One of the best restaurants in the world – ranked by the San Pellegrino guide (a widely recognized if thoroughly unofficial accounting of such things) at somewhere between 14 and 41, depending on the year — sports plain and unadorned whitewashed walls, peeling grey painted floor, a meat market location, decidedly unfussy food presentations and not a luxury ingredient to be found on the premises. So why is it one of the best restaurants in the world?
To paraphrase Bill Clinton (and James Carville): “it’s the food, stupid.”
I started with an appetizer that is, perhaps, St. John chef Fergus Henderson’s signature dish: Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad. It is a perfect summary of what makes St. John the iconic restaurant that it is: the dish spotlights a part of a beast that is most often sold as “dog bones” (or for stock) and treats that ingredient in an innovative manner using an interplay of well-balanced and clear flavors as well as textural contrasts to elevate the dish to a realm that never fails to surprise and delight.
The richness of the bone marrow could easily overwhelm. Instead, though, it is balanced by the striking parsley salad with its strong vinaigrette and pungent capers and shallot. But it was not just the flavors that were perfectly balanced; it was the textures too. The marrow was roasted just to the point that it gives a hint of a crust as you scoop it out of the bone. The rich, gelatinous marrow contrasts wonderfully with the texture of the sourdough toast and the crunchiness of the sel gris. It is simple. It is good. It seems like it has been there always; an archetype.
Nancy started with the Terrine; a country-style pâté of game and offal. Served as simply as could be, paired only with some bracing cornichons, the dish did exactly what it said on the label. It had the courage of its own convictions. Instead of seeking luxury through foie gras, this one luxuriated in exactly what it was, preserving the textures of its component parts – headcheese style – even going so far as to leave some of those parts identifiable by sight on the plate. But it is, as it always is at St. John, the flavors that win out. The surprise element may be there but it is just the starter, not the main course.
For her main course, Nancy ordered the Braised Rabbit special, featuring bacon and fava beans cooked in their slip covers. The richness of the braising liquid and the bacon played well with the slight astringency of the rabbit meat. The fava beans were a particularly well-weighted touch. Their freshness lent the dish immediacy; the fact that they were single (rather than double) peeled offered an interesting if subtle textural contrast.
Far less successful was the Stinking Bishop Cheese, Potatoes and Scallions. It was, in fact, the least successful dish of the day. The name of the cheese does accurately describe its smell – a bit of the funk of which carries through on the palate. But this time, the flavors were out of balance and simplicity of its dish may have been its undoing. The cheese overwhelmed the new potatoes with which it was paired, and the scallions were either too much, not enough…or perhaps both.
My main course was another shot of simple offal perfection: Grilled Ox Heart, Beetroot & Horseradish. Ox hearts? How often do you see those on a menu? Hearts, if overcooked, tend to be rubbery. Here, though, they were sliced and grilled quickly over high heat – almost Korean BBQ style – giving them a familiarity as well as a deep and intensely meaty richness. The meat was perfectly contrasted – and echoed – by the depth of flavor of the beets, which also let off a juice that performed the function of a sauce. These, of course, were perfectly balanced by the brisk heat of the homemade horseradish. Again, they did not settle for balancing the flavors, but paid equal mind to the textures. The softness of the beets played off against the toothsomeness of the ox hearts, both of which were contrasted by the bits of horseradish root left in the sauce. In the end, it was the simple and elegant conception – as well as perfect execution – that carried the day. What needed to be on the plate was there; what need not be there was not.
While Fergus Henderson does not spend much time behind the stove at St. John anymore it was, perhaps, even more noteworthy to see him dining across the room from us. It was a sort of endorsement as if one were needed. And, frankly, what’s not to like? It is downright inexpensive for such a celebrated restaurant. But, more importantly, the food is simple and elegant and the flavors are profound. Even knowing exactly what St. John is all about — I do own the cookbook after all – the food still retains the capacity to both enchant and delight.
Some food critic adherents of the tall poppy syndrome have suggested that St. John’s reputation – rather than its food — is the thing and that there is a perversely politically correct ethos about the place. And there was, indeed, a feeling of soul satisfaction following the meal. But it was not at all the zealot’s sense of virtue realized. It was much different than that: deeper, more primal and far more sensual. There is something very satisfying about food that tickles the subconscious in an almost Jungian way. But what makes St. John so wonderful – today every bit as much as the day it opened – is that its food accomplishes all that by tasting so very, very good.
- St. John
- 26 St. John Street
- London, EC1, UK
— Michael A. Gardiner