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Nose To Tail Drinking: St John Bar & Restaurant, Smithfield, City of London

April 14, 2011 5 comments

Some time ago there was a debate on the blogs about restaurants and beer. I was generally in agreement with James from BrewDog and Neil from Eating Isn’t Cheating that it was odd that otherwise excellent restaurants, who take such care over their menus and wine lists, seem to regard beer as an afterthought at best and at worst an annoyance.

Whereas I would accept that most restaurants might face difficulties getting through a cask of real ale in a reasonable time, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a good stock of bottled beers and perhaps replace the dull macrolager they have on keg with a more interesting craft equivalent.

I was very pleased to note that on a recent visit to St John Bar & Restaurant at Smithfield that there were some great beers on offer. I’d previously been to St John Bread & Wine at Spitalfields and the only beer available was Meantime Pilsner.

However I had been impressed that, even though the selection was limited, they’d gone for a local beer from an interesting brewery rather than the Peroni that almost every restaurant seems to think is the best they can do these days.  The Pilsner also went very nicely with the simple quail and quince starter and truly wonderful chicken and ham pie I enjoyed that Friday evening.

The beers available at St John Smithfield on this occasion included a few Meantime ones on keg: London Pale Ale; Wheat Beer; Helles and Union. There were also cask beers available: Black Sheep and Hyde’s (although which Hyde’s beer wasn’t clear from the blackboard pumpclip). I had a refreshing London Pale Ale followed by the Union, which was a nice, slightly smoky version of a Vienna-style lager. The bar staff also seemed to know what they were talking about, which was good.

Sitting in the bar rather than the restaurant we were able to enjoy Michelin-starred food to go with the beers. I should perhaps explain that St John’s founder Fergus Henderson is famously the leading light of “nose to tail eating” (also the name of his book), encouraging the creative use of offal/”fifth quarter” cuts that have passed out of use in these squeamish times.  I had the signature bone marrow salad (which came in the bone with a silver pokey-scoopy device with a kind of forked-tongue shaped end) followed by a snail, spicy sausage and chickpea stew and then some madelines.

The bone marrow was a little bit disappointing: a little bit oily and fatty in texture (in a not unpleasant way) but quite bland in taste.  It was an experience nonetheless.  The snail and sausage stew, however, was really very nice and I’ve been a fan of their madelines since going to their restaurant in Spitalfields.

I would definitely recommend a trip to St John, especially because the bar menu is very reasonably priced, as you can see from the sample menu.  Six dishes and five or six very good pints of beer came to £64.  However, I would recommend you take a friend or partner with a sense of adventure regarding food (as well as good taste in beer and/or wine) to make the most of it.

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I’d Rather Be In The Pub: Fox & Anchor and Malmaison, Smithfield

February 2, 2011 2 comments

Neil’s post on Eating Isn’t Cheating drew my attention to BrewDog’s recent post on why good restaurants don’t seem to feel a need to serve craft beer.  Typically BrewDog make a good point but do so in a slightly infuriating manner.

For me it was aggravating because they criticise restaurants for serving only “unimaginative, uninspired, industrial mainstream beers masquerading as if they were genuinely on a par with the world’s finest food“, and then go on to criticise Gidleigh Park in Devon for serving St Austell Tribute, which they give a bit of a kicking for being a “CAMRA favourite” and being made with Fuggles.  Apparently serving a 12 year old beer from a regional brewery that lots of people like and which has been given multiple awards by people who know their beer is on a par with only serving macrolager.  If you’re looking for the negative side of “elitism in beer“, there it is:  Popular = rubbish.

But the general point is a valid one and it reminded me of an experience I had a couple of weeks ago.  I was down in London overnight for work and the only thing I was really looking forward to was dinner that night.  I was staying in the Malmaison on Charterhouse Square just up from Smithfield Market, and decided my best option would be the Fox & Anchor.

The Fox & Anchor was a traditional Smithfield pub which opened early to sell big breakfasts to the market traders who’d been working all night and latterly city types who fancied some hearty food and a pint with their breakfast or lunchtime meeting.

However the pub closed in 2006-7 and was bought out and spruced up by the neighbouring Malmaison, who’ve turned it into a gastropub with rooms (“Hops & Chops; Cuvees & Duvets“).  It is, after all, opposite one of the most famous meat markets in the world and surrounded by meat-centric posh restaurants such as Smith’s of Smithfield and the trend-setting Michelin-starred St John. 

The food menu is mouthwatering and the drinks menu is also good for a gastropub, which alongside the regular and guest cask ales has a nice array of bottles: Meantime IPA and Porter; Palm; Fullers 1845; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale amongst quite a few others.  They also had a few other bottled beers not listed there, including Sharp’s Chalky’s Bark and Chalky’s Bite: beers specially designed with Rick Stein to be paired with seafood.  On the train down I was really looking forward to one of the 75cl bottles of Meantime IPA to go with a nice bit of meat and some goose fat chips. 

However it turned out that the pub couldn’t take us for dinner that Thursday night as it was too full.  We did enjoy a couple of pints of good cask beer (a Sharp’s Cornish Stout and Purity Pure Ubu) and retired to the brasserie in the hotel.

My hope was that the Malmaison would have a similar if more limited range of beers to the sister pub two doors down.  However I was very disappointed to find that the very best they could do was Murphys on draught or a bottle of Leffe.

Cooking Lager makes some very good points about restaurants not being able to sell cask ale quickly enough to be commercially viable on Neil’s post.  However, as he notes, bottles are a safe option: how difficult would it be for the Malmaison to have a small selection of nice, interesting beers on one shelf of their fridges, given that their sister pub next door has an abundance of them?

To be fair, the food at the Malmaison was nice and reasonably priced for London and the service was attentive.  However next time I go, I think I’ll book the Fox & Anchor in advance, which was a lovely old pub with some great beers on.  It possibly gets a bit close to being a “theme park” English pub for resident tourists, with its optional pewter tankards and so on, but I liked it enough to go back for one more beer before bed.

And yes: please could more great restaurants serve great beer?

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