review: nose to tail…
Do you know how long I’ve been looking forward to eating at St. John?
Perhaps more than any other restaurant I had planned to visit on my recent trip to Europe, this is the one I had most desired for and thought about. That should tell you something about the way I like to eat.
I’ve had many of Fergus Henderson’s dishes before – either cooked at home or by like-minded, offal and game-obsessing friends out of his two cookbooks. But a visit to The Butcher Counter was necessary.
Having been dropped off at my hotel in London, hot off the heels of an excellent meal at The Sportsman, I checked in, threw my suitcases at the closet, and paused just long enough to wash my face and change into some galoshes.
Ignoring jet-lag and the onslaught of food coma, my friends and I headed out into the rainy night on our next food quest.
It seems fairly appropriate that St. John reminds me of an old butchery from, like, ages ago – not that I’ve seen one, mind you. But, I have an imagination and it tells me that this is so. (It actually used to be a smokehouse.)
Of course, it’s been spruced up a bit. The walls are way too white to look aged. There’s linoleum tiling – something which sort of shocked me. I was expecting wood.
Actually, now that I think a bit harder on it, St. John reminds me of a WWII hospital, or an insane asylum from the ‘30s, instead of an ancient butcher’s. There’s something clinically grand – or grandly clinical? – about this place. You half expect Nurse Ratched to round the corner at any minute wielding some medieval-looking instrument used for plucking marrow out of veal bones.
I didn’t say you had to trust my imagination.
Okay, maybe “acetic” is a more gentle way to describe the place.
But, everything else is as you would expect it to be: near-communal dining, butcher’s paper on wooden tables, airy and lofty, and a bit mess hall-like with a semi-open kitchen.
At this point in the game, my posse and I were clearly eating for sport, so we just threw ourselves at the menu, somewhat haphazardly, picking up a couple of requisites along the way. [CLICK HERE to see all of the photos I took from St. John.]
One of them was the Roast Bone Marrow served with parsley salad and a hill of sel gris (6.70£), the iconic St. John dish.
I’m not so much the bone marrow freak like many are. Frankly, the version I had at Blue Ribbon Bakery in New York last year struck my fancy more. Of course, that one had the advantage of being sauced with a wonderfully rich red wine reduction. This one is more austere, but for me, more about the wonderful toast. As enjoyable as this was, unlike Tony Bourdain, I wouldn’t want this to be the last thing turning in my stomach whilst languishing on my deathbed.
The other requisite, for me, was the Smoked Eel, Bacon, and Mash (15.70£), which another in our party claimed. The mashers were exactly as they should be: sturdy white noise against which to enjoy the fat, pink slabs of eel, which were soft, indulgently salty, and heady with smoke.
But this dish was flawed for me. While the bacon was very good – salty, somewhat fatty, and very smoky – it was completely superfluous, and, if nothing else, competed with the smoked eel, which really should have and could have towed the line successfully alone. Instead, one salty and smoky hit leap-frogged over the other. It got a bit tiresome after a couple of bites. I ended up kicking the bacon to the side. From there, it got progressively better.
Otherwise, we ordered at will, beginning with a round of starters, which included the Roasted Bone Marrow.
There was Brown Crab Meat on Toast, an excellent cold salad – creamy, briny, flecked with nuggets of brown crab meat, and spread on crusty slices of whole-wheat toast (7.80£). I really enjoyed this.
There was a restoring bowl of Jerusalem Artichoke Soup (6£), which, as I have described elsewhere and I repeat it here, was like chenille in the mouth, tasting of flint and earthy sweetness. If you ever want to know what Jerusalem artichokes taste like, all you need do is taste just one spoonful of this soup and you’ll never forget.
And, with a few consummate beet-lovers at the table, the Beet, Boiled Egg, and Anchovy seemed like a sensible thing to order (6.80£). It was. But, it wasn’t much more than that. It’s nice to have a hard-boiled egg once in a while that’s not rubber and chalk. This one glowed orange at the core. The anchovy was lovely.
For some reason, I’m completely blanking on the face of our server now, but she was a lovely woman who patiently ran down the list of off-menu items, which I noticed was scribbled onto a tally board in the kitchen. From my seat, I could see that there was only one Ox Tongue left, so I snagged it (15.40£).
Henderson’s recipe for ox tongue is fantastic. I’ve read it a million times. It appeals to my inner stodge. The corning process renders the tough strip of muscle soft, supple, and teaming with flavor. Creamed horseradish and rough wedges of beets were the obvious accompaniments. To the queasy, this combination of items and colors might not be the friendliest. But, for me, it was a tasty plate of blush on blush.
Hare was also on that tally board and, being of the season and favored by all present, it was summoned to our table (17.40£). The saddle, a strip of carmine, had been cut in half and plated with a bed of lentils spiked with pungent mustard.
I gotta tell you – those lentils were the tortoise to this hare, which was a bit lazy in flavor and utterly forgettable. The lentils, not hyper-active or showy but ever-faithful and diligent, won this race. It’s too bad they couldn’t have worked better together.
The hare was the only true let-down of the night.
Grouse was on the menu – at a considerable up-charge (27.20£) – and it was ordered. The entire bird, in a crispy shell of skin, was served with a pool of thick bread sauce and a round of toast coated in (chicken) liver pâté.
The cut of breast meat I had was tender and dripping with scarlet juice. Some disagree with grouse, a gamier bird. I like meat with a “fuller” flavor, so I’m not a good standard to follow. I found this grouse to have wonderful flavor. Together with the pâté, it all made tremendous sense. For me, this dish rivaled the ox tongue and eel, if not besting them with its balance and multi-dimensionality. At no point did I tire of its flavor and texture.
One in our party, whose appetite seemed to be waning, put in his order for dessert – Apple Calvados Trifle – and excused himself to the restroom (apparently, the grouse leg, which this particular member of our party decided to grab with his hands and eat, disagreed with him so much that he had to wash his hands to rid himself of the fowl (pun!) odor), warning us against further excess as he left. Amateur.
So the three of us commandeered the dessert menu and ordered four desserts for ourselves. It was the only right thing to do.
The Apple & Calvados Trifle (6.80£) was very good, though, to be honest, not as good as the version a friend made for me recently. But he had doused the cake with hard apple cider made by a fellow farmer. I’m not sure I was supposed to tell you that. It wasn’t moonshine, but it certainly had a gripping power that I loved. The Calvados here was much tamer, and, in the few bites I took, almost imperceptible. But, as far as trifles go, this one was very good. The apples were softened, but not mushy. The cake was moist and the thick head of whipped cream most fine. For the perfect finish, the top was flocked with slivered almonds.
The Pear Crumble (6.80£)wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly great either. While I did enjoy the generously large wedges of softened pears and the almond crumble topping, the gentleman who ordered this dessert seemed to delight more in the process of dousing the crumble with and eating drinking the accompanying “custard” (crème anglaise).
Better were the three other desserts, not the least of which was the one I ordered and attempted to sequester for myself: the Prune & Armagnac Ice Cream. (6.60£) I must admit that, for one who does not imbibe very much, I’m an awful sucker for spiked sweets.
I have a history with prune and Armagnac ice cream. Prune and Armagnac ice cream made both the Just Desserts of 2006 (Jean Georges, New York, New York) and the Just Desserts of 2007 (The Modern Bar Room, New York, New York) lists. But this version topped both of those. St. John’s prune and Armagnac ice cream is headier than any other version I’ve tried, threaded with large chunks of macerated prunes. It left me quite winded.
Forget the butterscotch ice cream that comes with the Gingerloaf (6.80£). It was completely innocuous and over-come by the intoxicatingly dark cake, which was full of ginger.
It wasn’t spicy, like one of my favorite gingerbread recipes. This “loaf” had mellow warmth, which spread gradually in the mouth. It was utterly moist. It was sauced with a healthy helping of dark caramel.
The Apple Sorbet (7.40£) was ghastly good. It was intense – essentially frozen cider. It had a bite, a sweet center, and a nice, long, tart finish. I’m not sure how the accompanying shot of (Polish) vodka was supposed to be taken – with or after the sorbet (or before?) – but it was very smooth and clean-tasting vodka. After a long day of heavy eating, it was a rather perfect, light, and bright finish.
One who seeks perfection and fuss should avoid St. John at all cost. After all, one does not go to the butcher’s for perfection and fuss, but rather to slap their elbows on the counter and get fed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a feeding trough. But it’s fundamental.
St. John is a place where the only civilized place to put your bread is on the table.
It’s also a place to make friends – food-loving ones. The crowd here is a self-selecting one, and, being packed in so closely, the circumstances almost beg the lot to enthuse and effuse together. The double-dating couple next to us, for example, noticed our funny accents and struck up a conversation with us about London restaurants They also shared some of their Madeleines with us (3.70£ for 6; 6.40£ for a dozen). The ones at St. John are gigantic. They’re warm with a nice, steamy crumb on the inside and a golden exterior – the perfect nibble with a cup of coffee.
Granted, we ordered obscenely [In addition to the above, I also ordered a side of Mixed Greens for my own good health (4.50£) - a tangle of hardy lettuces tickled with a nose-clearing hit of mustard dressing (which I loved). And, along with our main courses, we indulged in a slab of Welsh Rarebit the size of Texas and crusted over with a layer of caramelized spread of Cheddar mixed with beer (5£). It's the kind of sinful pleasure that seemed a bit embarrassing to experience in public.]. And St. John isn’t necessarily cheap. But you won’t leave hungry – though St. John might leave you hungry. It gives the kind of workaday nourishment a good person needs every now and then.
We hunted down and retrieved our coats from the various corners of the room, where the host had (randomly) pegged them on the row of hooks that ringed the dining room, and shut down the place, it nearing midnight. Having been up now for nearly 72 hours, I didn’t know nose from tail, but I was well-fed and happy.
St. John was everything I had expected it to be. And my company, a pod of three healthy appetites (who can clear bread like nobody’s business – the bread here is quite good, but not my ideal), was a fitting match for the convivial spirit of St. John.
26 St. John Street
London EC1M 4AY
The United Kingdom
+44 020 7251 0848
Edited on 1/17/2009 to add: St. John was awarded its first Michelin star today. As I stated on a public forum shortly before learning of its “promotion,”
“Does [St. John] deserve a star (or as Mr. Grant suggests, does it deserve the star it has just been awarded)?
I don’t know.
Was my recent dinner there great? Well, some parts, yes. Was it just “good?” No, it was better than that.
Partial to its kind of food, I would give it a star for the cooking.
In the end, I suppose I’m indifferent on the matter. St. John, for me, has achieved a non-commercial level of branding that is so unique unto its own that it really doesn’t require Michelin’s approval (whereas so many other places seem to rely on and seek Michelin status). The River Cafe might also be in that same category.”