Friday, 14 August 2009

The Restaurant at St Paul's

As a proud Londoner I’m saddened to admit that I’ve never set foot inside St Paul's Cathedral.

There are numerous reasons and they don’t include an aversion to tourists but it’s the preposterous admission charges that take the biscuit. Entry to either of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris or the Duomo of Florence is free. It therefore beggars belief that a levy of eleven quid is imposed on us just to catch a glimpse of the inside of Wren’s masterpiece.

If admission charges are reverted to my faves like the National Gallery or the Tate Modern, I’m packing my bags and legging off to Almaty instead.

Food/photobloggers, this is subterranean dining, daylight is not to our advantage so take heed. The Restaurant is relatively small but with the help of the vaguely momentous vaulted ceilings, there’s a sense of defaulted largeness about it. This place draws to a close when the cathedral shuts its doors by six in the evening, so it needs to thrive as much as it can on the lunches and afternoon teas that are the mainstays of the operation. The impression that I get from The Restaurant is the Englishness tag; from the wines served to the provenance of the ingredients. After all St Paul's is decidedly English. The staff who waited on me were hardly English, they were Europeans who were possibly more articulate than I’ll ever be with the language of the universe. The service was utterly charming and exceptional. The Italian deputy front-of-house was the sort of chap who might well be poached by other restaurants if encountered, he was gregariously efficient.

Interestingly when I turned up I was surprised to note that the lunch crowds were all blokes, not necessarily of the pinstripe-suited variety but an eclectic mix nonetheless. Despite being the odd one out (tousled beyond belief), I was made to feel welcome and felt totally at ease here.

The inconspicuous looking chairs are worthy of a mention. For furniture spotters and design geeks alike, these wishbone-backed chairs are the Y-Chairs designed by Hans Wegner. They’re not cheap at two hundred pounds each; in fact the same chairs were seen at the Vietnamese canteen, Café East (my suspicions simply cannot vouch for their authenticity there!).

There’s no a la carte menu here, the fixed priced lunches comprise of either two or three courses. Each course consists of a well-defined number of up to five dish options, which’s good enough for me.

First course of wood pigeon, pointed cabbage and herb salad

If I ever see pigeon written on a menu, I ignore the other dishes immediately. Pigeons are the hardest working ones of the bird kingdom, they overexert themselves purely to find food. Like myself they think of food every second, the meat is inherently tough and that’s regardless of whether it came from Trafalgar Square or the wood pigeon from out in the sticks. As you can see the warm slices of this misunderstood bird is beautifully pink and tender. The accompanying herb salad was excellent but I wasn’t enthralled by the cabbage, personally I’d much rather see chicory on the plate instead. That aside, this was a near perfect starter for summer.

Second course of cep spiced roast pollock, samphire and cucumber

I’ll be the first person to put my hand up and shout out pollock or pollack is one most bland tasting fish that one can eat. Come to think of it I think the underestimated pike carries more depth and flavour. I ordered the fish because of my deviousness, I wanted to test the kitchen out. Once again from the photo, the fish flakes off faultlessly and this only goes to confirm that the chefs are deft at cooking fish. The excellent seasoning was enough to dispel any concerns I have for this fish. As for the wonderful samphire, I’m quietly happy that the Japanese haven’t introduced the British variety as part of their diet yet, otherwise the prices will start to rocket. Exceedingly happy with this mains.

Pudding of lemon verbena tart and poached pear

I trust that a few of us are not botanists, lemon verbena is a shrub that possesses the said citrus flavour. There you have it and oh, I only learnt about it after forty years (what’s lantana?). Onward pudding soldiers’, marching as ever; a delightful tart, not too sharp as to suck your cheeks with embarrassment and the shortcrust was astounding.

The pear, I sort of played with it and took a sniff- alcohol! CH2OH and me is like William S. Burroughs and his opiate addiction, I turn into a monster. For all my sins, the pear sat untouched. I think it’s safe to conclude that this pudding was 3/5s pleasurable.

Three courses for twenty quid, plus an additional ten percent off with their August promotion and unbelievably, no service charge! I’m well spoilt. The extraordinarily good thing about The Restaurant apart from the value is the execution of the cooking from the well-sourced ingredients. The food here is devoid of any over-complications or complexities, it’s best described as simplicity at its best. Marvellous.

Lunch over, with my ten digits satisfyingly tapping my tummy and like a pigeon I pondered about the next meal. Well you see Afternoon Tea is served in another forty minutes so what better way to kill time than a bit of cross-stitching. I proceeded to dig out the beading needles…downright bodacious ‘pants on fire’ bull. Sorry, I actually came back here a second time.

The crowd for the Afternoon Tea was different to lunch; manicured ladies, families from the Home Counties, metrohommes like my mate KC and the odd feral pigeon that’s myself.

If an effort is made to come here during the afternoon, then I’m telling you that you must go for the full monty Traditional Afternoon Tea that’s served on a tiered stand. More variety and better value (pot of tea or coffee is included as well) prevail for obvious reasons.

The sandwiches were properly made and the bread used was ever so soft I’m sure that the sandwiches were made to order. They included smoked salmon, free range egg & cress, and cucumber & cream cheese. The latter was the star despite my dislike for Philadelphia type cheeses.

The sight of any fruit cake rings alarm bells but this was anything but. Light and delectable and not at all dense or challenging. The best cupcakes come from Hummingbird, so the one included wasn’t in the same league but commendable no less.

KC had a slice of lovely Victoria sandwich cake. The pig in me thought the portion was too small.

I assumed because the scones were placed on the last tier so one consumes them towards the end. They were superb, as mentioned elsewhere, I always prep mine the Devon way, cream before the jam.

I’ve had two very good Afternoon Teas this year. The first and still the best is Lady Gray’s Hidden Tea Room and now The Restaurant. The latter given the good food, location, ambience and decent service is excellent value for money. I would be selfish if I don’t endorse the place, do come here for lunch, followed by a bit of knitting and end the afternoon with high tea. Highly recommended.

St Paul's Cathedral

St Paul's Churchyard



Lisa said...

Who'd have thought it? I love a proper afternoon tea and I love those chairs. The entrance fee is ridiculous, which is why I haven't visited since going on a school trip many years ago... Great recommendation, will definitely give it a try.

Su-Lin said...

If you do require actual spiritual advice and whatnot, you can get in for free. I had the opportunity to meet with one of the canons once and he too wasn't happy with the entrance fee but that was the only way they could get enough money to run the cathedral - I remember that the costs to run the place were somewhat ridiculous! I don't think they get enough from elsewhere. Might have to try the restaurant now!

thora said...

Wow, the entrance fee is quite a bite. I suppose not everybody is willing to pay that. - Thanks for the funny post, loved the pigeon comparison.

bellaphon said...

Lisa- Thank you. At least you've been to StP. My school was too proud of the fact that their chapel (Lancing) was the best so why bother!

Su-Lin- '...and whatnot', surely not to include atheists like myself. I still believe that the CofE is magnanimously well off and that a re-review of the charges is long overdue. Anyway thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the restaurant.

Thora- Thank you. Admittedly it's still more expensive to go to either Mme Tussaud’s or the Tower of London (another place I haven’t been!) but it’s the principal that turns me into a grumpy old fart. A butcher friend of mine refers pigeons as flying rats, I think that’s a bit too much, urban seagulls are the worst!

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