Eating my way through London - Dining at the Legendary St. John's

Eating my way through London - Dining at the Legendary St. John's

For St. John, we took the Circle line to Farringdon. We exited the station bearing left and crossed over Turnmill Street on to Cowcross Street which took us to the junction of St. John Street. At the junction at Smithfield Market, we turned left and walk along St. John Street for around 50 yards or so… and finally, we saw St. John on the opposite side of the street. (yes, it really is that confusing, though not as far as it sounds!)

Chef Fergus Henderson, extraordinary cook and rebel! This place looks like a butcher’s (actually an old smoke house) and is located adjacent to London’s most famous meat market, Smithfield. The whole surroundings make the restaurant seem rather incongruous. There is no palaver here, no pretension – what comes out of the kitchen is good for the stomach and the soul! If you are expecting dainty amuse bouches and cutesy little starters, then you have come to the wrong place. Words like practical dining and good old fashioned, wholesome meal, come to mind.

I remember studying in London at the peak of the mad-cow-disease saga that had everyone paranoid to the max, about what they ate. During that time in Britain, where eating red meat was almost stigmatized and offal almost taboo, St John was leading the way in AGAINST – against eating meat! How cool!

The interior is ‘no-nonsense’ and made for utility sake, not to look pretty. It is interesting to note that Chef Henderson was trained as an Architect. Seriously, this place looks like the cafeteria in my old Halls of Residence. I am talking whitewashed walls, long rows of uncomfortable wooden tables and chairs and battleship grey parquet. We take one look at the menu and noticed that it read mostly meats - heavy, robust, masculine English food. Yes my friends were correct in saying that St John totally rejects complicated, “deconstructed” dishes.. in essence , almost rejecting the well trodden path to the coveted Michelin stars. I like this place!

The bacon squash soup photo speaks for itself. If you have an Asian stomach, you will do a double-take at this so called ’starter’ because I think there is half a pig in there, in the form of bacon chunks. If you are use to the anorexic pigs we get in Malaysia, get ready to be wow-ed. The taste is awesome.. the texture and taste of the pork should blast you into orbit. Henderson’s defining principle of nose-to-tail cooking has also found its recessionary time. “If you are going to kill an animal,” he reasons, “it seems only polite to use the whole thing.”

Is becomes evident as we sit there, why this place is so cool, is due to its unconventional ways and also the mischief and humor in eating such unmentionable cuts as heart, brains, marrow etc.. all of which have helped make St John the fashionable institution it is. My duck ox heart with celeriac was quite interesting. The characteristically muscular, rubbery meat of the heart was delightful! Since I am a big fan of internal organs, I had no complaints about this starter. Cold Mallard with beetroot salad was interesting as it was crunchy and had a rougher texture about it than regular beetroot.

The Mutton special was next. I had my reservations about the mutton being too gamy , but this was just superb. Soft, tender, moist.. How do I find any more extravagant superlatives to describe this dish? Back to basics cooking.. forcing one to concentrate on the meat on the plate, rather than the presentation.

Hake with croutons average in taste but fresh enough. I liked the crunchy croutons and the massive slab of fish. St John has this knack of making even fish, look like an uncouth slab of meat :P

Enter the Grey Partridge. Finally, I actually get to eat that famous “partridge in a pear tree” that the song sings about.. and just before Christmas too! The meat was excellent, the taste superb, the texture like a young soft supple bird that had been roasted on the outside to perfection.

For dessert, eccles cake and lancashire cheese. I was told that no other restaurant will serve you such a hearty dessert as the eccles cake. It was huge, solid and went great with the lush, soft and mellow cheese. The Eccles is an English classic. It is a puff pastry with currant stuffing. We also had steamed treacle sponge and custard.The steamed treacle was sickly sweet and rich. We nearly died finishing this as we already had the eccles cake before hand.. however, we comforted ourselves that we would soon be out in the cold, walking it off.

All in all, I enjoyed my St. John experience very much. The food is really good. As I am a big fan of offal and weird cuts of animals, I will be inclined to keep coming back here for some exciting Nose to Tail Eating.. You can buy the “Nose to Tail Eating – A Kind of British Cooking: St. JOHN Cookbook” as it is on the menu. They also sell St. JOHN Gift Cards if you check with the waiter.

Written and contributed by Ciki