Best. Meal. Ever.

May 5, 2009 · 10 comments

In 2001 the Food Network aired A Cook’s Tour, a food and travel show hosted by Anthony Bourdain. He traveled around the world eating the local food, and I hung on every bite. Of the many remarkable meals he ate in the series, this one was burned into my brain (The series remains criminally unreleased on DVD; this excerpt is extracted from the Belm Laboratories™ TiVo Archive.):

http://blog.belm.com/belmblog/video/stjohn.flv&image

As soon as we confirmed the details of our London trip I hit the St. John web site to make a reservation for the three of us — I would not be cheated out of the chance to eat there. I bookmarked the menu page, then checked it obsessively in the days leading up to our departure. It changes every day, all but one item.

After a day spent at the Tower of London, we returned to our hotel, then took a cab to Clerkenwell, near the Smithfield meat market — from one abbatoir in the morning to another in the evening. The cabbie dropped us off and pointed to a nondescript door in a short alleyway. This was the place, although you’d hardly notice it during the day.

The restaurant is stark, whitewashed walls, simple wooden chairs and tables with white linens, and absolutely nothing else: no music, no artwork, nothing that would detract from the food. We were seated and handed the menu, printed on a single sheet of paper. On to the meal:

Starters:

Brown Shrimp & White Cabbage

Brown shrimp & white cabbage

Exactly as described (which would be true for each menu item): cooked baby shrimp tossed with a slaw made of cabbage and minced parsley, lightly dressed with oil, lemon juice, and a touch of mustard. The dish was very light and refreshing, the crunchy slaw contrasting perfectly with the soft, sweet shrimp.

Crispy Pig’s Skin & Watercress

Crispy pig's skin & watercress

This was a similarly dressed watercress salad with a few whole roasted shallots, topped with crispy fried pig skin “croutons.” These were the best pork rinds (call a spade a spade) I’ll ever eat, greaseless and so crispy they shattered when you bit into them. Another study in contrasts, this time the acidity in the salad balancing the bitter watercress and the sweet shallot.

Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad

Roast bone marrow & parsley salad

This is the dish that put chef Fergus Henderson on the map. It’s Bourdain’s (and now my) death row meal, what he describes as “God’s butter.” It’s not the first roast bone marrow I’ve eaten, but it is unquestionably the best. As soon as our waiter handed me the marrow spoon, I set to work, scooping out marrow and spreading it on the grilled sourdough bread, garnishing it with the accompanying sel gris and parsley salad. I prepared slices for the three of us, who all had the same reaction: one bite, and a softly whispered “Oh!” If you like a bit of fat with your roast meat, this dish is the distilled essence of animal fat in a perfect delivery vehicle. Smooth, unctuous marrow, crunchy bread, grains of salt that burst when chewed, and another perfect little salad to provide just enough acidity to temper the mouthfeel of the marrow. A few capers mixed in with the salad added a surprising “green” top note – I wouldn’t have noticed it’s absence, but it belonged there.

Mains:

Roast Middlewhite & Chicory

Roast middlewhite & chicory

Middlewhite is the breed of pig from which this slice of roast pork was cut. The preparation couldn’t be simpler: cook the pork roast exactly as you would cook beef prime rib, then serve it medium rare with some of the roasting jus. If I didn’t have access to locally grown pork, this dish would have been a revelation, instead it was merely a very good slice of meat. Again, contrasts, this time the bitter braised chicory playing against the sweetness of the pork.

Braised Rabbit, Bacon & Mustard

Braised rabbit, bacon, and mustard

I had some reservations about ordering this since mustard can overwhelm a dish. I needn’t have worried in this case. The mustard was an accent in the braising liquid, providing a sharp note to counterpoint the smoky bacon and the gamy rabbit. The braised saddle and leg fell off the bone, perfectly cooked. A single braised shallot added some needed sweetness.

Halibut, Leeks & Green Sauce

Halibut, leeks & green sauce

The simplest dish we were served. Halibut, still on the bone, crusted with a simple spice rub (salt, pepper, paprika) and pan seared. It was accompanied by a few braised leeks; the “green sauce” was the braising liquid to which minced parsley and lemon had been added. Not much else needs to be said about a perfectly cooked piece of fish.

Sides

New potatoes & greens

You must have noticed by now that the food is served straight up and ungarnished. Our waitress suggested some side dishes, so we chose the new potatoes and greens. We got roasted red potatoes with butter, salt, and parsley, and brasied cabbage and chard that retained a bit of crunch. Very simple, but the correct accompaniments to our dishes.

Wine

Wine

I was confounded by the all-European wine list, but found a nice Côtes du Rhône to go with the pig skin, marrow, pork, and rabbit.

Desserts:

Baked Chocolate Mousse & Creme Fraiche Ice Cream

Baked chocolate mousse & creme fraiche ice cream

A lovely, light mousse cake set against the surprisingly tangy ice cream. A winning combination.

Eccles Cake & Lancashire Cheese

Eccles cake & Lancashire cheese

We learned that an Eccles cake is a puff pastry shell filled with black currants and cinnamon sugar. Just as the mousse was offset by the ice cream, the sweetness of the cake played perfectly against the sharp farmhouse cheese. Diane loved this dessert so much that she has vowed to reproduce it at home.

Suckling pig:

On the back of the menu I saw “Suckling pig can be ordered one week in advance.” I had already investigated this possibility before arriving, but it was not to be — whole pig is available only to parties of ten or more. But that didn’t stop us from watching this beast being served to the table behind us.

Roast suckling pig

If I hadn’t already eaten the Best Pig Ever elsewhere (subject of another post), I might have begged the fellows behind us for a nibble or two. Instead we watched the pig get carved up, with the head served to the birthday honoree. Lucky guy, he got the best part — the cheeks — without having to fight for it.

Final Impressions:

I’ve gone on long enough about this meal and how it tasted. I won’t forget that anytime soon, but what will stick with me for years is how that food was cooked and presented: simple preparations of the best possible ingredients with no distractions. At St. John it was — and will always be — all about the food.

Postscript

No blog post about St. John would be complete witout a mention of Nose to Tail at Home, which documcnts Ryan Adams’ effort to cook every recipe in Fergus Henderson’s magnum opus. Ryan graciously mentions this review in his blog; I urge you to check out his work.

10 comments

Michael Albright May 15, 2009 at 4:55 pm

David, wonderful review. Now I’m starving. I must try the marrow! Should I call St. Johns to find when it will next be served? Is that how you did it? Thanks for the amazing tip.

David May 15, 2009 at 5:21 pm

The roasted bone marrow is ALWAYS on the menu; it’s the one thing that doesn’t change. You can look at the menu every day to see what’s being served for lunch and dinner. You should also check out their other location, St. John Bread & Wine (http://www.stjohnbreadandwine.com/home/), which seems to be a bit more casual, but may not have the marrow.

thecroft August 4, 2009 at 9:17 am

The bone marrow is not always on the menu. More’s the pity.

David August 4, 2009 at 2:31 pm

It’s not, or do they occasionally run out?

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