I’m not, I swear, writing a super meaty post right after my vegetarian recipe in some freaky ‘fair and balanced’ way. This is just how things sometimes work out when you’re an onmivore. After cooking for Thrifty Gal on Friday night, Mr Lemur and I spent Saturday celebrating with old friends K&L (K of the amazing gnocchi), who are in the process of moving from the US to my neck of the woods. I’m massively excited to have them within weekend visiting distance and we’re already plotting culinary adventures for the autumn. We wanted a suitably posh celebratory dinner but, typically, hadn’t got around to actually booking anything. But since we were on the early side and in restaurant-heavy Clerkenwell, we thought we might manage to blag a table somewhere nice if we were very polite about it. We sent K into St John to ask about cancellations and – joy – he managed to score us a table.
I had mixed feelings about dining at St John. On the one hand, it’s obviously a hugely important restaurant and I am very much a fan of the concept of nose to tail eating. If you are going to eat meat, I believe you should use the whole animal. It’s disrespectful to throw most of it away, not to mention a waste of precious resources. The food cultures I love waste nothing and the funky tastes of the ‘nasty bits’ are a world away from the styrofoam blandness of factory-farmed chicken breast. However, as much as I respect the concept, I worried that the food would be boring. The trend toward upscale retro British ‘chop houses’ might respect the ingredient but hunks of meat on a plate without sauces or spices just don’t appeal to me. I’ve paid a lot for meat and potatoes before in London and I wasn’t happy about it.
I needn’t have worried. The food at St John was unbelievably delicious. We shared starters, but at my insistence we ordered two plates of roast bone marrow with parsley salad because I knew that would be a winner. I adore bone marrow and here it was served with a generous heap of grey sea salt (added tableside by the waiter in a pleasing bit of stage business) and a salad of parsley, shallot and tiny capers. Yeah, it was good. We also had a terrine, figuring that St John probably knew what they were about in the terrine business. It wasn’t much to look at but it was without doubt the best terrine I’ve ever eaten. Lastly, we had rabbit offal, green bean and pickled walnut salad.
The offal was suitably barnyard-y and went nicely with the greens, but I didn’t detect any pickled walnut. This dish was good but not great.
I had a bit of a meltdown deciding on a main course. St John does that fashionable menu thing of just listing two or three ingredients so you don’t really have a strong sense of what the dishes will be like. For an indecisive person like me, this is a nightmare as it always feels like menu roulette. Which dish would I choose if I could see them in advance? Argh!! I made a panicky game-time decision of venison liver, leeks and borlotti beans and boy did I make the right choice.
This dish made me realise what I really love about St John. The food doesn’t taste British so much as Italian. I know, it seems odd, but bear with me. The modest plating here is typical, but the venison liver didn’t taste like the current (and to me politically questionable) English fantasy of ‘honest’ food so much as the kind of simple but incredibly flavourful food you get as a matter of course in working-men’s restaurants in Rome, Pisa or even Venice. The borlotti beans and leeks were meltingly soft and the liver was rich and full of umami. The whole was generously seasoned – not too salty but definitely at Italian levels of flavour. It was sublime.
Mr Lemur had lamb sweetbreads with turnip and bacon, which was also very good. He was mildly disappointed that they were not as soft as the deep fried beef sweetbreads at Babbo in New York, but I think it’s apples and oranges (or, you know, sheep and cows). Regardless, the dish was lovely, with the turnip a perfect foil for the rich meats. K&L had specials of saddle of rabbit and braised veal, both of which were splendid. I still think I won with the liver though.
Desserts were, as you might expect, old fashioned and British in tone. The lemon and raspberry posset was subtle and sophisticated but there’s no way I can get past strawberry trifle on a menu. The siren song of my grandmother’s Christmas trifles is too strong. As you might expect, St John’s trifle was a touch more upscale than my nana’s, but not too upscale. It was still a big bowl full of cake, booze, fruit and custard, which is entirely as it should be.
St John turned out to be the perfect way to celebrate the arrival in the UK of our old friends and new neighbours. And we couldn’t help but notice a large party tucking into a whole suckling pig…birthday plans, anyone?
St John, 26 St John Street, London EC1M 4AY