Review: John’s Formal Hall
INDIA MATHARU-DALEY takes on St. John’s formal and is impressed by the offering.
Many moons ago, when I selected campus code X for St John’s on UCAS, I had no idea that I had chosen the most despised of all the colleges.
It was too late to swap to somewhere more vanilla by the time I found out. I answered “Ew, why do you want to go there?” with “I’m a Man U fan, so I’m used to being hated for my brilliance. I can deal with the vitriol.”
Really, I am a nerd, so had picked John’s because it had a Director of Studies for my course. But mostly I picked John’s because the head of catering holds a Michelin Star, thus, according to the Student Room, “the food is always superb.”
That, however, is not the case. I cannot and will not deny that in general the culinary arts do flourish in the kitchens of St John’s. Yet, like my beloved Manchester United, when the college fails, it fails hard.
My vegetarian starter reminded me of a certain 1-6 derby defeat. Less vegetable soup than broth, though broth is a forgiving term – stock cube water is more apt – it had the tangy taste and coarse composition of the Ganges on a silty day. There was something forlorn about the vegetable clippings: the two mushroom slices had the texture of old gummy bears.
Like Dzeko’s double in the 90th minute, the whole thing was almost sadistic. That soup could only be held a success if it were an exercise in culinary history – perhaps a recreation of the Dark Ages of British cuisine, the 1970s, before we had discovered things like yoghurt and olive oil and flavour and when people were excited about eating things like this:
I suppose it serves me right for being a difficult vegetarian. Everyone else had whitebait with “assorted lettuce and dill salad” (read: a bit of salad), a lemon wedge and brown bread and butter. John’s were playing it safe with unpretentious British fare, it seemed, but to my mind the classiness of the joint in which one consumes our nation’s classic seafood dishes is, as a rule, inversely proportionate to the quality of the eating experience. That is to say, go for upmarket haddock and hand-cut potatoes at a pricey gastropub and you will be disappointed, but the nosh at a scuzzy chip shop in Grimsby, for instance, will be foodgasmic.
Thankfully it was all uphill from there. Guinea fowl supreme is a John’s staple. Moist and tender, it was wrapped in Parma ham with a sweet red pepper sauce. My baked baby goat’s cheese ‘tarte tatin’ (read: splodge) was set off by a gorgeously spicy red onion chutney topping. I enjoyed my balsamic roasted vegetables, though the shallots were not particularly popular with my college father, who gave me all of his, and my college brother sent a couple of recalcitrant Parisienne potatoes flying across the table when they would not submit to his fork.
Dessert was served in a tripartite formation. The glazed Cambridge burnt cream (read: crème brûlée) was infused with mango, adding a wonderful zest to match the sharpness of the raspberries and brandy snap biscuit.
All’s well that ends well, I suppose, and hence I left essentially satisfied. My advice, though, is to preview the menu, both to see if your hors d’œuvre is going to be substituted for something less than splendiferous, but also to maximise your chances of being blown away by Bill Brogan’s brilliance, which I more often than not am. Bring on the lobster bisque!