St. John – Smithfield
So much has been written about St. John Restaurant, I feel I’m only adding to the love letter pile. The humble little cave in Clerkenwell serving overt British organs and cut-offs has become cult. A holy shrine. True believers, once they’ve marked off Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, come here.
Fergus Henderson’s straightforward combinations have drawn plaudits from across the globe. AA Gill commented that: “I have few regrets as a restaurant critic, but one is that I didn’t give Fergus Henderson a better review when he opened in Clerkenwell years ago.” And Anthony Bourdain – in his Introduction to Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking, says: “After eating the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John, I declared it my always and forever choice for ‘Death Row Meal’, the last meal I’d choose to put in my mouth before they turned up the juice.”
And now I pen where so many have before me, proclaiming the glories of Henderson and the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad. Assuming you’ve eaten at St. John, please, sing along with me.
Unfussy presentation, stripped simplicity of Carnivorousness affection. The culinary connection you share with the beast on your plate. The enthusiastic licking of lips. The pilgrimage complete.
St. John is not just a must-try on the London culinary circuit. It summons grumbling bellies from all corners of the globe. It has become a reference point: for simplicity executed, its A-Z of nose-to-tail-eating, and frankly if you haven’t eaten there then you’re frivolously shunned from circles and made to stand in the corner with PETA.
Reading the menu you’re enticed immediately: pea and pig’s ear soup, rolled pig’s spleen, duck’s neck terrine. The descriptions roll off like prayer. It goes without saying that all are unusual delights, missing from the majority of restaurant menus across the land, and because of this omission often suffer a lack of flavour and exercising the variety of textures that can be found in a healthy organ or off-cut.
Henderson’s belief is both simple and respectful: “‘Nose to Tail Eating’ means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast.” And I’m with him. Let me explore and smack my lips around pork belly, wrap tongue around tongue, chew the heart, puncture a lung, and snap a crispy pig’s tail.
All eulogies are correct, the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad is food to love. Four sawn-off bones contain hot jellied marrow for you to spread on toast, along with a sprinkling of coarse salt and chopped parsley. It’s warm and rich and fun to assemble. The marrow is grilled to leave a burnt surface that you can crack with a spoon or sharp implement. It’s no nonsense and all the better for it.
Straightforward ingredients present my main too: ox heart & chips. Nowadays you’re used to reading plate descriptions that take you off the page and contain so many characterisations that you’re baffled as to exactly what it is you’ve just sent for. This elementary listing informs me of exactly what it is I want to know: I’m expecting ox heart (yep, the beating pulse and lifeline from the beast itself – flappy ventricles and all) with chips. Simply, chips. And it was fantastic.
A single gulls’ egg was one of the finest orbs I’ve had the pleasure of popping into my gob, and I’ve tasted many an egg, from all the Scotch varieties, plus quail to duck to Ostrich. It was a true gastronomic delicacy served at the beginning of season with celery salt. Pushed out from the tight backside of the black-headed gull, these eggs are rare, creamy in texture and of a fine size. For all the agonising heavy breathing and constipation the black-headed gull endured, I must say, she’s some sport and I honour her.
A bottle of Minervois was good, an appellation for distinctive red wines from the western Languedoc and recommended by a friend. St. John is great fun. Even better when inebriated. Better still with toffee pudding, and tipped over the edge by the warm Madeleines – the best I’ve tasted! Fresh and doughy, melt-in-the-mouth, cushion shells. I now crave them every day. It’s torture.