Leicester Square and its environs have to be the most uninspiring places to eat in Central London. Bar a few exceptions in and around Chinatown, most of the offerings are dull, depressing and overpriced. No one needs to try too hard: due to the massive footfall even if one crowd of tourists leaves unhappy there will be another unsuspecting lot the next day. Which is why I was delighted to hear that the newest St John restaurant was opening just off this merry hell. Especially since, in the pantheon of places I really really wanted to try, this was first on the list. And, whereas you need plenty of notice to get into the Clerkenwell original, it seems that a week is enough for the hotel branch. So, two weeks ago, off I went, thrilled at the prospect.
And, well, though it was very good it wasn’t ‘Moro good’ which is my benchmark. ‘Moro good’ means you can take wonderful, inventive, I’ve-never-thought-of-that-food for granted but it’s everything else that makes it really brilliant: the service is grown-up, professional, attentive yet non-obtrusive; the wine is both gorgeous and not insanely expensive and when you pay the bill you feel like it’s perfectly justified. I have only been to Moro six times (which, for someone who works in publishing, is pathetic) and it has always been all of those things. The only other place I would put in that category is the River Café, though I’ve only ever been there for one of their special lunch deals so I can’t judge it on its ‘proper’ menu.
So, why didn’t SJH live up to this benchmark? Well, it wasn’t the food, which was both inventive yet comforting and satisfying, a very unlikely but happy combination on a cold February night. I had devilled pig skin and smoked cod’s roe to start, which is really just very very good pork scratchings with posh taramasalata; amazing. My friend C had the snails, duck hearts and watercress which sounded like a salad but was more a, well, medley of interesting chewy bits on a purée. It’s not often you find snails and duck hearts on the same plate, especially in WC2, not intentionally anyway and, again, the juxtaposition was fab. P had razor clams and, again, yum. I could go on: great main courses (middle white chop, grilled feather steak, calf’s liver though don’t bother with the smoked haddock, saffron and potato: it’s just a posh fish pie and not a particularly exciting one), delicious sides of sprout tops and Welsh rarebit, even if the rarebit seemed far too heavy as a side and three, or was it four?, bottles of some yummy Minervois.
No, food and wine-wise I couldn’t fault it. The problem was the service. We were being served by a young Leonardo diCaprio lookalike (perhaps he’d got lost en route to the Odeon?) who just couldn’t be bothered with three adults and a small person who he had tagged as tourists or out-of-towners and therefore not worth the effort. My friends were, are, from out of town but my are they foodies as is their seven-year-old son. And we all noticed the frankly crap attitude. I was a bit late so I missed the beginning but the rest of it was hopeless. First, since I’d never been there before, I asked him for a recommendation for the main course. Do you know what he said? ‘Meat.’ I still can’t believe it. That’s a bit like saying ‘Italian’ for the River Café or ‘burger’ in McDonald’s. When I gently suggested that I did know that it was a restaurant that specialised in meat he then listed the three of the four main courses that contained meat. No further description, no attempt to describe the detail or the specialness of any of them, just a list. I felt like saying I can read…When P, who has worked in the food industry for longer than Leonardo has been in long trousers, asked, in a very jocular way, where they source new potatoes in February, Leonardo a) didn’t understand why anyone would bother asking and b) didn’t offer to find out, which is worse.
Then there was his timing and attentiveness. My friends had ordered a terrine to tide them and their son over until I arrived (late…) and we were still waiting for the extra bread we’d asked for long after we’d finished it. Same with the tap water, same with the next bottle of wine, same with the bill. He would walk past our table, see empty glasses, and just sail past (on his way to watch himself in Titanic, obviously). And, though I can live without endless over-effusive banter, couldn’t he have made the teensiest bit of effort to chat? Actually just a smile would have been better instead of a look that said ‘I am SOOOOO much better than this; just killing time’. He wasn’t worth his 12.5% and, if I hadn’t been rather tired and emotional, I might have said so. Would I go back? To try the Clerkenwell and Spitalfields versions, yes, but to Leicester Street? No thanks.