It’s rare I eat East, so it was a novelty when a friend’s birthday took me to that neck of the woods, past grand Smithfield market and the famed St John’s dining rooms for the very first time. First impressions of St John’s Lane were as an odd and eerie place. Connecting Farringdon to buzzing Angel, the road is lined with smart-looking eateries and spick office space, but during my visit the pavements (and Waitrose) were pretty much deserted. Where were the people?
The Larder doesn’t yell. I walked the length of the road twice before finally locating it at the Farringdon end, its frontage obscured by scaffolding and its name in discreet lettering above the door. From outside it looks pricey (even the scaffolding suggests investment) but not uninviting. Despite the fact we booked through Top Table and would be enjoying a decent little discount, the girl on the door welcomed us warmly. No credit-crunch resentment here. We were led to a table in the window (as Simon observed, ‘probably to make the place look busy’, since it transpired that the deserted pavements weren’t down to Larder having poached all the pedestrians) and then given plenty of time and space to wait for the final member of our party to arrive.
Talking of space, there’s probably nowhere in Soho with the luxury of such space. If this ample dining room was a Pizza Express, it would contain eight times as many seats. Instead, Larder puts enough distance between you and the next table of strangers that you can remark quite openly on them without fear of being overheard (and remark we did – not just because they were a rather fruity-looking couple, but also because the plates arriving on their table were definitely worth comment). But though the privacy is nice – and indeed quite a novelty in London – it also makes the place feel a little uninhabited and thwarts that ‘buzz’ that makes a good restaurant really great. And, as mentioned, on the Wednesday night in question, the place also suffered from not being full. The only interruptions to our seclusion were the gawping waiters: the wide gangways prevent them from sidling past to sneak a look at your plate, so, discreet as they try to be, they have no choice but to march right up to the table to assess your progress. Meanwhile, reaching the toilets is like crossing the savannah, leading you past a surprisingly exposed chef’s table (I thought they were normally tucked away in expensive back-rooms) and an open kitchen that is less a spectacle and more a chance for the chefs to size up their diners.
Despite the sparse atmosphere, however, Larder really isn’t bad. The staff are pleasant (gawping aside; it’s not their fault), and the food is of a nice standard. The Top Table menu barely differs from the regular à la carte, and affords you a 50% discount if you order starter and main. So we did. Bread, refreshingly, was free, evidently homemade, and came with a shot-glass of olive-oily hummus. My chicken liver parfait was smooth, dense, rich, its chutney tangy. Its butter coating was a little odd, though: not exactly clarified, but also not quite regular, as if somebody had got halfway through clarifying it and then given up. Simon’s Salt and Sichuan Pepper Squid was generous and cleverly presented. The Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli looked fresh and hand-made, topped with attractive micro-salad, while the Duck Spring Rolls were, pleasantly, closer to fresh spring rolls than to the artery-busting deep-fried variety, and chock-a-block with meat.
There is everything to choose from when it comes to The Larder’s main courses: the whole spectrum of meats, a variety of fish types, inventive salads and interesting veggie options. Every dish sounds hearty in some way, whether due to the cooking process (braising/roasting), the homely connotations of the dish (steak pudding/classic fish and chips) or because it is ‘heartied’ up with accompaniments like bubble and squeak or Parmesan croquettes. Somehow, even the salads project heartiness, by promising a whole wealth of ingredients, particularly earthy ones like squash and root veg. My roast salmon came with a satisfyingly salty side of puy lentils, pancetta and Charlotte potatoes. A pie boasted a stodgy but delicious suet-pastry crust. Delicate grilled plaice fillets were roughened up with some breaded scampi. The confit of duck was given the opposite treatment, its audacious richness offset with delicate scallops and bok choy. All hearty but not heavy. Plates were duly emptied.
Verdict? Satisfying and attractive food trying to hold its own against a slightly meagre atmosphere. I rarely wish for a rabble, but to get the best experience of Larder, I recommend going at a typically busy time – a Thursday or Friday evening, when the place is full enough that people’s voices might drown out the awkward clink of your knife and fork.