St Barnabas is, I’m told, the Patron Saint of Encouragement. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but am duly encouraged by this revelation. It is after St Barnabus that – unsurprisingly – the House of St Barnabas is named: London’s first not-for profit private members’ club, which sits resplendently in a Grade I listed Georgian townhouse on Greek Street.
The House, once a home for “fallen” women, now accommodates an employment academy for the homeless (women and men), taking them off the streets and training them up in hospitality, before (often) hiring them in the club. There’s a beautiful courtyard at the back, shaded by plane trees under which Dickens is rumoured to have written A Tale of Two Cities, and a consecrated chapel, home to the Macedonian Church. Whacky.
Nestled in the house is a small but lively restaurant, which was taken over by head chef Nick Wyborn last year. The room is quite deliberately not fancy, despite the high ceilings and chandeliers: it looks as if there’s a drive to keep things “basic”, but of a good quality at the same time, which makes it comfortingly relaxing.
Remarkably for a head chef, Nick Wyborn is only 22. He may lack years of experience, but his enthusiasm is promising. Nick tells me he’s keen that the menu should be seasonal, ingredient-driven and served simply, as a celebration of British produce. And Nick is making changes, having recently introduced a new seasonal menu that will change every six weeks.
One is automatically tempted to dislike anything worthy, particularly an initiative that threatens to ignite some sort of guilt whilst guzzling food and knocking back wine. Thankfully, any guilt is sluiced back with the house white wine (a fresh-tasting 2015 Borgo Selene), and doesn’t seem to have affected the membership either.
The menu is straightforward – offering all the old favourites (fish finger sandwiches, rib eye steak, beef burger and salads). I can see that Nick wants eating here to be casual and relaxing, which is in keeping with the nonswanks theme of the club. I choose the crayfish cocktail and my companion opts for the steak tartare, a choice I soon envy. Not because the crayfish cocktail – isn’t delicious (the fish tastes perfectly fresh) but because the steak tartare is of such exquisite deliciousness that I am tempted to sign up as a member on the spot. The steak is cut in the most perfect ruby chunks, its caper and Tabasco sauce sharp but not overwhelming, both providing a magnificent bed to a quail’s egg (texture therefore heavenly).
For the main course, I break the rule of a lifetime (“darling, never order chicken at a restaurant – you can have chicken any time at home”) and choose the chicken schnitzel with a mustard sauce and a fricassee of fresh peas, broadbeans and radishes. I’m soon pleased that I have defied the Chicken Commandment: the meat is tender and the accompanying vegetables taste of the promise of spring. My companion orders the roasted Sicilian Artichokes with Provençal vegetables and a piquillo pepper puree and, upon tasting, I think I’ve won this round, but I haven’t quite got my revenge for the steak tartare. I wonder if I ever will. The thought of trying is, as in the name of St Barnabus, an encouraging one.