70 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QX
Solecisms,’ growls Rowley with a gruff shake of the head. ‘Pure culinary solecisms.’ He casts aside the menu, deeply unimpressed.
The chef and food writer is not in the best of moods, having battled from west to east on a sticky, sweaty Tube, on this most sticky and sweaty of close summer days.
We’re at St Leonards in Shoreditch, the new place from chefs Andrew Clarke and Jackson Boxer, also of Brunswick House. The former is broad and heavily inked, his hair flowing past his shoulders, his beard tightly plaited and hanging down to his chest. The latter is clean-cut and boyish. They make an incongruous couple but share a gentle charm and clear-eyed intensity, working the pass with the minimum of fuss.
Then, £9 for a single cherrystone clam doesn’t make things any better. But it’s one hell of a bivalve, and these babies don’t come cheap
The room is vast and sunny, warmly industrial, the back wall dominated by an old-fashioned hearth, filled with a roaring fire, and various medieval-looking pieces of iron
The room is vast and sunny, warmly industrial, the back wall dominated by an old-fashioned hearth, filled with a roaring fire, and various medieval-looking pieces of iron – racks and hooks from which hang various haunches of flesh.
Adjacent is an aluminium-clad open kitchen, with shelves filled with various jars of pickled whatever, and a great monolithic block of marble, upon which sits a raw bar of oysters, fish and clams. So fire and ice, ancient and modern, the raw and the cooked. There’s brisk, bright, breezy service and seriously yeasty Fino, served ice- cold.
And comfortable chairs and the feeling that this will be a lunch to remember. But Rowley still ain’t content. He’s an exacting eater, and one not given to hyperbole. Or even faint praise.
‘Foie gras custard,’ he says, barely able to conceal his disdain. ‘That just doesn’t work. And beurre blanc with rhubarb? Animal fats clashing with acidity?’ He harrumphs, and goes back to the wine list.
Then, £9 for a single cherrystone clam doesn’t make things any better. But it’s one hell of a bivalve, and these babies don’t come cheap.
Scented with the most subtle of Sichuan pepper oils (yup, seriously, a subtle Sichuan pepper oil, a phrase I never thought I’d write), with the merest nudge of numbness and tiny pieces of chopped coriander stalk, it’s meaty and magnificent. Leigh nods his approval. Albeit grudgingly.
There are oysters, ‘flamed’ with pork fat and blitzed chicharróns, where seashore meets farmyard to exquisite effect. All that lard teases out the clean, luscious salinity of the shellfish. While the kiss of the fire is subtle and understated. ‘Dressed’ sees them covered with pickled garlic scrapes, so the liquor has bite. But neither smothers the oyster’s natural charm.
Mackerel is sensationally fresh, sashimi-grade, blissfully rich, with bitter dandelion leaves to shock the taste buds out of their sensuous stupor, and a gentle soy butter that flatters the fish and brings the whole dish together.
The flavours are immaculately balanced but never over-complicated. While the dish is as pretty as a sylvan meadow. As is another lithe, lovely plate with sliced courgettes and fresh peas, topped with soft slices of razor clam for extra texture, and scattered with purple borage flowers. There’s something surreal about these vast, bearded Vikings in the kitchen (the chef de partie, Keith, is equally hirsute), plating these incredibly dainty dishes.
White asparagus (‘so underrated’, says Rowley) comes in the sort of beurre blanc that would make Anatole grin, and is scattered with tiny slivers of pink grapefruit. Such elegance, and technique, and restraint. Classic cuisine, yet thrustingly modern too. ‘What were you saying about animal fats and acidity?’ I ask.
He pauses. ‘It reads badly but tastes OK.’ What about the foie gras custard? The acidity is just right, the smoked eel immaculate. Japan meets France in an entente shiawase. A curl of chicharrón adds porky crunch. For me, it’s sensational. I look to Rowley. ‘OK,’ he admits, ‘I’m really enjoying this.’
A piece of bavette, lavished with frozen bone marrow, is somewhat of a step down. Like returning to Kansas after the Technicolored thrills of Oz. It’s a mite overdone and needs more seasoning.
Duck, though, and lots of it, has the crispest of skin and most buxom and juicy flesh, and fistfuls of green olives, and charred endive, a salty, bitter, fatty riot of delight. Rowley, who’s eaten the original at Allard in Paris, reckons it comes close but no cigar. Unsullied by comparisons, I fall in love. Even the vegetables demand one’s attention. Hispi cabbage, that ubiquitous ingredient, is slathered with a fierce Sichuan paste and is both forthright and fierce. It would wow in Chengdu.
And that’s the joy of St Leonards. Poise and subtlety when needed, but then no fear of going balls-out on the big flavours. There’s real art here, and startling originality too. We linger over a glass of vin jaune. By now, the place is empty and tables are being set for dinner. So what did you think, I ask as we totter out into the late- afternoon fug? ‘Not bad,’ he says with a nod, and the beginnings of a smile. ‘Not bad at all.’
About £40 per head
WHAT TOM ATE LAST WEEK
Lunch at Satay House in Paddington. Excellent chicken satay, flaky roti canai, dried anchovy with peanuts, and a rich, subtly spicy kari laksa.
A proper long lunch at Sabor. Prawn croquettes, frit mariner, Iberian duck and ajo blanco, ox tongue carpaccio, anchovies, plus shrimps with fried egg.
Down to the country for a wedding. Beautifully cooked salmon for 300, plus new potatoes and good vegetables.
A boiled egg with my father, then a rather hungover McDonald’s.