I must be spending far too much time in Chowhound chat rooms; a post from the esteemed Hermano Primero, of Dos Hermanos. kindly informing Chowhounds that St. John would be closing from late June until late August for “a much needed programme of refurbishment and maintenance” was all it took for me to immediately book a table for ‘final week’.
A visit to St. John, only a marrow bone’s throw from my office, was already long overdue. As one of London’s most critically acclaimed restaurants – it was the biggest British winner in this year’s San Pellegrino ‘World’s 50 Best’ list, rising 18 places to 16th (even above my beloved l’Arpège) and named the ‘must visit’ restaurant of 2008 – it is a destination de rigueur on many foodies’ London itineraries.
The restaurant is iconic to say the least. Since self-trained Fergus Henderson opened SJ in 1994, it has spawned a cult following. The world famous home of ‘nose-to-tail eating’ has a fan base that includes the full spectrum of eaters – chefs/foodies/professional critics – all of whom lovingly make the pilgrimage to Smithfield to sample the simple, classic ‘British’ cooking on offer. Indeed, there are now a host of eateries that follow the gospel of St. John; Hereford Road, Rochelle Canteen, Great Queen St, Anchor & Hope…
In post-mad-cow Britain, where eating red meat is almost stigmatised and offal almost taboo, SJ is a leading proponent of the foodolution (food revolution) against against eating meat. Indeed some of its attraction certainly rests in the coolness factor attached to being unconventional, to being a rebel and also the minor mischief in eating such unmentionable cuts as heart, brains, fries etc; all of which have helped make SJ the fashionable institution it is.
The restaurant is located, rather fittingly, in what appears to have previously been a butchers or warehouse (actually it was a bacon smokehouse) adjacent to London’s most famous meat market, Smithfield. The interior has been striped to its bare bones to reveal an ‘abattoir-chic’ minimalism; 30ft high whitewashed walls enclose today’s stainless steel bar; exposed corrugated iron staircases crisscross from floor to ceiling; wooden tables and chairs bedeck the floor. One may assume it a clinical, sterile environment, but far from it. Yes it is clean, simple and precise, but also it is honest, open and fresh. This impression is no doubt fostered by the cosy, welcoming aroma of just-made bread which, emanating from the in-house bakery found in one corner, envelops and warms the whole room. In a former life, Fergus Henderson trained and worked as an architect; no wonder then that so much emphasis has been placed on the restaurant’s setting, creating what is a genuine architectural space.
Once at St. John, I was ushered into the dining room where, expecting to find food for eating, I was first to find food for further thought. ‘Victorian refectory’ sprang instantly to mind: again whitewashed walls; long rows of uncomfortable wooden tables and chairs; battleship grey parquet. The focal point is the open kitchen, which allows customers just a peek inside. I half-expected, fully-would-have-loved-it to see an Oliver Twist cast of little street urchins flood in and take their rightful places along these rows, but of course, nothing as lovely and as fantastic as that could ever have happened to me.
There is a complete absence of adornment about the room and no ostentation. In their place is a charming austerity. The intention is to focus eaters’ minds on what they are eating. Henderson wants no distractions; even asserting admirably, “you come here to eat, not to pose.”
This dogma of simplicity and focus pervades every detail, from the white smocks worn by the staff (homage to the market porters at Smithfield) to the lack of background music and even the terse dish appellations on the menu (above). Even the food must abide by these same commandments; what you read is what you get. Peas in the Pod is literally a portion of garden peas, albeit fresh and sweet ones, served in a bowl, which you must pod yourself. The preparation of the food, the ingredients, even the presentation is utilitarian.
The waitress who took my order was delightfully charming and patient. She answered amiably my constant questions (you too will have questions given such limited descriptions) and was eager to help accommodate my eating wishes. Under her guidance, I ordered a selection that allowed me to sample both some traditional dishes as well as some more adventurous ones. Unfortunately however, there was nothing especially ‘out there’ that day.
After taking my order, the bread basket was brought and a new love born. This bread was superb; light, fluffy, crusty and wholesome. It tasted great and would prove ideal for soaking up all the juices from off my plates. It is the best bread I have had in some time…
The first starter, Squid & Tomato, was a generous serving of gently braised squid, cherry tomatoes, parsley and onions, splashed with lemon juice and topped with a dollop of butter. The lovely tomato and lemon aroma and green, red, zinnwaldite and yellow colours evoked memories of the Mediterranean, with the parsley in particular whisking me back to sunny Cyprus, where I have spent many summers and where this herb is an almost ubiquitous meal additive. The braised squid had an unusual texture, rather more tender than expected and not at all chewy. Some of the squid’s cooking juices had been added to the butter, giving it a gentle and felicitous spiciness. The obviously fresh ingredients, each bursting with their individual flavours – sweet, sour, bitter and acidic – were in harmony, neither one overpowering the others; it was a pleasant and delicate mix.
The dish that one must try at St. John is Henderson’s signature Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad – actually, it is the only item that can be a must-order as it is the only one always on the ever-changing menu. As I awaited its arrival, warm childhood memories came flooding back to me; my grandmother would often serve me the leftover bones she had used to flavour broths and soups. I would take these bones with both hands, ripping and tearing at the few remaining thews with my teeth – a generally almost fruitless endeavour, but worryingly addictive. I would always leave the best bit till last; sucking the marrow out. Those measly (lamb) bones only ever yielded just enough yummy fat to deliver the hint of a taste, but it was worth it.
Four roasted bones, shaped like mini Gaudi apartment buildings, were served oven-hot with a garden-fresh salad of parsley, capers and shallots and two crusty slices of St. John’s trademark toasted sourdough. The waiter provided me with a long lobster fork-like implement, necessary for the successful extraction of precious marrow, and spooned a large helping of French sel gris onto my plate. After seducing my sense of sight, the dish subdued my sense of smell with its rich, roasted, meaty aroma. I eagerly began attacking each little burning-hot volcano, piercing the soft mouth, diligently working my fork around its core, urging every last drop of that luscious lava out onto the toast. Garnishing the marrow-on-toast with some of that refreshing salad and a generous sprinkling of those large powerful salt grains, it was ready, I was ready. Wow! An unforgettable memory was created there and then. Gooey, oozing, fatty marrow, fresh bitter parsley, sweet shallots, zesty capers, a hint of lemon, sharp salty smack, crunchy bread; all these simple, intense, gorgeous flavours whirled around in my mouth. It was blissful. I was happy.
I refused to relinquish my plate until I had desperately dug out every last drop of gungy goodness from those wicked little vessels, finally using the delicious bread to mop up any (greasy, oily) salty, lemon-sour juices. I savoured the deep, sinful and yet comforting flavours. This was a great dish, simplicity and perfection combined; it was simply perfect.
The next dish to come out was the Calves’ Liver & Onions, today’s special and my waitress’ personal favourite. A decent serving of rare pan-fried liver came with onions fried to within moments of evaporation, swimming in sherry vinegar. The pungent odours of the dish, of sweetness and succulence, filled my nostrils. I cut into the liver and discovered the sticky exterior concealed a pleasingly bloody, molten, milky centre. The onions, a comme il faut Eve to the liver’s Adam, were a little too mushy for my taste; considering the already soft texture of the meat, maybe less limp onions could have provided a pleasing crunch. The sweet-sour sherry vinegar complemented the dish well.
Ox Heart, Carrots & Horseradish followed. Thin slices of heart were served with braised, caramelised carrots and a tablespoon of horseradish. The meat, rare again, was delicate and tender. One might have expected a more imposing taste and special texture from this beast, but it actually turned out to be quite gentle and mild-mannered. That said, the meat did have a very familiar, very specific taste that though I have tried desperately to since, I just cannot place. Nevertheless, it was pleasant if not exciting. The sticky, shiny carrots were nice, with juicy amber pulp encased securely in a rusty burnt orange straightjacket of skin. The freshly prepared horseradish, impotent on first taste, delivered a classically-delayed, sorely-needed slap to rouse the ox.
Then came the Devilled Kidneys on Toast. This Victorian delicacy was by some margin the pick of the three main dishes. The velvety kidneys, strewn on crunchy sourdough toast, were submerged in the most intoxicating of sauces. The simple blend of cayenne, mustard and Worcestershire sauce packed a potent, spicy, sweet and above all, delicious punch and each bite brought tears to my eyes (well, actually it wasn’t good enough or hot enough to do that, but the metaphor is worth the hyperbole). Then again, it is said (well, said by Belgians at least) that well prepared kidneys are comparable to luxurious foie gras.
Whilst working diligently though these plates, a side order of Welsh Rarebit was duly delivered. It was indeed unnecessary when considered from a (boring) utilitarian viewpoint, but I was wearing my hedonist hat that day and rarebit is one of those items I always want to order (hot bread, melted cheese; who would not?), but I just never do. The mammoth size of this specimen actually shocked me a little, but in a pleasing, someone-has-just-come-up-behind-you-and-jabbed-you-in-the side sort of way. A rusted layer of molten cheese magma that struggled to stay atop the thick slice of toast was flavoured with Worcestershire sauce, beer, cayenne and mustard. However, as glorious as it looked, the taste was surprisingly mild, too mild for my liking. Considering the dynamite-like components, I expected/craved a flavour explosion, but instead landed a dud; making £5.00 a rather dear sum to pay for good old cheese-on-toast.
The first pudding to arrive was the St. John classic, Eccles Cake & Lancashire Cheese. This is a good example of what an easy target I am. Though I do like cheese, I almost always ask to substitute the cheese course for an extra dessert and I also (nearly) hate raisons, sultanas, currants, etc (except for green raisons…do not ask me why). Yet, fully self-conscious of my own predilections, I still ordered this. To be honest, it was decent, but nothing great. The cheese was good, lush, soft and mellow, it was a perfect foil for the swarm of super intense, contemptible currants that disgorged themselves from the sweet and crunchy Eccles cake with its icing-covered shell.
The second pudding was an inspired choice: Raspberry & Lemon Posset. Lovely – that sums it up rather well. A lemon juice infused mixture of cream, sugar and possibly egg was zesty yet sweet, dense yet smooth. Upon breaching the sand coloured surface with my shovel/spoon, I was able to dig out a precious treasure of raspberry pearls. Sour lemon. Sweet raspberry. Great match. The posset alone would have sufficed, but served alongside were two perfect shortbreads, each so delicate, each ready to crumble and submit their buttery, biscuity goodness the moment they were in my mouth and mine. The contrasting consistencies of silk and grain between the cream and cookies went very well.
All in all, I enjoyed my St. John experience very much. The service was good; my initial waitress was excellent, but as the restaurant filled, she was replaced by another waiter who, though friendly and helpful too, was just not as endearing. The kitchen was also kind enough to let me have some main courses as half-portions, something which I was told the chef normally never does. The food definitely had its moments. The culinary highs (bread, marrow bones, kidneys, posset) were very high, but the lows (ox heart, liver, Eccles cake) were rather bland/disappointing/just not to my taste. In terms of value, I would admit starters were good value, as were puddings, but the mains, though not blatantly expensive, were a little overpriced for what you received.
I am a big fan of offal and the less common cuts of meat: I always steal the liver, gizzard and neck from the chicken/turkey before it’s even carved; claim fish eyes and cheeks for myself; bugsy the bunny’s head; and, when available at my butcher, roast a whole lamb’s head, which I refuse to share (not that anyone else ever wants some). St. John is one of only few places that cater for such intrepid tastes. This, plus the fact that the dishes I did like here, I liked very much and the dynamic menu, capable of genuinely exciting dishes, will definitely have me coming back for more.
tel: 020 7553 9842
nearest tube: Barbican, Farringdon