St John Hotel, which finally opened in April, was one of the most eagerly anticipated openings in London this year. Kerstin Kühn went to visit
Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver are no doubt two of the most iconic personalities on the London restaurant scene. Renowned for their nose-to-tail eating philosophy and signature stark design, they have made St John an institution well known far beyond the capital and indeed British shores. So it was no surprise that their St John Hotel - which after much delay finally launched in April - was one of the most eagerly anticipated openings in London this year.
Located just off Leicester Square, in the shadow of the massive W hotel, the tiny 15-room property couldn't be more different from its ostentatious neighbour. Interiors reflect the signature simplicity and straightforwardness St John is famous for - a no-frills, stripped-back approach where rooms appear almost futuristic with bare white walls and aqua green floors and bathrooms.
Housed in what used to be the old fish restaurant Manzi's, the St John hotel, which is really more of a restaurant with rooms, features a first floor bar for up to 20 and the downstairs 50-seat main restaurant with an open kitchen at the back. Head chef is Tom Harris, who has worked with St John for more than six years and leads a brigade of 15 chefs who cover four shifts a day, plus a night shift as food is served until 2am.
The short, menu, though executed by Harris, is very much Henderson's baby. "Fergus is involved in every step of the way," says Harris. While the original St John in Clerkenwell is renowned for its constantly changing menus - no lunch or dinner menu is the same - over in the West End things are a bit more stable. "Because we're a hotel we don't change things as much and there are quite a few dishes that are constants," explains Harris.
A case in point is a main course of pike and leek pie for two (£36), one of Henderson's all-time favourites, which showcases a freshwater fish that is widely underrated in the UK, according to Harris: "Pike is used a lot in Europe but here it has this awful reputation for being muddy and dirty tasting, which it doesn't have to be at all."
He gently poaches the bony fish, carefully removes the flesh and makes a sauce out of white wine and the poaching stock before sweating leeks in butter and adding them to the mix, which is then covered with a pastry crust. The resulting pie may be huge in size but it's surprisingly delicate in flavour.
Among the starters is a dish of snails, pig cheek and lovage (£8.80) where monster-sized snails from Herefordshire take centre stage on the plate. Harris braises the snails with button onions, pig's trotters and sage and serves them on smoked pig's cheeks with sour dough croûtons and a buttery sauce made from lovage from his garden. A rich and heavy starter, it packs a real punch.
A lighter choice is a starter of Scottish razor clams (£9) which are marinated in olive oil, garlic, thyme and lemon zest, then charcoal grilled and served with ratte potatoes and sea purslane.
A popular main course is wood pigeon (£18). Roasted on the bone, the bird is served rare with Borlotti beans and an anchovy dressing simply made with red wine vinegar, garlic and olive oil. "We're all about British produce and 99% of our ingredients are sourced from within the UK. But some things are so wonderful you have to use them and the Borlotti beans from Italy are just that," says Harris.
On to desserts and not all diners will have space left for the gigantic portion of profiteroles and hot chocolate sauce (£8) or the gorgeous big glass of strawberry trifle (£7.60). Instead they may opt for the deeply pink and intensely flavoured raspberry sorbet served with a shot of Russian vodka (£7) to send them along their way - or indeed upstairs into their bedroom - no doubt feeling full and merry.
Sample dishes from the menu
Barley, carrots and curd £8 Mussels, tomato and dill £8 Blood cake and bantam egg £8.20
Middle White chop, chard and mustard £23 Bacon and beans for two £28 Braised lamb, carrots and watercress £20.50
Bowl of cherries £5 Custard tart £7 Treacle toffee ice-cream £7
St John hotel1 Leicester Street, London WC2H 7BLTel: 020 3301 8020www.stjohnhotellondon.com
By Kerstin Kühn
E-mail your comments to Kerstin Kühn here.
If you have something to say on this story or anything else join the debate at Table Talk - Caterer's new networking forum. Go to www.caterersearch.com/tabletalk
Looking for a new job? Find your next job here with Caterersearch.com jobs