St John Bread and Wine & Thyme Restaurant

Have had a couple of good eating experiences these last couple of days. Yesterday I was in London, my mealtimes were totally out-of-kilter (I got up at 4am, had breakfast about 4.30 and continued having a meal every 4-hours or so thereafter). By 6pm I was hungry again, but what I fancied was meat in small quantities. “Perfect”, I thought, “that’s exactly what St John serve.” (wow, I see from their website they just won the Tio Pepe/Carlton/London Evening Standard Best Food Awards–well deserved).

I met up with Mark at Liverpool Street and we headed over there. Inside, Tracey Emin and Keith Richards were sitting at the table by the door, almost everyone coming in seemed to be a friend (or wannabe friend) and received/gave enthusiastic greetings. We settled down on a small table in the opposite corner, and made our choices.

I knew from our previous visit that their dishes are rather small and unaccompanied, so we decided to order a few. We got some of their delicious sourdough bread and some olives (crisp, fresh and green) to start, then Mark chose razor clams and I plumped for a boiled gull’s egg with celery salt. The egg was… well, I can’t really tell the difference between one bird’s egg and another (perhaps this one should taste of the sea?) but it had a gorgeous deep green shell cobbled with black, was cooked to perfection, and tasted great dipped in the celery salt. The clams too were good, although mine had a bit of grit inside which set off an internally-deafening crunch when I bit into it. It was strange having these long skinny shells, so familiar from any and every beachcombing trip, served up as food, but beautiful looking as well as tasting, floating in vinegary softened red onion strips and herbs.

For our main dishes, Mark chose potted pork which came with cornichons, and was again faultless although I would have expected it to have had more flavour. That was more than balanced out, however, by my selection. I noticed “chitterlings and radishes” on the menu, and remembered reading some reminiscent account of chitterlings only the day before (couldn’t for the life of me remember where though), but I didn’t have a clue what they were: some kind of small fish? A euphemism for some animal’s body part? I was having an adventurous day, so decided to risk it. Chitterlings, for those not in the know, are pig’s intestines. They were… interesting. I don’t think I’ll have them again. Pretty strong meaty taste, somewhat overpowering for a not-long-since vegetarian of 30 years standing like myself, with a slight livery irony aftertaste. Still, nicely cooked, the radishes (roots and greens) were great, and I managed to polish off my half of the plate without barfing. Washed it down with a glass of viognier.

I wasn’t going to have dessert, I really wasn’t, but… they all looked so tempting. And Mark decided he wanted something more: it’s not too common for Mark to go the whole three courses these days so I thought I’d take advantage… I ordered buttermilk pudding with rhubarb: beautiful creamy-dreamy panna cotta-type lump of vannilla-flecked buttermilk, with stewed rhubarb alongside (and, a real treat surprise, as I hit the end of the rhubarb I bit into a nicely spicey sliver of orange peel). Mark had the Lancashire cheese, which came in a huge triangle-slice with a piece of St John’s as-damn-near-perfect-as-anything-in-this-world-gets raisin bread. I helped him with the cheese but we still couldn’t get through it all. Mmm… a worthy meal, I hadn’t meant to get so damned f’llup, but sometimes it just can’t be helped.

And then tonight… Gill and I abandoned our usual Friday-night cinema trip and decided to eat out instead. I called Thyme Restaurant (or should I say “Richard Smith at Thyme” – god I hate it when chefs decide to stick their name before their restaurant’s, bloody pointless egomania). We’d already visited their more informal café a couple of times, where they serve up some pretty good versions of favourite dishes, but I’d been wanting to try the restaurant since I heard about it; there are so few “posh nosh” places to go in Sheffield. I was amazed that we managed to get a table (see previous sentence), albeit at 9.30. Before when trying to get weekend reservations at decent restaurants in Sheffield we’d had to wait up to two weeks. To kill time we headed down to West 10, an excellent wine bar (the best in Sheffield, I’m told) where Richard, Gill’s 18 year-old brother, works. Richard sorted us some house champagne, good stuff, we chatted over a bottle and then headed up the hill to Crosspool (getting slightly lost in the rain on the way).

To be honest I didn’t pay quite as much attention to the food as I should have done, given the money I was spending (the earlier champagne and the free-flowing chat with Gill took me elsewhere). It was all pretty damn good though. We got a bottle of Sancerre and I started with a fishcake, floating in a creamy sauce, Gill had… god, I’ve already forgotten what Gill had. Oh yes, some kind of ham thing, a block which was a little like a compressed version of the potted pork Mark and I had eaten yesterday (but with more colour and flavour), served with a lovely home-made chunky piccalilli.

For main course I had a slow-roasted salmon steak, which came on a slab of roasted potatoey… oh, I dunno, I wasn’t paying attention, and was served with a kind of red pepper salsa. The salmon did that teeth-sticking-together thing, which made me wince a bit, but that’s not to say it was badly cooked – certainly the centre was absolute melting perfection, I guess for such a big chunk of fish it’s hard to get it quite so dreamy all the way through. The vinegary taste of the salsa though stayed with me (still is with me) for far too long after the meal, and not in a particularly good way. Perhaps this is something about my taste (I have the same problem whenever I try to make romesco sauce), but it did slightly spoil an otherwise great meal (I didn’t actually notice this strong after-taste until we’d left the restaurant, whether this was because, again, I wasn’t paying attention or because it took a while for it to overpower the other flavours I’m not sure).

Gill’s main course was a piece of chicken, served in a lovely mix of vegetables which was overpowered (this time in a nice way) by mushrooms floating in their jus. It also came with a slab of layered slices of celeriac, far and away the best use of celeriac I’ve ever come across.

For dessert I had a Yorkshire… something or other, I forget. Anyway, it came with rhubarb and rhubarb ice-cream, and I’d imagined it might be something a little like yesterday’s creamy delight. But oh no, not with a word like “Yorkshire” in the title. It was a large triangle of a kind of oaty cake studded with raisins and lumps of some kind of cheese– something a little like Wensleydale. All good stuff but I was already well-nigh full, and it was hard trying to force much of it down. The excellent little glass of dessert wine did help though.

Then coffee, and some meltingly delicious petit fours, before staggering home drunk in the rain. A great evening, though I kind of wish I’d paid a little more attention to the food.