine to the sword, converting any unbelievers. Manager Hannah Bonnell has also added a few intriguing Bulgarian wines, including “CPNA’ 2010 Syrah from Zagreus (£26), and the happily bonkers blend ‘Soli’ 2011 (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Traminer) from Edoardo Miroglio (£25). There are nine sweet and fortified wines by the glass, which is compelling.
The bar has had a proper makeover and now resembles a bar you’d want to sit in, rather than the dentist’s waiting room-cum-purgatory look that it was mournfully sporting before, and officially opens later this week. Bartender Marta has just returned from Poland, having previously mixed many excellent cocktails for me at Sir Terence Conran’s Boundary in Shoreditch — stick with her and you won’t go wrong.
Reborn, rewind. An elegant and swift return to the fold. Let’s hope they stick around.
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