Tuesday, January 13, 2009

UK Dining: St. John

As a fan of both boxing and fine dining I can't help but notice a striking physical similarity between chef Fergus Henderson and boxing trainer Freddy Roach. They share the same scruffy flop of hair, laxly shaven face, glasses thick as the base of a pint jar and eyes that bulge slightly, giving a permanent air of exasperated surprise, bordering on bewilderment. Unfortunately they share something else - they both suffer from Parkinson's disease, the debilitating neurological disorder. It make their achievements in their respective fields all the more impressive. Roach has trained numerous world champions and has thrice been awarded the Boxing Writers Association of America "Trainer of the Year" award. Henderson has become renowned as the champion of nose to tail dining first through his restaurant St John, through his cook book - Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking and for those of us living in NYC his annual forays across the pond to the Spotted Pig and this year Momofuku Noodle Bar.

I was fortunate to secure a table for a Sunday lunch recently, the memory of Henderson's effort at Momofuku Noodle Bar still vivid on my mind and palate. Surprisingly Sunday lunch is a relatively new addition to the schedule here. I say surprising because I think that Sunday lunch is the most quintessentially British meal. It is here that the finest qualities of its cooking come together - slowly roasted meats blanketed with lashings of gravy, heaping piles of golden spuds, salty heaps of steaming vegetables. It is perhaps the only meal that is taken really seriously by the British, as opposed to say the French who seem to revere and cherish every morsel of every meal.

Despite the fact that Henderson is widely known for his use of offal the menu at St John has plenty of more familiar fare on offer and it is possible to eat an enitre meal without delving in to what Amthony Bourdain dubbed "the nasty bits." The fact that Henderson can make those nasty bits delectable should, and does, mean that prime ingredients - the expensive bits - will also be so.

St. John is situated, most appropriately, in a former bacon smoke house. It is one of the most beautiful restaurants I have dined in - minimalist, stark white walls, a simple tiled floor all illuminated by plain hanging lamps that seem to contrast too sharply with the baron surroundings until the coats of the patrons are hung on the hooks that line the walls. Then they seem to be in perfect visual balance. The tables are adorned with white table clothes and snub nosed salt and pepper grinders. They are unnecessary, everything is perfectly seasoned.

A Dorset crab served on some yeasty, crunchy bread was wonderful - tangy and earthy with a pleasingly brackish brininess.

The Welsh Rarebit is surely the most exulted incarnation of the traditional dish as I can remember having. The creamy, molten, mustard infused cheese that lay under the blistered canopy was the perfect foil to the crispness of the thick slab of toast upon which it lay.

The Duck, spiked with sage and roasted to succulence, did not have a very crispy skin but it mattered not. The flesh was so buttery and flavorful and the generous lining of un-rendered fat added a bold mouth feel to the dish. While I love the crispy skin of Peking Duck the depth of flavor and heartiness that Henderson attained here was unmatched in my experience. The flesh was firmer, more steak like than a duck confit, but equally tender. An impressive achievement.

When I asked if the beef used for the Sunday roast was dry aged - or "hung" in local parlance - my waiter could not help but chuckle. "Oh yes Sir" he assured me in his most assuring baritone Irish brogue. Despite this the roasted sirloin did not have the pronounced moldy flavor of dry aging that I hoped it would have. It did however have a hearty, herbaceous taste bordering on the floral, undoubtedly the result of grass feeding. The rosy hue looked rare but texturally the flesh was firmer, closer to medium rare and even medium. Over cooked for my tastes but I have come to realize that I have unrealistic expectations when it comes to rareness in beef, I like it almost raw. Rational beef eaters would have found it perfect. Despite my textural misgivings the richness the beef was captivating. And the flavor intoxicating. As I carved myself a sliver - the knife meeting little resistance - the rain that had been pattering a sporadic rhythm on from the glass skylight petered out. As the beef met my palate, the fat rendering on my tongue, coating my mouth with a velvety richness, the sun began to shine. It was the same English sunshine that had bathed the grass which the steer grazed upon for all of his days in a golden hue. The same sunshine under which I played under as a child. I felt a profound connection to the soil and the steer and indeed to England itself. I might prefer the bold, fatty flavor of corn feed beef from the new world but the subtle, almost polite nature of the beef here, so rooted in the soil, so marinated in English weather that it feels wholly organic and appropriate.

Dessert was a chocolate terrine so dense and lead like that a spoon stuck into it stood perfectly perpendicular with no assistance. In fact I must admit that I did something that would likely have bought a stark admonishment from the matriarch at a family Sunday lunch - I played with my food, whittling down the slab until there was barely a spoon fulls worth left. The spoon remained erect.
If the terrine was physically robust it was doubly so on the palate. It coated my mouth in a dark, velvety blanket so dense that it caused my tongue to stick to the roof of my mouth. As you might expect it had an overwhelmingly dark, nutty, burnt cocoa flavor but was thankfully somewhat restrained in its sweetness.

I should note the service at St John which is positively beguiling - casual, familiar yet precise and clairvoyant. From the point that one is warmly greeted at the door one until ones last sip of coffee one feels perfectly at ease.

I absolutely adore St John, despite having dined there but once it is on the short list of my favorite restaurants. It is not just that the food is outstanding, the room beautiful and the service effusive, it is that dining at St. John connects me to Britain. There is an earnestness and profundity to the cooking coming out of Henderson's kitchen. It is the realization of the true potential of British cuisine.Justify Full

St. JOHN Bar & Restaurant Smithfield
26 St John Street


kaszeta said...

Good writeup. I'm still trying to get over to the main St John... I've been to St John Bread and Wine several times, and have always been impressed.

we are never full said...

we did our own write up of St. John recently and it's great to see some of the dishes i thought about ordering but didn't. thanks for this great post and the pictures. i have the upmost respect for fergus henderson and was lucky to meet him when we were there. unfort. i was totally drunk and started blathering nonsense to him, but he was still a gentleman!

evangeline startk said...

This place is amazing. From appetizer to desserts, everything looks and tastes good.

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