Reach Out, Touch Faith
There is brilliance to be found at St Leonards, even if some of it is borrowed from elsewhere.
But who cares if inspiration has come from far and wide? It’s not like you can trademark two of 2017’s hottest trends, the raw bar and the open hearth. It’s not like The Laughing Heart were the first people to realise that Sichuan peppercorns bring a bewitching floral accent to otherwise simple preparations; it’s not like 2015 San Francisco can lay legal claim to the combination of melon and wakame; it’s not like Hackney has the monopoly on friggitelli (move over Padron and shishito, there's a new trendy pepper in town). Much like the impeccable bric-a-brac that (I am told) lines the halls of Brunswick House (embarrassing admission: I haven’t been), the menu here is a tastefully curated selection of interesting things to peruse, and more often than not it works beautifully.
A mortadella hot dog taken at the bar gives a hint of what is to come – it surprises and delights. For some reason, I was expecting muted, careful, po-faced cooking à la Hide, but the butter-basted bun comes stuffed with a pinkly phallic sausage under a veritable shower of insistently spicy Chicago-style pickles; there is a clever, honking mostarda aioli in the mix too. It’s messy, it’s extroverted, it’s utterly delicious.
For more of the above, see the foie gras chawanmushi with smoked eel and chicharrón, a dish that has no right existing outside an East Clapton pregnancy craving but which is borderline astonishing here. It’s all down to the sauce, a dashi-slash-ponzu type thing with enough acidity to temper any sickmaking flabbiness in the custard; the three of us down with eating offal make a show of passing it round but sneakily take more than our fair share each time, coveting it Gollum-like. Also nice among the smalls is that melon and wakame sunomono and a grilled leek topped with almond cream and shaved summer truffle – like a monochrome riff on calçots with romesco. A waitress informs us it is vegan; we hadn’t even thought to notice.
Very much not vegan is the Dexter bavette. It is anointed with a snow of cured bone marrow which dissipates fairly quickly; the steak goes fast, too. At 17 quid for a credit card’s worth of meat it may not be cheap, but it is perfect: tangy, ferrous, properly salty. Too salty, probably, if you were eating a lot of it, but with only a couple of slices each it’s an ideal amuse-langue for the Chez Allard-style duck (seasoning across the board, actually, is enjoyably extra – it is so, so good to eat food willing to risk spilling over into too-muchness in search of just-rightness). The duck lives up to its hero dish billing – nice bit of char from the fire, nice bit of brininess from the olives, nice bit of body from the sauce. With a bottle of the 2012 Viña Alberdi (a genuine steal at forty-odd quid from the list’s genius ’50 under £50’ section), it’s… just great. Just really, really great.
You suspect that greatness is the goal here. Reading the room, with its neutral blue-grey tones, Portofino passeggiata linens and robust dark wood furniture / profoundly sexy horseshoe bar, the ambition sings from every fixture and fitting: this has literal designs on being taken seriously as a Restaurant. Perhaps that even means a Michelin star, but even if Bibendum isn’t on the brain the scale and quality of the kit (and ingredients) on show here suggest they are very much not fucking around.
So there are a few areas round the fringes they might want to look at as they continue to refine and improve. There are a couple of dishes where deliciousness plays second fiddle to appearance: wild bass arrives buried under some neat “scales” of burnt kohlrabi but the brassica is farty and the fish inconsiderately cut – too big to eat in one bite, too sinewy to easily divvy up. That Insta-iconic Cherrystone clam, too, may look dazzling with its flurry of chopped coriander stems, but it has its flavour utterly overwhelmed by the herb. The bread serving feels like an indifferent shrug; carbs in general seem carefully quarantined away to a place where they can’t do too much harm – perhaps it’s a case of more fool us for not ordering the two riffs on potatoes in the sides menu, but it can’t put too much of a hole in your GM to serve a couple of bits of toast with the steak or some thick slabs of grilled bread under the duck (we end up ordering two rounds, testament to the sauce). Service from our waiter is charming, knowledgeable, attentive – until suddenly it isn’t, and manifestly finished plates litter our table for what feels like an age. The wine guy at times seems to regard us as an inconvenience that has been forcibly inserted into his evening plans, but I’m always paranoid about wine guys and maybe I’m mistaking businesslike for brusque.
These are pretty minor quibbles, but I point them out because I believe St Leonards is worth the effort. If it was another dreary 6/10 place you’d move on, chalk it up to bad luck or someone having a bad night. But along with Brat and Mãos among 2018’s new openings, there is something here, a spark of something special. It isn’t perfect, but it is trying to strike an immensely difficult balance between lightness of touch and seriousness of intention, and most of the time it absolutely nails it. Anywhere willing to play Slint’s ‘Good Morning Captain’ to a crowded Friday-night dining room has clearly got a bit of devil in it; it’s hard not to root for somewhere trying to do so much, especially in a climate where the appetite for risk has shrunk to a thimbleful. It may be a little unfocused at the moment, and fixing that takes time, and plenty of graft. The true test of St Leonards will be six months from now, when we’ll see whether the team has been willing to put in the hard yards to transform a dazzling and ambitious concept into something fully functioning and wholly lethal.
I’m looking forward to it already.