Thursday 21 January 2010

St John, Smithfield - Pigfest 2010: London

If it's part of the animal, it won't feel out of place on the menu at St John.

St John is known as a London institution for true Brit "nose to tail" eating. For those, like me, who like to get their snouts in the trough, it represents simple, trimmed down principles in both style and substance.

Set in a former smokehouse near the Smithfield meat market, St John is not typical among its Michelin Star star contemporaries. In plain, white walled, basic surrounds, the intrepid diner is drawn to focus on quality samples of weird and wonderful meat cuts and combinations - like pheasant and trotter pie, or snail, sausage and chickpea. The philosophy seems to be that if you're going to kill the beast, it's only fair to make thorough use of it. St John is not for everyone, but proprietor Fergus Henderson was heralded as revolutionary for bringing the St John concept to life in its early days (at least) after opening in 1994, despite having no formal training as a chef (he trained as an architect).

I've been to St John several times, both to the dining room and to scoff the gorgeous, freshly baked madeleines over a cuppa downstairs at the bar (a soothing way to break up the bus trip home from East London).

The food is anything between well executed to absolutely delicious (and this from a girl who would rather eat her own toenails than offal). Service is, unfortunately, all too consistently frosty.

So it was with this history in mind that I eagerly attended the Ladies' Pigfest 2010 with 15 other fine femme foodies and bloggers last week. Our object: To eat pig. Lots of pig.

We had pre-ordered the whole roast suckling pig (requiring large group bookings) with sides of boiled potatoes and greens. Our selected starters were St John's signature roasted bone marrow with flat leaf parsley and spring onion salad, and whole crab with mayonnaise. Desserts were to be the British-to-the-bootstraps Eccles cakes with Lancashire cheese and Spotted Dick with custard. Righty ho old, chum - so how'd it go?

Weee-eeelll. Despite pre-ordering everything well in advance, we waited for 50 minutes for our entrees to arrive. Woman cannot live on bread alone. So by this time, the red wine teeth stains were already starting to take a serious grip. However, the dishes - once they arrived - were excellent.

The crab contained a plentiful bounty of sweet, decadent meat. It was the winning entree, hands down.

With greasy hands, we also partook in squatty pillars of bone, containing blobs of juicy marrow to be glooped carefully onto 1/2 a bit of toast (there not being enough to go around the table). More toast was eventually forthcoming on request, although it was strange to have to ask - surely one might bank on at least 1 piece each? Noted. However, the combination of gelatinous marrow with crispy salad and crunchy toast was as good as ever (I've indulged in them before). Anthony Bourdain rates it as his ultimate last supper. I'd probably rather a good steak to see me out, but you get my drift.

Then, we each licked our lips as we waited for the main event. Bring on the piggy. Alas, we waited long enough for my haircut to go out of fashion before our pig was brought forth, in all its shiny, glistening glory. In all the anticipation, there was a relieved flurry to take photos (a full roasted pig is quite an impressive sight), but as I remained a-guzzling and a-chatting in my seat, I was not aware that our waiter had apparently been quite rude about said flurry. I can forgive delays in a busy kitchen to some extent, but bad attitude (either way) between waiter and diner is not on.

Anyhoo, the pig was utterly delicious. Vegetarians, please look away now. In primordial style, Petunia was swiftly decapitated and its head was passed around on a plate for cheeks, ears, snout etc to be devoured. This was no ladies' cupcake tea. The meat was tender, succulent, flavoursome - and there was lashings of it. (In fact, there have been comments that this might have been quite an old piglet given its size - the piglet should have been fed on its mother's milk until it is slaughtered between the age of 2-6 weeks - although I think British piglets are bigger than Spanish ones.) Suffice to say, this pig did not die in vain - it was thoroughly devoured and admirably drooled over. I also loved the greens and ladled several helpings onto my plate.

Unfortunately, due to the constant waiting game, several of my fellow divas had to dash for last trains (it was almost 11pm) so could not stick around for dessert. So I have not had the heart to tell them about the crispy, currant filled Eccles cakes, combined beautifully with a huge slab of mild Lancashire cheese. Nor about the glorious, huge Spotted Dick puds swimming in gorgeous warm custard. I had 1 serve of each (and sneaked a second slab of the Spotted Dick). Then, I hopped into my beloved madeleines. Separate stomach and all that...

The largely French wine list always provides, and it certainly did again at Pigfest 2010. Great food, wine, and fabulous company made for a wonderful evening. However, the slow and unnecessarily crusty service - and not for the first time - left a bad taste for many of my fellow guests.

There was no explanation offered at the time for our wait, despite that everything was ordered in advance. However, the manager has since contacted some of my accomplices to offer an apology, an explanation, and a very kind invitation to make amends over a drink and some desserts. Well handled.

Thanks to the lovely Meemalee (Mimi) for organising - you can see her own version of events here.

St John might have the food down pat, but it really needs to lift in respect of its service. Other than that, it's offally good. (Sorry.)

26 St John Street, Smithfield, EC1M 4AY

St John (Farringdon) on Urbanspoon


  1. Petunia? You gave the pig a name???

    Fab write-up - I'm glad you had fun and thank you for coming xxx

  2. Looked like a great night - shame about the service. Hope I can make it next time!

  3. That is a great picture of a pig in a hat! Such a shame that the service didn't live up to the food. It's demoted St John on my list of restaurants I want to eat in this year. Bad PR, no matter how much cake they chuck at the problem afterwards. (I hope they're chucking lots of cake your way).

  4. Ha haaaa Petunia! We never did see the, ahem, evidence of it being a girl or boy did we?! lol

  5. BrightonSuz22 January, 2010

    So I've now read your and Meemalee's reviews of Pigfest and both have left me angered - bad service (especially a waiter with an attitude problem) is not acceptable. I don't care how good the food is, if someone makes me feel unwelcome or, worse, leaves me sitting there pissed but hungry, I end up wishing them bankrupt and my meal is ruined.

    How about a blog or Twitter debate on the best/worst service in London? That'd be interesting to read ...

  6. Meemalee - Well, it had to be Petunia or Porky and since it was a ladies' night..! Looking forward to our champagne night soon.

    Lex - It would be great to see you at the next fest!

    Ginandcrumpets - Yes, personable service should be the easiest thing to get right in the end.

    Kavey - I promise I didn't look!

    BrightonSuz - There could be some stiff competition in that Twitter debate, although most places I've been to lately have been pretty good on service.

    Thanks everyone for your comments - much appreciated.

  7. Loved the write-up and I'm so glad you said something about the service.

    It truly is appalling. Popped by for Sunday lunch once and was expecting a marvellous and boozy afternoon. But service in the restaurant left a lot to be desired, not to mention a sour taste in my mouth. Quite a pity considering the food was so delicious.

    Having said that, the people who work in the bar are beyond lovely, and seeing as similar food is served there. Well... you catch my drift!

  8. Noms aplenty - Agree, I've found the bar service is usually friendly too. There's one guy in particular who's really helpful on the wines.

  9. It does sound like a bit of a nightmare. It's such an occasion too getting a group together and spending all that money, getting it organised etc etc and then to have it ruined by a bad experience is really not on. What a shame. The pig looks great though! This bit made me laugh "Alas, we waited long enough for my haircut to go out of fashion before our pig was brought forth"

    I was actually beaten by the Eccles cake and cheese at St. John and that is saying something. Usually I can out eat most people.

  10. Helen - I was absolutely stuffed before the Eccles cakes came out, but I was apparently really in the zone - I managed to get through a double helping of the pudding after eating the Eccles. I waver between pride and shame at my own gluttony at times.

  11. Ha ha, yes me too, me too. Waver between pride and shame at my gluttony, that is.


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