Saturday, 12 May 2007

The Gospel According To...

...St. John is one man's quiet but passionate thesis on unpretentious but exquisite cooking.

Asked in a recent interview if he was "rediscovering traditional cooking", the Smithfield restaurant's Chef/Patron Fergus Henderson replied: "Well, there's tradition, and there's that kind of "olde worlde" rose tinted view. It's not "old" cooking, it's what I see as being "permanent" cooking. The tradition, if anything, is the tradition of doing it properly. Hopefully the style is appropriate to now. It's not trendy, not upbeat, but appropriate."

Revered world-wide for his respectful approach to meat ("It would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet"), Fergus Henderson's book "The Whole Beast: Nose To Tail Eating" is dedicated to offal; including recipes for tongue, ears, marrow, heart, brawn, tripe, spleen, neck, brain, pancreas, blood, cheek, kidneys and giblets.
Fergus Henderson with the culinary mascot of St. John
Diagnosed with Parkinson's and finding himself unable to perform the delicate tasks of the kitchen, Fergus underwent a pioneering operation in 2005 in which electrodes were implanted in his brain.

Ready for our Smithfield feast
In an interview with Observer Food Monthly, he recalls how the trauma of the operation was relieved by the post-operation "get-well-soon" gifts that arrived at his hospital bed: food parcels from Rainer Becker, Jamie Oliver, Jeremy King and Giorgio Locatelli. Not every hospital patient in London gets to eat sushi for lunch and risotto with white truffles for dinner!

St. John has won plenty of awards in its time, but a couple of weeks ago the plaudits were well and truly topped when chefs world-wide declared the no-nonsense eaterie to be the world's 34th best restaurant. An inspiration to all of us who put flavoursome, honest food before the fripperies expected by the inspectors of Gault Millau and Michelin.

Now I must admit that offal is not my favourite food group, but when my college lecturer Mrs. Godfrey invited myself and another of her students to join her for lunch at St. John, I leapt at the opportunity. And it was fantastic!

Arriving ten or so minutes early for our table reservation, we decided to have a tipple at the bar to whet our appetites. Their generous list of beers was quite impressive, and being a "real ale" drinker I went for a pint (I can't remember the name of the particular ale, but I can recall it going down a treat). Being far more sensible than me in anticipating the drinks that would accompany our meal, my two accomplices wisely sipped on small glasses of wine. The first thing we noticed as we were seated in the restaurant area was just how busy the place was. Packed to the rafters at lunchtime on a Wednesday, St. John gave a clear indication of the relationship between good publicity and "bums on seats".

We kicked things off with some delightful and very interesting starters. My choice of Lamb, Bread & Green Sauce turned out to be a wise selection.

Quite similar to a dish I've eaten at Daniel Clifford's Midsummer House, the lamb here was served as thin, delicate slices from the leg. The tenderness and succulence of the meat suggested some seriously slow cooking - possibly even sous vide.
A succulent and delicious dish of lamb, bread and green sauce

My lamb was accompanied by wild rocket leaves and cubes of bread, all of which were gently bound with a deliciously light mint sauce. Expecting the "bread" element of this starter to come in the form of croutons, I was pleasantly surprised and thought the simple bread cubes were the most ingenious part of the dish. Being soft and chewy, they were just perfect for soaking up every last drop of the vibrantly herby sauce. My dining partners opted for Pig's Head & White Beans and Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad. The former was a personal favourite eagerly enjoyed by my fellow student (who doesn't want to be named), who'd been to St. John several times before.

The waiter demonstrates how to eat your bone marrow
The roast bone marrow salad was visually exciting and, quite unexpectedly (by me at least), was cooked and served still in the bones themselves. Sorry about the photo focus - I usually take several shots of everything, but on this occasion I forgot.

The waiter wasn't the slightest bit reticent in showing Mrs. Godfrey how this dish should be eaten. He demonstrated how the marrow should be scooped from the bone using a long, thin "sundae" spoon.

Having extracted the precious marrow, the waiter deftly showed how it should be spread onto the grilled sourdough toast, with a generous helping of the "wet salt" conveniently supplied in a very odd-looking ceramic pot. The dish was well completed by a salad of dressed parsley (not my favourite!) and assorted other leaves.

To accompany our main courses we decided to order a bottle of red. A quick perusal of the wine list lead to a group decision to opt for the 2002 Châteaux Haut-Colombier. I'm not going to pretend I'm any kind of connoisseur when it comes to wine, but even as a novice I couldn't fail to recognise that this velvety, fruity Côtes de Blaye was one that perfectly complemented my main course of Braised Rabbit.
A robust, fruity wine to accompany strong flavours

Braised rabbit with a whole head of garlic
This dish took the form of the two legs, braised to mouth-watering perfection and served in a bowl plate with some of the braising liquor and... an entire head of garlic!

Adventurous as I am, even I was a bit taken aback to see quite that much garlic on my plate. But on taking a first bite out of the bulb I discovered that the flavour was perfectly tamed and the vegetable was so deliciously soft that it melted in my mouth along with the rabbit.

My colleague chose the "special" of lamb heart with puy lentils. I know I've said many times that I'm no a fan of offal, but the piece of heart I tried was not nearly as pungently "offaly" as I had expected. I'd almost go as far as saying I liked it. Almost.

Main courses at St. John don't generally come with carbohydrate and vegetables, so we were advised to order buttered new potatoes and spring greens. Both were very good - very good indeed.
Perfectly cooked vegetables

I couldn't resist the treacle tart and vanilla ice cream
Even after such a substantial meal, you just couldn't watch other diners at St. John tuck into their desserts and not join in. Believe me, you really couldn't. My Treacle Tart & Vanilla Ice Cream was a masterfully executed dish, because, to quote a popular British TV advertisement, "it did exactly what it said on the tin". The tart was rich without being heavy and the fresh vanilla ice cream was so good that if I hadn't been in a room full of diners, I'd have happily licked the plate 'til I could see my own reflection in it.

Chef Godfrey opted for the Butterscotch Ripple Ice Cream, which was served with a mysterious biscuit. We never did figure out quite what its key ingredients were, but if you know please let me.

My anonymous student friend enjoyed his favourite Lemon Sorbet - three generous and delicious scoops served in a glass bowl. From what I gather, he especially enjoys the shot of ice cold Russian Vodka that comes with it!
The lemon sorbet and ice cold vodka went down well, too

Along with Pim of Chez Pim, my friends Ben and Howard of Food & Drink in London and many other fellow food bloggers, I'm sold on this place. St. John represents the new wave of cooking starting to seriously challenge the gastronomic establishment world-wide. Intelligent, passionate modern cooking based around the quality of local, seasonal and adventurous ingredients. Food where appearance is important, but flavour is more important. The guardians of culinary excellence may continue to ignore such restaurants when awarding their gongs but, as the voters of the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list showed just the other week, the public are voting with their feet.


Scott at Real Epicurean said...

Nice cute piggy in the photo!

Oh, wait, he's not cuddling it...How very cruel! ;)

Jason said...

Glad you enjoyed St John's! I think the marrow is one of the best things in town (who can avoid blowing the marrow out of the bone??!)

Cheers - GG

ros said...

St Johns is somewhere I really want to go. Well done for trying the heart... maybe you'll be converted one day. ;)

Richard said...

Goddamit - everyone's going to St John's at the moment - and it's still somewhere I haven't been to! I really do need to book a babysitter and get up there.

Nose To Tail is one of my all time favourite cookbooks - and I hear there's a sequel coming later in the year...

ben.bush said...

Nice one Trig. We'll make an offal eater of you yet!

izzie said...

offal i must admit is really not something i am particularly into, due to the thoughts that run through my head when i am eating it so i applaud you for trying it.


Trig said...

Thanks for the comments guys. It will still take a lot to make me an offal man. Funnily enough I got back late tonight to find dad raving about chicken livers he'd bought for 99p in Sainsbury's and cooked with some best bacon and pomodorino tomatoes.

Vanessa said...

You know I somehow missed this post earlier. I must say I'm incredibly jealous...we wanted to eat at St. John so badly but I couldn't sell it to the boys.

Marrow is the best and I love the whole process of getting it and eating is what food should be.

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