...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.
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.
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".
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.
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.