For every food lover there are restaurants that are the serious ones. The ones on the list. At the top of these lists are the establishments that occupy the hallowed ground territory. St John Restaurant in Smithfield is my hallowed ground.
It was a rather dreary evening in London, the puddles were spitting back at us and we did get a little lost coming off the Metropolitan line at the Barbican stop. Clerkenwell is not the most inviting area of London, but once we found the old Smithfield markets, it wasn’t hard to locate St John Street and the white shop front of St John Restaurant.
As we walked into the buzz of the bar we were reassured at the sight of City bankers getting stuck into pints of pale ale with gusto and devouring plates of Welsh Rarebit. Walking towards the dining room a Chef darted past us carrying a whole roasted suckling pig on a silver platter – this is exactly the kind of sight you want to see arriving at St John.
St John at Smithfield is the original St John, opened by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver in 1994, housed in an old smokehouse. The interior is beautifully stripped back, with white wash walls, the spacious dining room has a utilitarian feel to it, with nothing to distract from the food and conviviality of the dining experience. St John is all about the fundamentals.
It was 6:45pm on a Tuesday night and the dining room was quickly filling up with London suits, Japanese business men and tourists alike. Smartly dressed in their starched white jackets, steely waiting staff were on the ball, showing complete professionalism, running like a well oiled machine. We were shown to our table, offered a bottle of water and in-house sourdough bread, baked that day in the bakery adjoined to the bar outside. We quickly ordered two glasses of the Flute Enchantee’ NV, a sparkling wine from the Comte region in France and settled in to read our menus.
The menu was written simply on one page, underlining the food philosophy at St John of ‘nose to tail eating,’ with a refreshing lack of pomp around the titles of the menu items – how it is written is what you get. I imagine if any customer uttered the perilous question ‘where’s the jus?’, they would be swiftly dispatched through the front door, headfirst.
The menu felt nostalgic, traditional and new all at once. The simplicity and unrelenting focus on flavour coming through on each dish – Lamb Broth, Asparagus and Hot Butter, Tomato, Little Gem and Anchovy, Braised Ox Tail and Turnips, Lamb Sweetbreads, Peas and Bacon, Pigs Head, White Beans and Radishes…
However there was one dish at St John I had to try. Described by the punk rock Chef and food writing rogue legend, Mr Tony Bourdain, as his death row meal. The menu at St John changes daily so I was desperately hoping this particular dish would be on. I wasn’t disappointed when I scanned the list of menu items, and there it was, last item on the starters list, Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad. Oh my, what a relief.
My co-diner went for the Brown Shrimp and White Cabbage to start with. The brown shrimps were scattered generously throughout a mound of thinly shredded white cabbage dressed with a tangy acidic sauce, which included fresh parsley and capers. The shrimps were wonderfully fresh and sweet, tasting of the sea, paired nicely with the fresh tangy cabbage. So fresh and just the right amount to excite the palate and tee up the main course.
The Roast Bone Marrow was everything I hoped it would be…I was presented with a plate of four large beef bones, two thick slices of toasted sourdough bread, a small pile of dressed parsley leaves with capers and thin slices of pickled shallot, and a teaspoon of wet salt on the side. The smell that wafted up from the plate was the essence of all of the finest roast beef dinners I’d ever tasted and I was swept back to my childhood of late afternoon family Sunday roasts.
Once the waitress had politely explained the optimum method in which to eat the dish, I grabbed my thin silver fork and proceeded. The idea is for the diner to assemble the two slices of toast by firstly breaking through the roasted crispy golden end of the bone marrow with the thin fork to get at the melted, buttery bone marrow inside. I scraped and picked two bones clean and spread the rich marrow onto the first slice of toast, sprinkled over some of the wet salt and topped the whole thing off with some of the parsley salad.
As I bit into the piled piece of toast my mouth was flooded with the rich creamy hot marrow, which had soaked into the toast, then a savoury hit from the salt and a final cut through of the punchy fresh parsley leaves. My mouth was salivating and the next two bites were taken down in a haze of melting bone marrow dripping down my chin. I could see my co-diner’s lips moving, but I couldn’t hear a word! I may have been a novice on the first slice of toast, but by the second slice I was a fully blown pro, scraping the inside of the remaining two bones clean with surgical dexterity, assembling the makings for another three mouthfuls of pure unadulterated flavour.
Once all the marrow and toast had been devoured it was easy to understand why the table cloths are covered with white paper. There were spatters of oil from the marrow all over my side of the table! I wasn’t aware of this as I was eating, but when I looked down at the defiled table-cloth, it was as if I had just awoken from a dream, with the smell of roasted bone marrow lingering on my fingers.
The waiting staff were keen not to rush us and we were able to sit back and ponder our starters before our mains arrived. My co-diner opted for the pot roast smoked Gloucester Old Spot and Prunes and I had the Pigeon and Jerusalem Artichoke, with sides of new potatoes and a green salad. Three thick slices of smoked heritage breed pork, juicy, tender and full of flavour were served with a little cooking liquor from the pot roast and a helping of alcohol soaked prunes. The dish was a triumph in its simplicity.
I was presented with a whole pigeon, butterflied, served with roasted Jerusalem Artichokes, fried red onions and watercress leaves. The pigeon was cooked medium rare, the flesh dark and pink in the middle, very rich, with a subtle ‘gamey’ hint. The earthiness of the Jerusalem Artichokes stood up to the gamey meat and the fresh greens added a bitter ‘pepperiness’ cutting through the richness.
We were taking our time and the bottle of ‘Chat Fou’ Cotes du Rhone 2011 from the Southern Rhone was washing everything down beautifully. I savoured every mouthful and at the end, all that was left on my plate were the tiny bones of the pigeon’s legs and four pieces of lead shot.
But we weren’t finished yet, the lure of Eccles Cake with Lancashire Cheese was too good to pass up. Then in a moment of inspiration we ordered half a dozen light, pillowy Madeleines which arrived fifteen minutes later, fresh from the bakery below. This decadence might have been one wafer thin mint too far, but it was worth the puffy eyes and food hangover the next day!
I can confidently say this is the start of a long love affair with St John. There is a purity in the food that comes from St John’s kitchen. It’s all about the essence of flavour, with nothing to hide behind. It is food from the heart. Food that reminds us what a basic pleasure it is to enjoy the best of ingredients cooked with clarity. In an age of over processed food and factory farming, the great food writer of our time Joanna Blythman tells us we should ‘just eat real food.’ If you want real food, go to St John.
The memories of my first meal at St John will linger for a very long time, along with the smell of roasted bone marrow…
St John Restaurant, 26 St John Street, London, EC1M 4AY, t: +44 (0) 20 7251 0848, www.stjohnrestaurant.com