Tuesday 5 June 2012

St John - London

There can be no doubt that St John is a legendary British restaurant. Chef, Ferguson Henderson’s austere, stripped back style is widely credited with almost singlehandedly kick-starting a renaissance in eating offal with it’s ‘nose to tail’ menu policy. Chef and outspoken ‘no bullshit’ food pundit, Anthony Bourdain credits St John as being his favourite restaurant in the world and describes Fergus Henderson as a ‘reluctant spiritual leader’ to a whole generation of chefs.

Back when I worked in London, for years I was ensconced in an office, just a few minutes down the road from St John. In fact, I walked past it at least twice daily. That’s the closest I ever got. I never ate there once. I wasn’t confident enough. I often stopped on the pavement outside to study the menu. It seemed pretty expensive and I didn’t know what most of the dishes were, in fact, some of them sounded positively horrific, words plucked from abattoir sweepings and deposited straight onto a plate. I always backed away, intimidated.

Last Friday, finally, I returned to my old stomping ground, older, wiser, fatter. Lunch for one booked at St John and far from being intimidated, I was incredibly excited.
The restaurant itself, housed in a former bacon smokehouse has an unusual feel to it. You initially enter a cavernously high ceilinged, blinding white, bare walled, factory space, flooded with natural light. This area, houses the bar, a bakery counter and a few tables. Just to the right, up a small flight of stone steps is a door marked ‘dining room’ and this is where I headed.

This room is also large, but much lower ceilings give it a darker and definitely more intimate quality than the almost industrial glare of the entrance hall. Despite sharing the same spartan whitewashed walls and stripped back utilitarianism, it feels somehow very comfortable. The stark architectural design softened by being well worn and lived in. It’s a fantastic space and in the middle of lunchtime, it was bustling.

One of the most pleasing aspects of eating on your own, despite the fact that it feels so indulgent, is that the whole dining experience is somehow intensified. Your concentration, with no distraction offered by a companion is pin sharp. You take absolutely everything in.

In between reading the menu, I idly scanned the room, watching the waiters and waitresses work, jacketed in long sleeved chefs whites and white aprons. Admiring their professional hustle, constantly glancing in hurried passing at their tables, checking. Well-drilled service is a joy to observe.
Chewing on excellent sourdough bread, I waited for my starter. I’d ordered a St John classic, an iconic dish that is apparently always on the menu, Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad. Before arriving, I’d actually consulted Twitter for recommendations on ‘must order’ dishes, and this one came up again and again, unanimously in fact. Anthony Bourdain has singled this out as the last thing he’d wish to eat if on Death row. No pressure then.

My waiter explained to me that the best way to eat it, is to hold the bone over the sourdough toast, push the marrow through with the supplied pick type implement, spread it, sprinkle liberally with salt and then heap with the parsley salad. What can I say that probably hasn’t already been said? It’s absolutely bloody amazing. It doesn’t get simpler than some roasted veal bones, toast, a parsley salad and some salt but combined together? Oh frigging yes. My first bite of this was a definite eyes rolling back in the head moment, the soft jelly like marrow oozing over and into the crisp, hot sourness of the bread, cut through with the sharpness of the piled on parsley, capers and shallots. Simply incredible.

 I’d asked my waiter for a glass of wine to accompany my roasted bones, and he recommended a ‘Fantasie 2010’ Chateau de Jurque, Jurancon which at £8.10 a glass was a bit more than I normally like to splurge (one could get two whole frigging bottles of Asti Spumante for that) but I decided to push the boat out and it was a great choice, absolutely spot on match.
Roast Middle White Loin, Carrots and Trotter arrived, personifying the admirable St John aesthetic of no needless decoration or frippery. This was a very functional looking plate of food indeed. Middle White is a particularly tasty rare breed pig and here the meat was beautifully cooked, tender and full of flavour with attendant perfect crackling. A whole braised carrot was a surprisingly decent vegetal accompaniment. The trotter aspect of the dish was presumably personified in a small piece of porky jelly. It was all undoubtedly good, but it didn’t blow my socks off, like the previous course had.

Comfortably slipping into the fine dining booze groove and feeling mistakenly affluent, I asked for another recommendation to accompany my pork. A chilled red, ‘Les Copines Aussi’ 2010 at £7.40 a glass was, once again, well chosen by my waiter and would have been a really nice drink at anytime really.

I’ve made the St John Eccles Cake recipe at home, and I was intrigued to see how my efforts compared (pretty well as it turns out). Another stripped back, almost geometric plate arrived in the form of a perfectly spherical cake, alongside a triangular slice of Lancashire cheese. Undoubtedly simple but the genius here being that the two seemingly disparate items complement each other perfectly. Beyond the crisp flake of the confining pastry, the Eccles cake filling was sticky, dry and beautifully spiced. The earthy creamy tang of the cheese was sublime.

After a decent coffee, and a momentary period of reflection and digestation (is that even a word? If not…it should be). I swayed outside onto the pavement swooning from feeling over £60 lighter. For me, that’s a pretty damn expensive lunch. But, you know what, it was worth every single penny.

I bloody loved St John. It’s a one-off and quite obviously continues to live up to its considerable reputation. The whole experience was just an absolute pleasure from start to finish. Every aspect is so perfectly pitched, the dining room, the friendly yet admirably professional staff, and the menu full of interesting, seasonal and often iconic dishes.

St John feels somehow imbued with the stripped back essence of what makes eating pleasurable. That it’s so very British is just incredible. There just isn’t anywhere else comparable.

St John
26 St John Street

Telephone: 020 3301 8069


Madame Guillotine said...

I keep planning to go there but as a vegetarian always feel really intimidated by the whole ethos. However, having read this I suspect their non meaty fare is probably pretty superb so I'll try and go next time I'm in Spitalfields.

Dan said...

Madame Guillotine - You should definitely go. It's not all meat. You'll love it.

Dan said...

Oh, and forgot to add. This restaurant is in Smithfields. St John Bread & Wine is at Spitalfields.

Omnivoracity said...

Nice work sir. Table7.com offer 20% off your final bill (so includes booze) at the St John Hotel Restaurant. I'll send you and invite, may be useful. Other good stuff on there too.

Shu Han said...

I went before, for my birthday, thoroughly intimidated. Not the kind of place 3 uni students with not much cash hang out at often. We only ate from the bar/bakery outside, just some nibbles, but I was already feeling gleefully pleased with bread (it was excellent sourdough I agree) and butter. I will one day go back and eat that marrow dish.

Unknown said...

I think 'digestion' was the word you were looking for Dan. Does sound lovely, although as you say, seems very pricy (even allowing for the wine) for food so simple, even ascetic. But still sounds worth it for the whole experience - like you, I'm sure I'll make it there one day!

Dan said...

Omnivoracity - Thank you very much for that. I really appreciate it.

Dan said...

Shu Han - I know what you mean, when you're young with less money, some restaurants can feel massively intimidating, even just to walk in the door. Agreed, their sourdough is excellent. You should definitely go back for a meal and the bone marrow.

Hugh - I did try 'digestion' on for size, but resorted to making a word up hahaha. It was indeed lovely, but yep, tres pricey. One of the most expensive lunches I've had for ages. But definitely worth it, just to experience a restaurant that's had such a massive influence on the way we all look at the offaly bits.

Ben said...

Looks fantastic, Dan. Never had marrow before, you made it sound appetising - and I'm not that the wine is that pricey, I sadly think that's just how much it is these days...! Unless you want Asti, that is...

Dan said...

Ben - The Bone Marrow was frigging uber. You're right, it's not pricey...just more expensive than I normally like to pay hahahaha. Sadly, there was no Asti.

Unknown said...

Nice review. I too visited St John for the first time recently and loved every mouthful! The service, the food, everything was spot on. I had the bone marrow to start, sweetbreads for main (oh my god!) and Eccles cake to finish. It makes for a reasonably priced dinner given the quality of the food, but yes, £60 for lunch on your own is pretty indulgent!

Dan said...

Clare - Thanks very much. Almost the exact same food I ordered. Nice! Looking at my bill, the food isn't actually too badly priced - but factor in a couple of glasses of wine, a tip etc and Bingo - £60

Hollow Legs said...

I went to St John, and also to the hotel and I found some of the dishes to be a bit too slop-on-a-plate-like for the price tag. I absolutely adored the bar dishes in the main St John restaurant though.

Dan said...

Lizzie - Oh dear. Slop on a plate doesn't sound too good. What bar dishes would you recommend?

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