How sad it is to be greeted by a very charming maitre’d to then be hand balled to the rudest, most miserable waitress I have come across in the last decade. It must have been painful to remain so dour, so sour and so utterly, intrinsically unsmiling. This was our introduction to St John Bread and wine in Spitalfields, London. A restaurant which I have very much been looking forward to visiting since I first came across Fergus Henderson recipes years ago.
It is, as I knew, an austere, utilitarian and marginally chilly feeling restaurant space. I understand that this is the aim and on a warm summers evening with the sun shining through the large windows; it was quite pleasant. However, on a cold winters night I’m not sure how inviting the restaurant would feel to a customer.
Visiting St john was almost an exercise in realising the importance of good floor staff. A bad waitperson can totally ruin a dining experience, as it did on this occasion. The concept at St John Bread and Wine is to share plates, almost Tapas style. When we asked our waitress what portion sizes were like, she was so wonderfully vague that we asked if we could order a few plates to start and then order another round once we’d worked out how much food we’d need. However, Smiley Smilerson informed us that we couldn’t as there was only one chef and he would find it too confusing!? This was interesting as we could clearly see into the open kitchen and there appeared to be 3 people in there with chef’s jackets on.
And so, we ordered a mysterious amount of food and crossed our fingers. We ordered some Bread and Olives, which was pleasant enough although the bread was quite dense. Asparagus was in season and very tasty, a touch woody at the end, could have used a touch more trimming. Cauliflower, leeks and butter beans in a mustard sauce was delicious, it was almost like a cold braise. Smoked Mackerel and horseradish was a near perfect dish, light and moist. It took us a while to realise that we had been waiting for quite some time for some of our dishes, we were having such a nice time catching up with Miss A. When we questioned Smiley about our missing dishes she vaguely, sorta, kinda, went “oh yeah” and wandered off. Again, a beautiful level of service…
Finally our Flank and celeriac arrived with the Mussels we had ordered. The Flank was very tasty but needed longer cooking time as it was rather chewy. The Mussels were delicious and fresh, a nice light summers evening dish. We were still peckish; we would have ordered more, had our waitress been more effusive and actually enlightened us to the existence of specials. When we questioned her about the specials we were greeted with yet another, now classic Smiley response, “oh yeah”. To add insult to injury, when we asked her for a Pinot recommendation she looked at us as if we all had three heads and spat out “we only have one Pinot.” Wow, thanks for your enthusiasm. If I could afford it I would send the woman to finishing school, but I fear my money may be wasted.
To round off what was turning into a dire dining experience, I decided we should hang around for some desserts and prolong our time with charming old Smiley. I ordered Elderflower Jelly, which if memory serves me correctly, came with a little shortbread and some cream or berries? Also, we shared half a dozen Madeleine’s which were tasty enough and freshly baked. The Elderflower jelly was a standout, incredibly flavoursome but not too sweet and with an earthy quality that reminded you of its origins. It was set perfectly, just quivering, almost blowing in the late afternoon breeze ( not really but you get my point).
Towards the end of our visit, something amazing happened, Smiley lived up to her name and actually cracked a tiny little smile. I can’t remember the circumstances or how this indiscretion on her part was aroused, but she did, she smiled, a tiny bit. This however was not enough to erase the previous three hours of abysmal service. It may sound like I am exaggerating but sadly I am not, she really was that bad. Even Mr T thought so and he likes everyone!
The moral of the story is, if your wait staff are that bad, I will not go back to your restaurant. Which is a shame because the food was pretty good and I like Mr Henderson’s ideas. Alas, it would take a handwritten apology from Mr Henderson himself to make me go back there.