P70 Leonard Street, Shoreditch, London EC2A 4QX, 0044 20 7739 1291, stleonards.london
erhaps we would have felt different about St Leonards if the weather had been different, but on an icy London evening, the temperature of the welcome doesn’t do much to warm us up. We’re early for our reservation and, yes, we would like to wait in the bar for our friend to arrive. Someone brings us a drinks menu, but doesn’t come back to take an order. The place isn’t busy and there are plenty of staff, but they all appear to have better things to do. Every time the door opens, an icy wind blows through the bar. Thankfully, though, by the time we are seated, we’ve been adopted by a server who is more enthusiastic than her colleagues.
St Leonards opened back in the summer and is a collaboration between chefs Andrew Clarke and Jackson Boxer. It’s in Shoreditch, the interior design features an abundance of poured concrete, and Boxer cooked for Benedict Cumberbatch’s 40th birthday. In terms of credentials, that’s all you need to know.
The menu — divided into ‘shellfish’, ‘small’, ‘hearth’, ‘sides’ and ‘dessert’ is properly tantalising — would it be greedy to order everything?
As it happens, the food doesn’t all taste as good as it reads. Flamed oysters with beef dripping, green tomato and horseradish, for instance, are a non-event, the dripping bringing little to the party beyond the unpleasant mouthfeel of cold fat. Shell-on quisquilla prawns (“Eat the head,” exhorts our server, and we do) with Old Bay mayonnaise, on the other hand, are a crunchy delight.
Grilled leek heart, split lengthwise, cooked on the grill and filled with almond cream is luscious, thanks in no small part to a generous flurry of freshly grated truffle, but grey mullet crudo (apparently with lardo, burnt kohlrabi and savory) is awful, unpleasant, displaying an almost complete absence of flavour, other than from the puddle of broth in which it sits. The standout dish is a foie gras custard with smoked eel and crunchy, puffed-up pork rind. It’s
so rich that it’s almost too much. I don’t mean that — the reckless, “to hell with it” abandon is fabulous.
Then it’s on to the dishes from the hearth, the macho cooking-over-fire set-up that we can see from our table, with cuts of meat suspended above it. A Mangalica chop for two is priced at a muscular £60. The breed of pig originates in Hungary, where its furry coat is a defence against the chill winds blowing across the Hungarian steppe, so it probably feels right at home in St Leonards. The Mangalica was almost extinct a couple of decades ago — the high lard content of the meat made it unfashionable — but has, in a startling reversal of fortune, returned to favour now that high-quality saturated fat has been decreed a health food. There’s no denying the challenge of its appearance, with barely 30pc of the chop meat and the rest lard; the flavour isn’t as remarkable as we’d expected. (My guests find the fat-to-meat ratio properly off-putting.)
Cod with celeriac, citrus-sharp nihari masala spicing and lime pickle, though, is an unassuming-looking dish that encapsulates the balance that every chef strives for, and a side of hispi cabbage, brushed with molten pork fat, charred on the grill and topped with crisp breadcrumbs cooked in more pork fat, is divine. So are the coal-roasted potatoes with a punchy salsa verde and crème fraîche.
Salted caramel and East India sherry tart with cardamom ice-cream is sublime, while a savoury dessert of Cantal cheese on dripping toast, anointed with clouds of grated truffle, is another dish that teeters on the edge of being too much, but isn’t.
With a couple of cocktails, a bottle of Jurtschitsch Sonnhof Grüner Veltliner (£46) and Plaiment Manseng Noir (£44) from a never-dull wine list, the bill for three comes to £312.19, including 12.5pc discretionary service.
The food at St Leonards is by no means perfect, but it is exciting; I’d go back for the foie gras custard and hispi cabbage alone, if only they could warm things up a bit.