St Leonards restaurant review: provocatively inventive dining

Chefs Andrew Clarke and Jackson Boxer are cooking up a wood-fired storm in Shoreditch


St Leonards chefs Andrew Clarke and Jackson Boxer have form – they were partners at Brunswick House, a Georgian mansion marooned on a Vauxhall traffic island with the funkiest dining room in London. It shares the space with an architectural salvage company, so the seats might be from a nearby distressed Church and perhaps that shadow on your soup is from a Sopwith Camel propeller suspended from the ceiling.

St Leonards is a far more ordered experience, in a Shoreditch side street which was once home to Victorian furniture stores but now attracts hip ad agencies and the like. It is a fairly neutral version of warehouse chic, with industrial lighting dangling from the ceiling and lots of beams and utilitarian tables and chairs with a spacious horseshoe shaped bar on the side. There is nothing predictable about the food though, which is provocatively inventive.

The dining area is dominated by a spacious grill with stacks of wood taking up any spare space. This is the lair of Andrew Clarke, who could easily win first prize as the personification of the contemporary chef – his arms displaying myriad tattoos while his head has bedraggled hair and a birds nest beard that would be the envy of any medieval mystic. Jackson Boxer, in charge of the non-flamed food, exudes a different sort of cred with his grandmother Lady Arabella Boxer the cookery writer while father Charlie runs a successful delicatessen in Bonnington Square - brother Frank is the brains behind the trendiest bar in South London (Frank’s Café) on top of a Peckham car park.

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Starters include oysters three ways – natural, dressed or flamed. In this case, dressed means firm meaty Jersey number threes drained of their brine, which is replaced with a vinaigrette of black and white currants, with a solitary leaf of purslane on top. The initial impact is quite intense because of the sharpness of the mixture but ultimately some fruitiness appears and it works next to the limpid texture of the oyster.

The flamed one is even more pushing the envelope with pig fat along with a sauce of gooseberries, ginger, cumin and shallots with powdered pork rind. People think nothing of mixing a scallop with bacon or chorizo, so replacing them with cooked oysters is not so off the wall. Besides, there is nothing weird about the combination, which is again a taste and textural triumph. The next dish was white beetroot, almonds, black garlic and fromage blanc.

This was an extraordinary umami laden experience, which shouldn’t have been a surprise give than the puree covering it was made from aged black Japanese vinegar, white soy, lemon juice and unfiltered rapeseed oil from a farm in Essex. The beetroot had been slowly roasted all day in the embers and black garlic was added. Again, the texture of the beetroot was fleshy and laden with flavour, with the slightly green almonds adding to the package. The razor clam, courgettes, chives and peas dish was less compelling – it needed more of an acidic edge to bring it all together. No such complaints were made about the smoked eel, foie gras custard and pork rind dish – this oozed intense flavours and was a daring but successful amalgam of creature comfort.

Main courses were more of a toss up – the roast hake was cooked perfectly with charred mini leeks and crab aioli. The 50-day longhorn sirloin was the only confusing dish. It was in the hearth section which included some delicious looking sirloin ribs off the grill but this was actually unexposed to flame and visually looked raw or even sous vide. It had apparently been rested in a warm section next to the flames from the morning, so that it was slow cooked over several hours.

This meant the line of fat along the edge was not truly firm or crusty and overall, the steak had a certain toughness. The accompanying beef-fat potato cake also didn’t quite hang together, though the side order of hispi cabbage with pork-fat and xo crumb was satisfyingly exotic. It is probably just a case of more explanation required on the menu as there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the concept, just that it wasn’t what one expected, given the flames flickering from the grill.

Word should be made about the wine list, which unusually for Shoreditch, has a spectacular array of Bordeaux and Burgundy, including a number of different vintages of Chateau Lafleur, one of the greatest Pomerols on the planet. There were also a handful of natural wines for the true believers, so everyone was catered for. I never had space for pudding, so can’t really give an opinion about them. It may be early days, but everything points to St Leonards being a huge success, rather in the same way that nearby Brat has solidified its reputation also in a matter of weeks.

Clarke and Boxer are fully aware that they are recreating some challenging taste combinations but are rightly unapologetic about this. It would have been very easy for them to set up a big wood fired restaurant and just turn out steaks and burgers. As Jackson said, “We want to recontextualise all the flavours we love and think about what makes them delicious. Then we can see if we can make them even more emphatic by casting them into different contexts.” So far, so very good.

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