IIn all honesty, I wasn’t quite sure how to review a place with such a rich history as St-Jean. Along with almost every new restaurant opening or top chef appointments in recent years, there seems to be a note about this person training in St. John. This is perhaps the best measure of the restaurant’s impact on London, and the most fitting tribute to its importance in creating a new era of English cuisine. So instead, this piece will be more of a celebration. An ode to a restaurant that changed the face of the London food scene and rightly earned a reputation as a bastion of modern British cuisine.
I have weekly crises about living so far from home. Usually on a Tuesday morning, often when it’s gray outside, I sit down with my breakfast and let the homesickness creep in. It’s a feeling that comes from living in a place where home is a 24 hour flight away and your family is best reached by a FaceTime call. London is a city that can chew and spit you out, and at times the constant cycle can be exhausting. And yet, there are times – days, evenings, fleeting views on long journeys – that show that living here is worth all the heartache. Getting off the train at Farringdon and strolling through the immense history of Clerkenwell to a restaurant like St. John was like one of those times when London draws you in and leaves you in awe of being here.
The restaurant is a cavernous space, so imposing white that my partner noticed that a row of hospital grade cots wouldn’t look out of place. To me, it looked more like a converted church – a place where diners come to worship the altar of gastronomy. It might sound sterile, but instead it feels gleeful – the low hum from the other diners, the satisfying scratching of plates and, most importantly, the service. I have never eaten here before, and yet the staff made me feel like a welcome regular. The wine list is largely French, long and reasonably overwhelming, so I asked for something “light and red” and our server immediately pointed me to one – as simple as that (it was also a great choice – the L’hurluberlu de la Loire, if you want to try it). While I like to think I have a pretty good knowledge of food, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the ingredients. When I asked what was on the plate, there was no snobbery or snub nose, but rather a response (kohlrabi) and a discussion of its value as an ingredient.
Then, of course, there is the food. Ah, the food. This is not a place for the faint of heart or the faint of heart. Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver are almost the only ones responsible for taking the “nose to tail” approach to cooking, and that expression is not used as a joke. Every aspect of an animal is used here, whether it’s beef heart, lamb sweetbreads or devil’s kidneys. However, the menu is well balanced. Yes, it’s heavy on meat and offal, but there’s also a handful of seafood dishes and a number of veggie plates to break up the heaviness. The dried longhorn beef came with pickled beets and a dollop of horseradish so punchy it pretty much cured my partner’s hay fever. The brown crabmeat on toast was perfect – simply dressed in lemon, allowing the often less beloved element of crustacean to shine. Bone marrow, however, was in a league of its own – “it’s been on the menu for 26 years for a good reason,” so our waiter put it so well. The deeply fatty marrow was balanced by the crisp acidity of the lemon juice-seasoned parsley, caper and shallot salad, all spiced up by the addition of gray salt. It was the kind of bite that sums up what is so amazing about food.
We were gluttonous in our order of main courses, and if I had to come back I would do it differently. I would swap one of the meat dishes for something lighter, and I might not add (sob) the infamous Welsh rarebit on the side – it’s something worth savoring on its own, and might justify a quick lunchtime bench accompanied by a martini. That’s not to say it wasn’t all wonderful – of course it was. The lamb kidneys were an iron-packed joy, their intense flavor paired beautifully with salty bacon and a creamy mash. Braised mutton has proven why older mutton is often an overlooked ingredient. The meat was as tender as its younger counterpart and had almost melted in the juice of the stew, a touch of aioli serving to brighten up each rich bite.
Whichever way you choose to order, be sure to leave room for dessert. Where in some places the third course can be seen as an afterthought, in St. John the selection is even longer than the choice of main courses. Madeleines are a classic, but we have sometimes found room in our stomachs for the chocolate-pistachio terrine; it was light but velvety, with a dollop of crème fraîche adding a refreshing tangy finish.
The past week has been riddled with moments of homesickness more than most. Battling the post-holiday blues and accepting the announcement of my sister’s move at the end of the year, I spent more time than usual yearning for home and rejecting London relatively foreign. And yet, after only three hours in St. John, those feelings began to dissipate, and I was once again filled with the firm belief that I am exactly where I need to be.