People told me to watch The Menu, the new Ralph Fiennes movie that expertly skewers the fine dining world of Redzepi, Rogan et al. So I did, and it has now ruined the likes of St Barts for me for ever. Fiennes plays a chef who offers an intricate, highly personal tasting menu that is tweezered into position by an earnest brigade who would live or, so it seems, die by his word. It is one hour 47 minutes of wincingly observed comedy horror about my life; there’s even an abrasive, immensely killable female restaurant critic picking her way through the jus, sap and petals for errors. She’ll regret this.
Hours after watching the film, I’m in a spacious, Scandi-esque spot overlooking the church of St Bartholomew the Great on a misshapen chair carved from fallen London plane trees. My bottom is cosseted by a soft, sheepskin throw, while a fiercely focused young chef serves me a snack of Welsh wagyu tartare dotted with lovingly pickled wild garlic buds that he personally picked last year. This is followed by the world’s fanciest mini-Hobnob, made with cobnuts and topped with duck liver, before a perfectly spherical cod fritter takes me on a journey of exquisite joy.
It turns out I’ve chanced upon the people behind St Barts before, and am almost certain they mean me no harm throughout this thoroughly British tasting menu. Johnnie Crowe, Luke Wasserman and Toby Neill opened the rather good Fenn in Fulham, and before that Nest in Hackney, although St Barts, with its 15-course, £120 tasting menu that lasts more than four hours, was always the dream. No matter what a film such as The Menu says about the bizarre world of fine dining and its fans, the place is packed on a cold January evening, with guests who see food as art, made to be gasped and cogitated over, before sliding down one’s gullet in a matter of seconds. The mouthful of golden beef broth, for example, which turns up in a small earthenware mug “to warm you”. Or the intricately spun onion tart, which is really just a bhaji, though in chef Crowe’s hands looks much as I imagine the hay that Rapunzel spun to gold. Or the individual pieces of fine bresaola, served on a shiny, black slate.
If you are hoping to fill your belly to the brim with oily carbohydrates or enjoy the clatter of the pudding trolley bringing black forest gateau to your table, then I will politely point you elsewhere. Here at St Barts, you will linger in the bar area for almost an hour, being fed tiny tastes of “East End seafood cocktail” – smoked eel, clam and caviar – in an oyster shell or “duck offal porridge”, which tastes exactly as you might imagine: it is a powerfully pungent, iron-laden, sticky puddle and certainly not for everyone. If you are a meat-eater who shies away from the nitty-gritty of animal products, St Barts may well test you. A later beef course is served with a tongue and heart stew, which other restaurants might have skirted around, but St Barts fesses up so clearly. Service is warm and prompt, which is just as well, because you’re here for a good time and not a short time.
Although it occasionally feels as if there isn’t a great deal of food portion-size-wise, what does appear is often exquisite and remarkable. A stew of scallop with fierce red pepper is outstanding, as are a tiny piece of precisely cooked cod topped with preserved fungi, a suggestion of duck breast served with fewer than a dozen lingonberries, and a sublime tablespoon of crab and British ginger, zinging with freshness and served on a minuscule muffin.
St Barts is one of London’s most notable new openings, a place to take the food obsessive in your life for a special occasion and watch them get severely het up about the minute honey and lavender ice-cream cone that arrives before the main dessert event, which, on the evening we went, was a sort of celeriac and praline pastry stack that by no means convinced me that celeriac is a replacement for apple or pear, but this isn’t the sort of evening to rest on one’s laurels about likes or dislikes. This is a fancy, multi-course tasting menu with pre-paid tickets, and you will end up on whatever flight of fancy the chef desires and be very grateful for it afterwards.
In the past, I have seen people rebel halfway through dinners such as this and start demanding a side of mashed potato; let’s just say it didn’t end well for them, although not as bleakly as it does for the guests in The Menu. The trick is just to relax and eat the frankly weird walnut celeriac, then accept the tiny bun in a hemp sack that chef insists you heat up for breakfast the next morning. The world of fine dining is weird, but I’ll take weird over normal any day.