Chefs Jackson Boxer and Andrew Clarke made their names as the team behind Brunswick House Cafe in Vauxhall. Now they’ve set up St Leonard’s in Shoreditch. And why not? Shoreditch falls neatly in the Venn diagram where City suits and hipster trustafarians coalesce, making it a shrewd choice of location for any restaurateur. In other words, it’s an area with no shortage of customers who will pay anything for the latest zeitgeisty concept, no matter how gullible they may be or overrated the experience.
I know that’s a sweeping statement. There are exceptions to the rule in east London, such as the wonderful Cornerstone and the delightful Rochelle Canteen. But, sadly, St Leonard’s is not one of them and I just don’t get the hype. On Palate’s visit we didn’t find much to like.
I’ll get straight to the point. The service was abysmal. There’s no other way of saying it. Let me break down the various offences…
Feeling parched on yet another hot day, my colleague and I wanted a drink in the bar first. It took several attempts to order said drink as the manager walked past us pretending she didn’t hear, and the two bartenders preferred to converse amongst themselves rather than serve customers – all the more unforgiveable as they weren’t even busy. When it came to the appointed time for our booking we walked over to the ‘welcome desk’. But there was no-one to welcome us. We were left standing there for a whole ten minutes. There was an unpleasant feeling of being deliberately ignored – and we hadn’t even started the meal yet. This is a massive FOH fail.
“still or sparkling?” … it’s like a badly-worded referendum question
After our presence was registered and we were shown to our table, we were asked “still or sparkling?” We weren’t even breathing yet. This is a classic sales trick. It’s like a badly-worded referendum question, limiting your options on the basis of poor information when reality is more nuanced. You almost feel too awkward to ask for the ‘third way’ that is tap water. Or indeed, no water. Later, during the meal itself, we had to chase our wine order three times. Three times.
St Leonard’s is proud of its sharing concept – fair enough, and indeed the concept was explained to us with enthusiasm and gusto. We were looking forward to tucking into the 75 day highland beef rump and the Allard style Challans duck, and chose our wine to match accordingly. Imagine our crushing disappointment when we were told half way through our order “oh, by the way, both of those things are off.” If anything is being taken off the menu this should be the first thing that diners are told so they can plan their meal. It impacts on the wine choice too if you have to switch from meat to fish, for example. We had to go back to the drawing board and confer again – a complete waste of time and it really betrayed a poor level of communication amongst the staff.
And then the biggest crime of them all: when we raised these issues with the restaurant manager, she was extremely defensive. Of course it’s a knock to the confidence to hear from two ordinary customers that we weren’t happy with our experience when the restaurant has already garnered positive reviews. What we didn’t expect was her to rip up the paper menus right in front of us! At no point were we impolite or rude: our intention was to provide some real-time constructive feedback (so nothing in this review should be a surprise). To her credit though, once she realised this wasn’t a personal affront, she apologised, recovered her composure and reassured us this was just an off night. She also offered to comp us the meal but we don’t go to restaurants to do this – we still offered to pay and at least ended the meal on amicable terms. But it was too late anyway: the true attitude of the place had been revealed. Le masque est tombé, as the French say.
All of this was on an ordinary Tuesday night when it was a bit quieter, the fridges should have been re-stocked and the staff refreshed. There was no real excuse for any of this craptitude.
I had hoped that the food might compensate for the poor service but unfortunately, despite an attractive Instagram gallery, there was no wow factor. That’s not to say it was inherently bad – I didn’t find any glaring faults in the cookery – but it was all a bit unmemorable. A bit meh.
Razor clams with broad beans were light and summery but they were cold and chewy as if they were from a supermarket seafood selection packet. The grilled leek with almond cream and summer truffle was physically difficult to eat and indeed to share (this dish should be served with a decent serrated knife, and we’re not the first critics to point this out).
It was like that scene in Blackadder where Miriam Margolyes eats that raw turnip
As the rump of beef wasn’t available we had a portion of Dexter beef each with shavings of bone marrow sprinkled on top. It was well-rested, I’ll give it that, but as the ‘star’ of the meal I was expecting more. The beef was distinctly average, like a steak at Gaucho. Meanwhile, the hispi cabbage with pork fat and XO crumb promised the same umami hit we enjoyed at Coal Rooms, but the cabbage had not been blanched first. It was like that scene in Blackadder where Miriam Margolyes eats that raw turnip. All in all, rather insipid.
We didn’t bother with dessert.
And as for the wine? Mark-up City. Entry level Italians and a 2016 Beaujolais Nouveau priced around £40 told us everything we needed to know.
I wasn’t that enamoured by the ambience either. The restaurant is noisy with barely-functioning air con, and a grid-like table arrangement as if designed by an American city planner. If the lighting was brighter it would’ve been a Little Chef.
Oh don’t give me that look. It will still be successful. This is a carefully-marketed restaurant that knows its loyal tribe – it’s Shoreditch for crying out loud – and I have general respect for Boxer and Clarke. But unless front of house get their act together I’m keeping this filed under “don’t bother.”
70 St Leonard Street
by J A Smith