Friday night saw a long overdue return to St John, which has provided me with some of my best dining experiences in London over the past few years. It's not so much memories of fantastic individual dishes (although I certainly have those too); more the general impression each time I have been there of first rate food in a perfect environment served - and this is the clincher - by people who really care. I am very happy to say that Friday was no exception.
It started with the booking. Very few restaurateurs take this part of the meal as seriously as they should. Just as liberties with "optional" service charges can leave a bad taste in the mouth after even the best meal, so an unhelpful or rude telephone attitude can blow things before you've even stepped through the door. The nice lady at St John couldn't have been more helpful, despite the fact that I was calling one of the most popular restaurants in London on a Friday morning on the off-chance they'd have a table that night. There was none of the sneers or laughter you get with other destination restaurants but an instantly helpful and constructive discussion about how early or late we'd be eating if they were going to fit us in around their longer-term bookings. Now I'm no fan of the "we'll need your table back in two hours" line, but something like that was almost inevitable with such a late booking and when it's handled as well as this it doesn't seem so hard to swallow. We settled on an early start, and the four of us arranged to meet in the bar at six and agreed we'd be done and dusted by 8:45.
And then the minute we sat down to eat we were told that in fact we could have the table until 9:30. Just as well, as Mark was playing his usual punctuality games (although to be fair he had fallen victim to the dissolving-taxi phenomenon that blights London every time it rains). The three of us who were sitting down so unusually early passed the time by sampling half a dozen sweet and silky native oysters. Delicious.
We also soon realised a key advantage of starting so early at St John is maximum exposure to the daily specials. We were actively encouraged to put our names down for some of those that were running a little short. We quickly snaffled the last but one sharing pie and one of the last few portions of foie gras. I almost felt sorry for the poor souls who were booked in at a more civilised hour. Almost.
With Mark safely ensconced we were ready for the main event. I kicked off with some goose gizzards, expecting the kind of warm salad I had enjoyed so much in South West France last September. Instead (and far more appropriate for winter) they came slow cooked in a hearty, herby broth, meltingly tender and absolutely top notch. Mark had gone for the special foie gras, a typically rich and smooth pate on some good toast, while Howard had the terrine from the main menu, which was packed with all sorts of gamey bits and pieces and held together with more foie. For Howard's Estonian guest, Raul: the evergreen bone marrow and parsley salad. I think it's compulsory for St John first timers to try it. Quite right too.
Main courses were a bit mixed. The pigeon and pigs trotter pie Howard and I shared was fantastic, although I think it could have stood a bit more bird. Maybe Howard got lucky. Mark's slow cooked venison was declared very tasty, and spot on for a day of such messy weather, but moaned about the amount of fat. He had a point. It wasn't the kind of background fat that lifts a stew in the cooking but can be safely ignored in the eating: it was thick veins of the stuff that ran throughout the big hunk of meat. A pity, as it rendered a really tasty dish quite hard to eat. Raul had one of the other specials: more venison, this time slices of liver in a rich, dark gravy. Not the most sympathetic treatment of liver: I'd certainly have preferred a more delicate touch.
To drink (after a couple of great pints of Timothy Taylor's Golden Best) we rather decadently shared a magnum of 2001 Picpul, which really hit the spot. With our desserts (some OK rhubarb and custard pie and apple sorbet and Polish vodka Raul), we had some generous glasses of Muscat.
After all this (and a coffee or two) it was pushing 9:45 and it no longer felt like we'd eaten early at all. And still we were under no pressure: the people waiting for our table had arrived, all right, but the staff were once again weaving their subtle magic and no-one seemed to mind us overstaying our welcome. Mark and I insisted on pushing up the tip a little (service charge was genuinely optional) but even at £70 a head this felt like great value.
In the home of nose to tail eating we had been fabulously looked after from beginning to end.
St John, 26 St John Street, EC1M 4AY 020 7251 0848