St John Restaurant, Smithfield
I think there are a few different reasons why I initially chose St John as a venue for our little dining club. Firstly, I very much liked the sound of the ethos of “nose-to-tail” eating. This isn’t some conscience-salving remedy to my innate carnivorous tendencies but simply accordance with the idea that if you’re going to kill an animal for food, you should use every bit of it you can. Secondly, the best indigenous food from most countries has been shaped by the food of the poor (and by that I mean the skill of making the most of the grizzly/gristly bits) and British cuisine is no different – think steak & kidney pud, liver & onions, black pudding etc.
Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver opened the restaurant in a former smokehouse in Smithfield in 1994 and other than giving it a thoroughly good clean, didn’t really do too much more in the way of décor. The rather stark surroundings add even more weight to the expectation of the food.
I don’t recall every dish we had between us on the evening we visited (a very good, if predominantly French, wine-list has rather blurred my memory) but a few do stand out. I recall a lambs’ tongue salad for being sweet, tender and tasting so much better than it sounds and at least two of us had St John’s signature dish of roast bone marrow and parsley salad which definitely lived up to the hype as far as I’m concerned. You’re presented with a simple plate of four large, well roasted marrow-bones (shin, I think) from which you firkle out the melting, gelatinous marrow, spread it on sourdough toast and liberally sprinkle over a bit of crunchy salt. The resulting rich, umami-laden smack in the chops is wonderfully offset by a sharply dressed parsley & onion salad. Best starter I’ve had in a long time!
On to the main courses and I opted for venison offal which was a beautifully slow-roasted medley of heart, lungs & liver; a sort of ‘deconstructed haggis’ if you will (my interpretation, not theirs).
Those of us who were less inclined towards wobbly innards opted for the fish and on this occasion it was the famous ‘Arbroath Smokie’ that graced the menu. To my taste, it was cooked perfectly, even if one did have to fiddle about with eyes and heads and no small amount of bones. The meat was tender and flaked beautifully under the weight of a fork but I feel compelled to recall however, that one of our number was re-visited by the smokie later that evening (it could be alleged that this could’ve had more to do with the afore-mentioned wine list rather than the fish).
For dessert, I think most of us opted for the Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese which does what it says on the tin but to be honest, I don’t think you go to St John for the desserts. You go for well cooked, interesting meat and offal dishes that you may not have had before.
I suppose I was slightly disappointed that they didn’t have any pig’s ears or roast, rolled spleen on the menu the evening we visited and I suppose that part of the appeal of the restaurant revolves a little bit around showing off and broadening your epicurean horizons “Oh, you simply must try the lambs bollocks!” etc. However, the disappointment didn’t last long and my abiding memory of this excitingly different restaurant is one of very good food, very good wine and very good service and I suppose you can’t really ask for more than that.
St. John Bar and Restaurant
26 St. John Street
020 3301 80069