St. John, Clerkenwell, London
St. John – 5/5
Pictures to follow
Edward Gibbon believed that of all the degeneracies that caused the messy decline and fall of the Roman Empire, one stood out in particular. The Romans, he felt, lost the mental connection between bleating, mooing beasts on the hillside and the meat they ate at their Dionysian orgies. Chaos and collapse ensued. Amidst all the general doomsaying today, it’s good to see Fergus Henderson doing his bit at St. John to remind diners that every time you eat a piece of meat, something has had to die.
This sobering fact is invariably in evidence here. Half-way through the meal, with a bit of fanfare, the kitchen doors fly open and a whole, prostrate suckling pig, glinting amber under the halogens, is lifted to the fifteen-strong table next door. With a strange scratching sound, it is briskly decapitated, and its head presented face-up, like an Aztec sacrifice, to the alpha male. The chap doesn’t hesitate in slicing off the little porky nose and, smacking his lips, loudly announces to all who’ll listen that it’s ‘bloody marvellous’.
Ghastly, ug-grunting nonsense? Perhaps. But the restaurant has treated the pig with huge respect, showcasing its young, melting glory. This is, of course, a world away from the wretched treatment most of its kin suffer nowadays, pulped into saveloys or tinned ravioli filling. The very sight of it makes me salivate: bloody marvellous is doubtless what it is.
But I’m running ahead of myself.
A London institution, St. John, and it’s easy to see why. The former smokehouse opposite Smithfield has nourished a reputation, over 14 careful years, for serving weird but delicious things few other chefs will touch: chitterlings, brain, spleen, squirrel. ‘Grouse’ reads a terse item on the menu, ‘Pig on toast’ another. Eat your primate heart out, Mr Gibbon.
You can still sense the dilapidation that clung here when Henderson arrived. Upstairs used to be the offices of the lamentably folded Marxism Today - yesterday’s news, you might say - and the space hosted squatters and ravers before its restaurant reincarnation. A shouting bar, filled with brays and bangs, blasts you on arrival; the restaurant itself is up some iron stairs and is marginally – though not much – more secluded. The white, undecorated walls offer no sound insulation at all: this is a noisy place to eat.
The waitress is in a strop about something. Rubied lips pursed, nostrils flaring, eyes like a dictator’s. Though on the small side, she towers and glowers in her whites; the costume, apparently, is a nod to the smokehouse origins. Quailing, I choose the second cheapest bottle of red and she wheels round with robotic precision.
Signature bone marrow with parsley salad arrives, and is utterly glorious. Four hacked bits of calf bone, baked at a diamond-melting heat, with hot sourdough, a pile of coarse sea salt and a salad of flat leaf parsley with rounds of spring onion. With the help of a lobster fork, the marrow globs out on the toast, rich, jellied and steaming, and marries perfectly with the hot crunch of toast and the fragrant grassiness of the salad. The stuff is so rich it makes foie gras look like lemon juice: the other elements triumphantly counterbalance this cloying power. C has potted prawn and cabbage salad: this doesn’t work quite as well, underseasoned and lacking the punchy flavours of the bone marrow, but it has crunch and a good butteriness from the prawns. Smoked haddock and bacon soup is a lovely dish that invokes the encroaching colder months, thick, smokey and warming, with bits of chewy bacon and a hearty potato backdrop.
Delightful starters, we concur above the clatter. Equally good is C’s roast belly of Middle White, an under-used and under-appreciated breed of pig. The cut is more tender and flavoursome than fillet could ever be, with a glorious snap of crackling. R’s calf liver is the dish of the evening: perfectly cooked with a sweet, internal rosiness, in a thick reduction and carrying nubby lentils for bite. Arbroath smokies in cream sauce are a wee bit overdone on their mashed potato bed, but they’re certainly smoky smokies, and tasty for it.
‘Restaurants should not be about moments,’ Henderson once said. He meant, of course, that they should be immune (just imagine!) to fads and crazes, and concentrate solely on good food. St. John is a moment, though. A languid moment that encapsulates the happy, unbroken journey from farm to plate, or nose to tail.
But a Proustian moment we would rather forget now follows. After their 15-minute waiting time, half a dozen madeleines appear, and their lauded reputation here is at once bewildering. Pasty and pastey, with a slight greasiness, they’re far too hot – a sign, admittedly, that they’re freshly baked, but we knew this anyway from the delay needed to serve them. They literally cake the mouth. Blackcurrant jelly and shortbread is sharp and magnificent, though: a sublimely refreshing and summery dish after the heaviness of the saucing, the pigfat, the bread. C has a decent selection of British cheeses; R finishes his treacle tart to the crumb. By this stage, we’ve even graduated (all part of the same ‘moment,’ you see) to the third-cheapest bottle of red.
What a fantastic place this is. English to its steaming heart, beating out life and love of good food. Unique, boisterous and totally unpretentious, it remains one of the most original places to eat in London, and the restaurant I’ll take visitors to from now on. It’s a rare credit, incidentally, to Restaurant magazine’s often incomprehensible list of the World’s Top 50 Restaurants, published annually to general bewilderment, which this year placed St. John at number 16. Pricing is very fair for plates of such quality and invention. Stuff Gibbon: civilisation is safe with Henderson.
St. John, 26 St. John Street, London EC1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7251 0848
Dinner for three, excluding drinks and service, costs £110
Wines: Domaine la Prade Mari ‘Secret de Fontenille’ Minervois 2006 (£17.70)
Coteaux du Languedoc Domaine de la Triballe 2006 (£19.00)