Monday, 18 January 2010

St John's PigFAIL 2010

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We came. We saw. We ate pig.


Last Friday, 16 of London's finest female foodies descended on St John Restaurant, Smithfields, to take part in Ladies' PigFest 2010. It's been a life-long dream of mine to ravage a whole wild boar Obelix style, so this was one step closer to fulfilling that dream - for our group of girls were about to dine on suckling pig.

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Kill the pig, cut his throat, bash him in ...

Our pre-booked, pre-paid piggy feast was composed as follows:

Ladies' PigFest 2010

Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad
Whole Crab & Mayonnaise

Whole Roast Suckling Pig, Potatoes & Greens

Eccles Cake & Lancashire Cheese
Spotted Dick & Custard

Sounds bloody brilliant, doesn't it? We gathered beforehand at Smithfield Tavern for a drink, but spurned their enticing scotch eggs and sausage rolls in anticipation of the ensuing piggery. I'd made badges and A Scot in London brought crowns - what could possibly go wrong?

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It was my very first time at St John's, but I'd longed to go for ages. I mean, Fergus Henderson is the doyen of nose-to-tail eating and I can think of nothing finer - I'd even bothered recreating his most infamous recipe (the bone marrow) at home. That very morning, Tim Hayward, Guardian writer, had announced that Henderson be given a Nobel Prize for food, so my excitement was palpable.

You want your first time to be special, right? Well, on entering the restaurant, we walked slap-bang into a heaving crowd of braying youths. A bad start - I immediately felt overwhelmed and unwelcome.

Fighting our way through, we were shown to the stark private dining room where the staff brought us wine, water, bread and butter and then left us there.

For fifty minutes.

So we got raucous. With our hats and our badges, we looked like a typical hen party anyway, so if they were going to ignore us, we might us well live up to it.

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Eventually, after asking, the starters arrived - pretty shocking considering we'd pre-booked our choices.

The bone marrow was velvety goodness, and the parsley salad pleasingly zingy (although honestly I think mine was better), but the serving was a tad parsimonious, especially considering bones and parsley cost eff all. More heinous was the dearth of toast - there wasn't even enough for one slice each - I resorted to sucking the marrow off my spoon.

The crab though - what flavour, what texture! The white meat was sweet and briney, and the creamy brown meat so brimming with umami it reminded me of sea urchin. I ended up scraping the shell to retrieve as much as possible.

Of course, these were just the warm-ups, we were there for the headlining pig. And so we waited.

And we waited.

Look at our little faces waiting.

I was beginning to wish I'd succumbed to the Scotch eggs earlier.

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(photo copyright sulineats)


We asked for more water and wine to tide us over, but maddeningly these did not come till we asked twice again.

Finally, finally the star of the show appeared. By then we were (a) starving again and (b) over-excited, so you can't blame us for rushing to pap the pig.


Listen to me cackling


The waiter decapitated the beast and put its head on a platter, and naturally we all wanted a shot of this Salome-esque sight. One of us asked the waiter if he would pose with the dish and we primed our cameras, only for him to stick his arm out as far away from his body as he could stretch it and to sigh so audibly it made me flinch. He then tersely announced "You are all scaring me. I will not serve this till you all sit down".

I think that, and the sigh, was the straw that broke this camel's back - being kept waiting was bad enough, but actually being made to feel like we were an irritation felt like a slap in the face.

su-lin pigfest picture 3
(photo copyright sulineats)

So after a few more snaps, I sat down, piggy ardour completely quelled.

We passed the pig's head around for some adoration, and then began to tuck in, but frankly my heart wasn't in it any more.

Sure, the pork was delicious - moist and sweet - and I knew I should have been enjoying it, but by that point the massive pauses between courses and the surliness of the waiter meant that I was more interested in the (frankly fabulous) company than the food.

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I would like to give special mention to the greens, which had been steamed so perfectly it cheered me up a bit. The beautifully lacquered pig skin was far from crackling though, and chewing on it made me feel like Chaplin in The Gold Rush.

Anyway, despite everyone having a good old try, a glut of porcine flesh was left over, so I ran off and asked the one friendly waitress to doggy-bag it for us and at least she smilingly said she'd oblige.

I guess you're wondering how the pudding was. Well, I have absolutely no idea.

For by then it was almost quarter to eleven, so I (and several others) actually had to leave before it was served, so as not to miss our last trains home.

As I rushed out, the general manager stopped me and apologised. This threw me a little, partly because I thought he'd been oblivious to our existence, but mainly because he resembled Jonathan Pryce so strongly the theme tune for Brazil popped into my head. I nodded distrait, and barely made my connection, and when I got home I was still hungry.

Libby's pigfest group
The PigFest Posse
(top) ruduss, meemalee, R_McCormack, sulineats, Anon 1, BribedwithFood (the Force is strong in this one), KaveyF, everythingbut
(bottom) rudehealth, LibbyEAndrews, Anon 2, GreedyDiva, Anon 3, florantena
(not shown) MathildeCuisine

(photo copyright LibbyEAndrews)



So let's recap - some stunning food but sluggish and neglectful service, a churlish waiter, stingy portions (apart from the pig) and a total pudding fail.

How was my first time? Let's put it this way - I left feeling thoroughly chafed...

St John Restaurant, Smithfield
26 St John Street
London
EC1M 4AY
020 7272 1587


St John (Farringdon) on Urbanspoon


20.01.10 PIGFAIL UPDATE:

I'm pleased to say that St John has kindly offered dessert and champagne to all sixteen of us to make up for the problems we experienced. I think we'll be taking them up on the offer in March. Stay tuned ...

26.03.10 - Dessert Fest - A tale of reparation by Kavey

43 comments:

  1. You've captured the evening quite perfectly! I was really surprised at the service issues at St John.

    Shame you missed the desserts too - I adored the spotted dick.

    Thanks again for organising!

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  2. oh the piggy looks AMAZING!! I didn't really like St John last time I went but I would go back for the pig. DIVINE.

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  3. What a shame! 50 minutes is far too long - especially since I'm sure the crab is precooked. Still, the piggy sounded delicious.

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  4. Absolutely SPOT ON review. SPOT ON.

    Such a shame and a bit of a PR fail. They'd had weeks notice, they knew exactly what we were eating, and it was served family style, so no excuse AT ALL.

    I've a good mind to ask for some money back given that I missed desserts. I just crashed by that point. Am not a late dining girl.

    GRRR.

    But LOVELY social occasion indeed and thank you so much for doing a great job, even if SJR didn't!

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  5. Nicely written, my dear friend.
    We should have made the waiter wear the hat and do us a little dance - Now, I'm pretty sure that would have cheered him up (or us, but we were the customers so who cares about HIS mood?!)

    I still think about the juicy meat of the pig, though, and drool a little...

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  6. I also saw the excitement of you guys on twitter before the meal so really surprised at this - what a shame!

    Out of interest, which other food bloggers went?

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  7. Such a shame that St Johns didn't deliver. Im suprised actually because everyone rates them so highly, and it couldn't have been a worse move for them PR wise to upset a massive crowd of food bloggers with bad service and surly waiters.

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  8. it was an amazing dinner and congratulation for the organisation. Despite some issues with the service, the food was fab' and well done to have managed to gather all these ladies around one pig. Such a lucky man!

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  9. Oh dear. Wasn't a good night for them to fail was it? And as for the charmless waiter, well.

    You still looked like you all had a good time though.

    Do keep us posted of any response by St John won't you? Be very interesting.

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  10. Oh no! Well at least the company was exceptional - you all looked like you had a swell time despite the grumpy waiter and the slow service. The few times I've been to St. John I've eaten well and the service was fine, so it's a real shame you ladies didn't receive the excellent treatment you deserved...

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  11. The food was indeed fab.

    Marrow bones just as expected, though I'd agree with the comment on the small portion and lack of sufficient toast.

    Crab superb and more generous served with fantastic mustard mayo.

    Pig was really special, the meat was soooo tender, so tasty... just amazing.

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  12. They should be begging you to come back and eat all you like for free, the fools. I hope they do! Nothing leaves a more sour taste in the mouth than a waiter with an attitude problem.

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  13. Oh what a silly shame! Sorry to hear it didn't happen as anticipated. Some friends and I are planning on the same thing in March so we may take heed and book midweek rather than a Friday.

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  14. @The Shed - Sounds a good idea moving to a week day. I see it from both sides - it's awful to be kept waiting, but it's so hard behind the scenes with a packed restaurant.

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  15. Oh no that's such a shame.
    If they can't cope with parties on Friday nights then they shouldn't book them in. It sounds like the food was pretty good and the company great but doesn't sound like St John did well in service terms. If service takes that long on a busy evening they should for warn you so you can choose.

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  16. Wow - seriously gutting. What a shame. Did the manager apologise out of the blue or had someone had a word with him? That sighing business is unbelievable!

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  17. What a shame. I've been there before in the private room with a big group sampling their feasting menu, had a brilliant time, no problems at. Goes to show how important service is eh?

    Now if you had a female amongst your party with glasses, broad shoulders and a pipe this would never have happened.

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  18. So sad that it was not as good as it should have been. What a bunch of idiots. Food Urchin has it right. They know that a room full of blokes is likely to be lot more demonstrative about their displeasure and the attitude seems to me to be sexist in the worst possible way.

    There really is no excuse for bad service and it is not only bad manners but simple plain commercial suicide. I would give them a chance at restitution before coming to a final decision, but if no sensible recompense was available, there's no doubt that I would never go there again.

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  19. @Su-Lin - Am gutted about the spotted dick!

    @catty - I think I’d try a Chinese place next time - I just found out my fave Peninsula does suckling pig

    @Lizzy - Exactly - prebooked, precooked :)

    @Kavey - Would you really want to go back though however glorious that pig was?

    @BribedwithFood - As lovely an idea as that is, I think the waiter might have called the police

    @The Happiness Project London - Pride comes before a fall and all :) I’ll ask the others if they’re happy to be namechecked

    @Dan - Seems a bit contrary of them, doesn’t it?

    @MathildeCuisine - Thank you my dear x

    @TheAmpleCook - Jan, I’m expecting to find a pig’s head in my bed.

    @Scandilicious - Thanks hun - maybe it was just a bad night but I wouldn’t go back in a hurry.

    @BrightonSuz - That’s so sweet of you! I heard actually that all the waiters had swapped shifts because they didn’t want to be on our service!

    @The Shed - Hope you have better luck x

    @James - Packed it may be, but I expect decent service from a Michelin restaurant.

    @goodshoeday - Exactly - we didn’t think it would be an issue since we’d prebooked our choices (and prepaid!).

    @Ollie - As far as I know I don’t think anyone complained but it was obvious we’d been neglected. And yes, the sigh really upset me.

    @Food Urchin - Are you saying St John are a bunch of misogynists? Just cos we wouldn’t let you come :)

    @chumbles - I'm expecting an M&S voucher in the post :p

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  20. That sounds really rubbish.

    I went to St John's for the first time on Friday for lunch (lovely Welsh Rarebit) and was really looking forward to having a proper meal there with a pal. Really liked the feel of the place, but now I'm not sure whether to press on or sack it off.

    P.S. Nice to meet you on Saturday at the Miele thing.

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  21. @Robin - Hi Robin - you should definitely go if you liked it before. Just don't take a massive group! Nice to meet you too :)

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  22. I have been to St John a few times before Pigfest and I absolutely love it - although service has been a little "crisp" in the past too at times. I must admit, I was enjoying my wine and the chatter so much during the (loooong) wait, and the food was so divine, that even the insanely long wait did not put too much of a dampener on my evening. However, I might not be saying that if I had missed out on the puds!

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  23. Aw. :( That makes me really sad. You were all so excited. When I was a waitress I loved happy, bubbly customers. What a horrible man, especially since a lot of people would have been throwing major strops at the length of time it took for the pre-ordered food to come out.

    (Even if there was some issue in the kitchen, they should at least offer some kind of explanation/warning up front. Pretty basic customer service.)

    At least there was pig. It looked like good pig. :)

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  24. I really wanted to go to this and well done you for organising things. The pig and the desserts looked delicious.

    Bad form for St. John. The waiter in particular sounded like a complete arse.

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  25. @GreedyDiva - Everyone was so lovely that I did have a fab time despite everything else - thank you for coming x

    @Suzler - It was good pig :)

    @Graphic Foodie - Thanks Fran :) Unfortunately, as organiser I felt really guilty about the situation - even more so because I had to dash and leave everyone in the lurch before we'd finished eating!

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  26. Too bad you did miss the spotted dick, as it was georgeous. Although with you and others leaving by then, it did take the shine off it.

    I would try it again, and I do like your idea of Chinese next. There's a place in Melbourne that does great Peking duck (too far?).

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  27. Right I'm putting on my loose cannon hat and quite rightly so if I may. There were obviously two twerps mentioned on this post, first the waiter and then Little Lord Falteroy for suggesting Fergus H. be bestowed a Nobel accolade for food, meh. As for the latter, if it was suggested by someone less gushing in their usual writing like Fort or Gill, then I just might kowtow and mutter praise be.

    That ain't no suckling pig, it's a blooming teenager! If any of you wish to taste a real baby then you'll need to head down to Chinatown during weekends or Fino (thank you Su-Lin and for indeed I've tried and enjoyed) or, or, or save your pennies and come here instead.

    I'm bad I know.

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  28. Thanks for the warning! If I visit London I will give this restaurant a body swerve - there's no excuse for appalling service. I wonder if they would have treated a party of men in the same way?

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  29. @ruduss - Melbourne may be a little far but PigFest 2011 may reach those heights! Thank you for coming :)

    @Fat Les - I guess it is quite a big piglet! I should have listened to Su-Lin :) You're not bad, you're you x

    @Penny - We need to send a bunch of lads and see how they get treated :)

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  30. Only just seen this - What a nightmare ladies!
    Have to say I'm glad I didn't make the trip down
    from Oxford for that, but still looking forward to
    meeting you all.

    Sophie (@Brucey1)

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  31. @Brucey1 - Hi Sophie - you had a narrow escape :)

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  32. Ooooh please count me in with any future pigfests, wherever they might be!

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  33. Sorry to hear you had such a bad time, but that was an excellent blog post. I felt like I was with you (which I couldn't have been, what with being a bloke and not knowing you).

    It's surprising it was all so bad as I've been to St John several times and never had anything but incredible food and service that was at worst fine, at best sparklingy friendly.

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  34. @Ian Douglas - Hi Ian, thank you and it's an honour to have you commenting on my humble blog!

    Maybe we were just unlucky ...

    To be fair, the waitress was charm itself, but the waiter seemed to loathe us :(

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  35. Shame. Maybe he'll read your blog and have a serious word with himself.

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  36. I'm not sure but get impression duty manager finally figured out there was a problem from some of the tweets made during meal on being kept waiting and waiting and waiting.

    He annoyed heck out of me when he said, he'd been aware through evening that we'd experienced some problems but they were busy so he'd not had chance to come over. Well, hang on a second, unless the entire restaurant was full of punters having problems, surely the most important task for a manager to be doing is handling those who are??? Not waiting until 10.40 pm to come over and say something! SHEESH!

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  37. @Ian Douglas - I find that unlikely :)

    @Kavey - Yeah, it was weird - his apology did seemed a bit half-hearted :(

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  38. Very interesting. Shame St Johns weren't on form that night. I wonder why? I wonder if it was in fact that you were a roomful of women? Did anybody get any explanation?
    Bizarre especially considering that everythingbut knows one of the chefs there!
    But may I also ask why eating vat loads of meat has become a feminist issue?
    I am split here:
    On the one hand I must admit, the idea of women gorging on pig flesh is rather offputting... (in cannibalist societies humans are known as 'long pig' for we taste so similar).Remember girls, eating meat makes you sweat and smell nasty.
    On the other, eating is a feminist issue...'nice' women eat like birds a la Scarlett O 'Hara. We are exhorted to curb our apetites/ambitions and the slimming industry can also be considered an attempt to physically make women 'take up less space'.
    But I feel it's a pity that, especially considering the damage that meat eating does to the environment, this liberation from 'seemly' ladylike eating patterns has taken the form of excessive meat feasts.

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  39. @theundergroundrestaurant - Hi MML! We got the slightly weird explanation that apparently they'd been swamped by confused punters who'd meant to go to St John the pub and also that the waiter had thought one of our party was still eating crab and so he was waiting for us to finish the starters before he brought out the pig (doesn't explain why the starters were late though).

    Meat becoming a feminist issue in this case is I think purely because a couple of guys on twitter were completely taking the mick out of a bunch of us girls mentioning we liked steak.

    I have never been ladylike. I just like meat.

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  40. hehe, I suggest you ask for the sulky waiter's knackers on platter as an amuse bouche when you go back in March!!!!

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  41. darn, pressed publish on the above post before putting my ID in!

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  42. @knit nurse - Wouldn't taste very nice!

    I've just noticed that in the video you can acually hear the waiter saying something like "I am not very punctual" :)

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Thanks for taking the time to comment!