London: St JohnMarch 3, 2015
26 St John Street, Smithfield, London EC1M 4AY
Despite being back home in Melbourne for over a week now, I’m sad to say I haven’t had much time to blog. Between starting a new job and moving house, spare time has been rare. Fortunately, an hour in front of TV on the couch was all I needed to get me writing again. My plan is to spend some time writing about things that I ate while overseas in the UK, France and Italy, before getting back to my usual Melbourne posts. For those of you who’ve travelled to Europe, I hope you see some familiar faces! For those of you who may be planning to travel, I hope these posts are a helpful guide!
I thought I’d begin with St John, not just because it was a wonderful meal, but also because it is a restaurant that has played such a formative role in Britain’s (in fact, the world’s) culinary history. Founded by Fergus Henderson, St John is a celebration of nose to tail eating, a philosophy which we now take for granted but which was championed by Henderson many years ago.
I’ve been reading Anthony Bourdain’s book, Medium Raw, and I think he does a much better job of summing up Henderson’s contributions to the food industry than I could. Bourdain writes (and I’m paraphrasing somewhat here), ‘Fergus Henderson is a hero. [His book] Nose to Tail is considered one of the classic cookbooks of All Time, a collector’s item, a must-have for any chef anywhere in the world wanting cred from his peers, the Bible for the ever-growing “guts mafia”, the opening shot in an ongoing battle that’s still, even today, changing the whole world of food. St John the restaurant, an undecorated white room serving barely garnished English country fare, continues to be lavishly over-praised. I believe that Fergus Henderson, in a way that very few chefs have ever been, is good for society as a whole. Because, unlike any chef I’ve ever heard of, he has influenced people who’ve never been to St John, never eaten his food, and certainly never read his book, and don’t have any idea who the f–k this Fergus Henderson guy might be. Simply by doing what he’s doing, he’s inspired others to put things on their menus and look at ingredients they might never have thought of had he not done it first – and, as the word spreads, minds and menus change, and no one even knows where it all might have started.’
Naturally, I was very keen to eat at St John, and I spent our long tube trip to Smithfield humming nervously. When we arrived, it was just as I imagined: white walls, simple furniture, a mature but energetic atmosphere. Despite the stripped back design, it’s an oddly welcoming place, and after hanging up our coats, scarves and gloves on the hooks above our table, we settled down contentedly.
The menu, in fitting with the restaurant, is a simple affair, with dishes often described merely by two or three ingredients. I would have sampled the entire menu if I could, but alas, stomach size/moderation/self-control/etc!
There was simply no question about which entree I’d order – it just had to be the roast bone marrow. Visually arresting, the bones had been arranged on a plate with some toast, a parsley and onion salad, and a teaspoon of coarse salt. You use a small knife to pull and scrape out as much bone marrow as you can onto the toast, add a few leaves of parsley and some salt, and enjoy. To quote Anthony Bourdain again, it tastes like ‘the butter of the gods”. Gelatinous, fatty, and incredibly rich, it’s the perfect mixture between austerity and indulgence.
Alex went for a dish of pressed pig’s ear and chicory. We saw a man on the table next to us eating it and thought it might be interesting. Alex shares my adventurous spirit for food and, never one to shy away from a challenge, he tackled the pig’s ear head-on. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a winner of a dish. Texture aside (think semi-crunchy cartilage, challenging in itself), it didn’t have much of a taste. A slight porky flavour but nothing outstanding.
Fortunately, mains fared much better. Alex had a beautifully pink plate of roast veal with carrots, onions, and a dollop of aioli. Modest and unadorned, it was a dish that really let the quality of the veal take centre stage.
Always a sucker for things roasted whole, I went for the woodcock. Somewhere between a quail and a pigeon in both size and flavour, my bird came with a hand full of watercress stuffed up its backside, some woodcock liver pate smeared on some fried bread, and a root vegetable of some kind, stem still attached. The woodcock was roasted to blushing pink perfection, and towards the end I couldn’t help but pick up each little leg and nibble all the meat off them. Woodcock has a strong mineral, gamey-but-in-a-good-way taste, and it was remarkably tender for such lean meat. There’s just such a sense of occasion to eating a whole roasted bird, I really enjoyed it.
When they replaced our cutlery after the entree, they gave me a knife, a fork, and a teaspoon. “Odd”, I had thought, “they’ve obviously made a mistake”. Half way through my woodcock, I turned my attention to the root vegetable only to realise, “Oh dear, that’s not a vegetable… oh my, that’s the bird’s head split in half. Oh good grief, that’s what the spoon is for!!”
And you know what? Woodcock brain is actually alright. It has a creamy, buttery texture and a very mild taste. Beyond the mental hurdle, there’s nothing particularly challenging about it. And anyway, this is the traditional English way to prepare woodcock, so I could hardly pass up the opportunity! In fact normally the entire innards, having being roasted whole inside the bird per tradition (which I’m sure was what had happened here), are then all mashed onto some toast, lung, liver, intestines and heart all together.
And look, if I’ve made some of you uncomfortable, if you think I’m a disgusting human being, here’s a picture of a nice salad. Just calm down, all of you.
Desserts are similarly simple affairs, mostly a collection of English classics like Eccles cake and Lancashire cheese, pear and sherry trifle, or brown bread ice cream. Alex went with the chocolate mousse with a dollop of creme fraiche and a shortbread biscuit. Simple concept, quality chocolate, great dessert.
I ordered the bread pudding with butterscotch sauce, thinking it was a sort of bread and butter pudding. Instead I was surprised by a rather fruitcake-like dessert with a thick, sweet sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it certainly was delicious, and a fabulous end to a meal that was surprising, sometimes challenging, but incredibly interesting and flavoursome. Fergus Henderson, I salute you!
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