This restaurant is my new Vice
It takes balls to open a restaurant like St Leonards. Fulsome, dangly ones that sway and jiggle with every sigh and cough. It’s either that or the proprietors’ first choice property was out of reach for whatever reason. Few other reasons can seemingly explain St Leonards, a restaurant located on a whisper-quiet Shoreditch back street with little passing foot traffic and almost no visible signage that nonetheless has a cavernous dining room. The real reason may be odder still – Vice Media (yes, that Vice Media) may have a financial stake in the place. As one staff member bluntly put it when asked, ‘we’re owned by Vice the magazine’. On the other hand, another staffer stated that the Vice-owned pub down the road, The Old Blue Last, is merely lending certain services to St Leonards, such as the merchant account for processing card payments.
Whatever the case may be, the dining room is even large enough to accommodate a bar. Not a glorified, aspirational windowsill as is common these days, but an actual, proper bar with a horseshoe counter-top, plenty of stools and even several tables for two. There’s even space for a cloakroom, plushly appointed bathrooms and enough space between the dining tables to shimmy out without flashing your muffin top at your neighbouring diners. Whether or not Vice is involved, money has clearly been ploughed into fixtures, fitting and finish.
Space has even been set aside for a seafood display case, heaving with oysters on ice. I’m sceptical of such ostentatious displays, but for once this flashiness is backed up by commensurate skill.
First things first
A carefully chosen and prepared clam came served with coriander and a Sichuanese peppercorn sauce. Most Sichuanese-inspired dishes in non-Chinese restaurants tend to be laughably derivative in the worst possible sense of that word, but not so here. The initially gentle then unmistakably strident numbingness of Sichuanese peppercorn meshed beautifully with the crisp, sweet coriander garnish and the chewy, smooth meatiness of the clam pieces. The clam’s mouthfeel was not just a textural marvel in its own right, but was also a surprisingly apt pescatarian substitute for offal which features frequently in Sichuanese dishes. Glossy presentation aside, this clam dish wouldn’t be out of place in a Sichuanese restaurant. Even more importantly, it was lip-smackingly delicious.
I’ve never had ham from Gascony or the Pyrenees before (as far as I can remember), but I clearly need to have more after having tasted the noir de bigorre ham. While not as tender or as intensely, deeply flavoursome as the very best Spanish hams, the musky sweetness and umami of this ham was still remarkably similar and no less delightful.
Smoked eel and foie gras chawanmushi sounds like a winning hand at one-percenter restaurant ingredient bingo, but I don’t care. This is a candidate for dish of the year, with the richly buttery, creamy and surprisingly unctous chawanmushi seamlessly enhanced by the smoky meatiness of the eel fillets. Served chilled, it was the perfect dish for a balmy summer’s day. The pork scratchings laid on top were a needless addition, but even they couldn’t spoil this intensely flavoursome wonder. It may not be a classic chawanmushi like the ones I had in Kyoto or at the nearby Mãos, but it’s actually better off having gone with its own personality.
After such a strong start, things came to a shuddering, fumbling halt with the brill. The meagre strips, while meaty and milky in places, were a bit too tough and overcooked in others with only a very mild umami from the basil leaves and wafer-thin slices of carabinero red prawns to liven them up. Bitterly disappointing.
The fumbled brill made the hispi cabbage side all the more welcome. Although the ‘XO crumb’ wasn’t as umami and meaty as I’d expect from an XO-based garnish, and its gentle heat was a little monotonous in character, it still added a good measure of sprightliness to the already pleasingly taut and slippery head of cabbage.
The rhum baba looked like a Twinkie with exhibitionist tendencies and, while not as repulsively sickly as that Hostess ‘treat’, was an unbalanced effort. While the split sponge lozenge was fluffy and airy, it was a plain affair. The richness came instead from the juicy, sweet and smoky pineapple. Tartness came not from the fruit, but from a dollop of smooth and refreshing yoghurt sorbet that also packed in a light sourness. Pineapple and sorbet played so well together that they hardly needed the sponge.
Going back seconds
Despite its coarse appearance, the ventriciana salami was surprisingly smooth. Each slice was densely packed with meat and the occasional seam of fat, all of it tinged with hints of paprika and a gently astringent herbiness that I couldn’t quite place. It was a winning formula.
Cured salmon, sashimi-like in cut, was lightly tangy. While enjoyable in its own right, it would have been only half the starter it was without the smoky umami of the cream.
Bavette is an interesting cut of steak to serve given that it can be leathery tough if cooked ham-fistedly. Thankfully, the preparation here was mostly spot-on. Although there were patches of chewy toughness here and there, it was reasonably tender for the most part. The neatly browned crust was made even better by a garnish packed with cumulative moreishness.
‘Comfort food’ is an overused term, so it’s only fitting that I apply it to this monkfish dish – a fish rarely thought of in such warm and cozy terms. This was no ordinary monkfish though, but a neatly trimmed and muscular log of smooth, densely meaty flesh cooked just-so while still attached to the spine. The moderately thick sauce kicked off with a light sweetness and then built up to an intensely creamy umami. It was as if the kitchen took a hollandaise and spiked it with Maggi seasoning. The resulting effect was intensely soothing and comforting, adjectives rarely associated with fish in my mind.
Yieldingly firm stalks of tenderstem broccoli were made even better by a mince-like layer of pork fat. The latter was, surprisingly, bursting more with umami than unctuousness and suited the broccoli all the better for it.
Although others have waxed lyrical about the salted caramel and sherry tart, it tasted more of booze than salted caramel to me which is not to my taste at all – especially when the tart’s pastry had little to say for itself in recompense. The accompanying ice cream was much more my speed – smooth, refreshing and flavoured with the distinct taste of cardamom that was never overpowering. I’d rather just have a bucket of that cardamom ice cream.
Winner winner, seafood dinner
St Leonards offers its oysters au naturel, dressed and ‘flamed’, but it’s only really worth having them unadorned. That way, their lightly chewy, fleshy brininess can shine through unencumbered by the sharp, vinegary and crisp garnish of the ‘dressed’ version. Or by the surprisingly dull breadcrumb crust of the ‘flamed’ version.
It’s hard to know where to start with the exquisitely wonderful sea bass. There are the slices of cured fish themselves – light and quivering, yet plump and tender. While the sauce on its own tasted much like a tart and sour vinegar, when taken with the fish it produced a fruity sweet sharpness that enhanced the bass to a toe-curlingly delightful degree. Then there’s the presentation of thinly sliced kohlrabi stem, tessellated over the fish like its former scales. This was no mere visual gimmick though – the starchy sweet slices were an integral part of this fish dish, neatly transitioning into the delightful sauce. Remarkable. Truly remarkable.
Although the slices of mackerel initially seemed quite tame, their distinctive punchy flavour soon became evident over each successive mouthful – especially when taken with the sprigs of endive. The ‘soy butter’ had an unsurprisingly miso-like umami to it. It was all quite clever, but it never reached the same heady heights as the bass.
Mullet was served whole, its glassy-eyed stare and toothy smile providing an impromptu conversation partner as I dismembered its body, separating neatly crisped skin and sweet, light yet meaty flesh from the many finehaired bones. Herby sweet cream and briney, thinly sliced cucumbers were excellent accompaniments, complimentary both to each other and to the fish.
Hake wasn’t the dainty, finely trimmed fillet you’d get elsewhere, but a table-thumpingly chunky knuckle of moist, tender, flaky flesh. The briney sweetness of what appeared to be pickled capers and a sharp, refreshingly bittersweet cream might sound out of place, but they fitted right in with the hake. The whole thing was not only eminently satisfying, but was also a refreshing blast of fresh air.
Every element of the panna cotta was a delight from the fragrant, succulent, sugar-rich strawberries to the malty crumb and the smooth, bracingly refreshing ice cream. All of this was an extravagant supporting act, before the main event itself. The panna cotta itself was seemingly weightless, yet bursting with a crisp, clear palate-cleansing bittersweetness that neatly segued into the ice cream. St Leonards may have stumbled out of the block with its first pair of desserts, but with this cracker the pastry chef is showing what they can really do.
Go fourth and multiply
The clam in Sichuanese peppercorn sauce was just as good as it was before, even without the surprise factor that amplified my enjoyment of it the first time around.
Pollock is a rather unassuming fish that rarely gets as much attention as it should. The oceanic equivalent of Dawn from The Office, if you will. The meaty pollock strips here had a surprising fruity sweetness enhanced by crisp, equally sweet tomatoes and a surprisingly subtle cream. Not even the surprisingly meh roe could dampen my enthusiasm for this engrossingly delightful starter.
A big ol’ chunk of cod came in the same preparation as the hake. While it didn’t have the same memorable mouthfeel as that fish, it still brought plenty to the table with its paradoxically simultaneous lightness and meaty heartiness, all tempered by the pickled capers.
While St Leonard’s lamb wasn’t nearly as multilayered as the version often available at the nearby Brat, it was still a delight. The neatly browned and gently chewy caul-like skin concealed tender pink slices of funkily earthy flesh, occasionally rimmed with quivering connective tissue. Ample backup was provided by juicy, sweet tomatoes dotted with capers and a cream oddly but joyfully reminiscent of piccalilli.
Refreshing mango sorbet was smooth, free from crunchy ice crystals and true to the fruit. Although the surprisingly bland pistachio pieces and fine-grained crumb seemed like missteps at first, their purpose, at least in my mind, soon became clear. They provided a pleasantly chewy texture, in lieu of the much duller and rarely asked for biscuit wafer served elsewhere and that no one in their right mind ever enjoys. The sorbet provided the flavour, while everything else provided much of the mouthfeel. A highly effective partnership.
Despite a couple of initial missteps with desserts, the standard of cooking at St Leonards is of such a high standard that I’m running out of adjectives to properly do it justice. It’s that good. The skilful inventiveness of the seafood dishes, in particular, is a joy to behold. While not perfect, St Leonards’ winning way with fish and clams is a stern rebuke to the capital’s disappointingly dreary fish and seafood restaurants – don’t be a ‘fish restaurant’ with all the cliches that entails, be a great restaurant that serves fish.
The only thing about St Leonards that gives me pause is the service. This may be a newly born business, but I’d still expect a higher standard of service from a restaurant with a soft launch under its belt. Incorrect drinks, missing change and staff struggling with obtuse point-of-sale/ordering systems were common sights across my first few visits. To St Leonards’ credit, service grew smoother over the course of my visits – which is fortunate for you and me as I can and will dock stars (for whatever they’re worth) for iffy service from otherwise splendid restaurants.
Let’s hope the service continues to improve. St Leonards is not just a restaurant with swagger and a big mouth, it has the skill and panache in the kitchen to back it up.
Name: St Leonards
Address: 70 Leonard Street, Shoreditch, London EC2A 4QX
Phone: 020 7739 1291
Web: https://stleonards.london (hey look, someone actually uses those .london domain names)
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-22.30. Closed Sunday.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £75 approx.