Wednesday, October 15, 2008

London a la Lex: St John Restaurant

I could barely restrain my excitement as we hopped off the tube at Farringdon on our way to St John restaurant. The restaurant is renowned throughout the land as the place to go for all that is carnivorous, and especially those bits that the butcher doesn’t waste: so the menu consists of game and gizzards, basically. I've wanted to visit for years and now finally, the perfect food 'date' and yet another opportunity to show the American some very British cuisine (more British than I had ever eaten before myself in fact).  My over-eager stomach propelled us to arrive even earlier, at 6pm, than our already obscenely early booking of 6.30pm. Well, you know what they say – the early bird gets the chitterling…

The restaurant and I immediately clicked, as the waiter didn’t bat an eyelid at my slightly cheeky request of being seated early (I appealed to his human side and told him I was ‘absolutely starving’. He smiled, obviously used to dealing with ravenous loons, and showed us to our table.) Needless to say, we were the first seated in the gloriously no-fuss, industrial white dining room, on a table for two. Which wobbled. Yet another love affair commenced as our lovely Swedish waitress waltzed across to deal with the wobble, bearing chopped cork pieces to wedge underneath.

Sitting pretty, ready and raring to go, and flexing my tummy muscles at the prospect of the meat mania ahead, we eagerly scanned the paper menu. I was not disappointed, and was immediately thrown into what I call ‘The Diner's Dilemma’. i.e. I wanted to try absolutely every single thing on the menu.

Not to worry, said Chef, we’ll share some starters, then you can have a bit of a taste of a few things. (He knows me so well). There were numerous weird and wonderful dishes on the menu that I had not experienced or indeed heard of before, and I was anxious to clarify. So it was in the hopes of further polishing my food education that I asked our tall, gauche and terribly sardonic ‘water waiter’ ‘What are sprats?’. He was an amusing and peculiar mixture of the guy that croaks ‘yaaarrp’ in the movie Hot Fuzz and Farmer Bean from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. He didn’t disappoint in living up to these descriptions when he grunted as explanation ‘fish’. Why thank you sir, that is so much clearer. Sold to the lady on the wobbly chair. Not.

Instead we went for three starters, which were positively heartstopping in their gloriousness. These were:

  • Roast Marrow with parsley salad – a classic and well-known St John dish which I wanted to experience for myself. Four chunks of bone several inches long served upright on the plate, roasted and filled to brimming with their pleasurably guilty jelly-like insides. The spoonfuls of, let’s face it, fat, are whittled out of the bone, using a lobster pick, and spread on crisped, oiled sourdough bread, and topped with a crunch of sea salt. The marrow takes me right back to eating dinner with my grandad who, being a war kid, passed the lesson of ‘eating everything on one’s plate’ onto me. I blame him for my voracious eating – and slurping marrow from bones was one of our favourite joint activities! I realise I may have been a somewhat strange child... The heady richness of the marrow however is beautifully cut through by the sharp parsley salad - crunchy bitter flat parsley, finely diced shallots, capers and a biting lemon dressing. One word: scrumptious.
  • Halibut, potatoes and aioli – a creamy, sumptuous fish salad. The simplicity of the dish is key, as in combination its ingredients have the potential to be overly heavy. Not this ‘un. No siree. Tender white chunks of steamed halibut mingle with new potatoes, in a light garlic, crème fraiche aioli. Whisps of rocket tease and flit whimsically throughout, like young ballet dancers in a serious ballet, lending nuttiness to the ensemble; a few artfully placed capers tweak at the end of a mouthful, balancing the creaminess of the dish. Unexpectedly good (I confess when the boy chose this I was secretly unconvinced – but all credit to him it was tasty).
  • Grilled Puffball with green sauce – this was one of those points at which dining out with an experienced Chef was really useful. These guys are just so practical. Which was good as my dreamy, impractical side emerged upon tasting the first mouthful of this dish and I was, quite literally, rendered speechless. For a few seconds. Oh goodness, this was unreal. I couldn’t come up with words. I had never eaten puffball before, and I had no idea it was going to be so good. I’d seen them, these ballooning marshmallow mushrooms, both growing wild in fields and for sale at Borough Market. Being a firm advocate of quality over quantity, I was astounded that something the size of a large football can retain such an intensely pungent and earthy taste of rehydrated funghi. The boy brought me back to earth with his culinary knowledge. According to him, the half-inch thick slice of ‘shroom had been coated either side with melted butter, then grilled – hence the mesh of seared flesh across the light grey-white. The verdant sauce it was served with was an exuberant burst of fresh herbs: an intense blend of parsley, caper, lemon and fennel fronds. I had an adventure playground going on in my mouth.
I’ve ranted long enough about the starters but it is safe to say that, in spite of the delightful mains which followed, it is the starters which will forever remain hallowed in my memory. I think the joy radiating from my face was only too apparent to the rest of the world passing by my table, and even Mick Hucknell (from Simply Red) did a double take when he saw me, and went to take his place at his own table behind me. ‘I’ll have what she’s having’, I heard him say to the waitress when she came to take his order.*

And so to mains.

Chef chose Roast Lamb with white beans, and then suffered dinner envy as my perfectly petite package of Teal with Turnips (don’t worry, I didn’t know what Teal was either – it is a wild duck) paraded in front of me. He was being silly – the lamb was moist, tender and juicy pink, and the beans a comforting side. But I confess I did prefer my Teal, which was gamey rich. Being so small it requires a mere flash at the flame, to avoid drying out, which meant that as I cut in, blood spurted into the jus. Not one for the faint hearted!  The turnips were cooked to butter-like tenderness, alongside whole shallots and sinful entire garlic cloves. I ate the lot, mopping the sauce up with the green tops we’d ordered on the side and muttering incoherent appreciation.

St John and I parted company a little like reluctant lovers. I know the restaurant feels the same way about me – it can’t wait to wrap me in its comforting arms and whisper sweet nothings into my ear again…’smoked eel…pheasant pie…venison offal…’ it will say. ‘Ok, I’ll do whatever you want’, I will whisper back helplessly, head over heels. I only hope we meet again soon, and I've already planned how. Half way through our meal an awed silence descended upon the by now bustling dining room. A waiter walked through, carrying aloft an entire roast suckling pig, fit for a feast and a meal for a party of sixteen or more. Watch this space, my darling St John, I'll be back.

*well, not really, but allow me a little poetic licence would you?!

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