(Firstly, let me say this: the interior of St John is so brightly lit that I decided not to use a flash, which is oftentimes intrusive to other diners and waitstaff. Secondly: I’m an idiot.)
The reservation I was most looking forward to during our trip to England was the dinner we had booked at St John. I’m a huge fan of offal, having grown up fighting over marrow-filled bones, so the thought of eating at a restaurant most famous for adhering to a “nose to tail” menu was absolutely exciting. I purposely stopped reading anything that referred to St John, Fergus Henderson or offal, so I was completely entranced by the restaurant’s all white utterly utilitarian interior, which has been well-documented. What was interesting to me was that the sight of such dazzling white wasn’t the slightest bit austere; in fact, it only enhanced the fantastic aroma radiating from the kitchen in the most teasing fashion. It was as if the whiteness of the place, the total lack of visual stimulus focused the senses more on what was about to be consumed.
Unfortunately, I was suffering at dinner — I had flown over the Atlantic with the teensiest sprout of a cold, which of course blossomed into the most beautiful flower a few days into the trip. For that reason and that reason alone I briefly considered ordering the cauliflower soup as my starter. Keith looked at me with a raised eyebrow when I mentioned my choice of appetizer, then calmly listed why I was making a mistake.
“Besides,” he said, “I need you to get the marrow so I can taste it.”
It doesn’t take more than the mention of marrow to twist my arm in its favor, so I agreed. I sincerely doubt I can clearly express how glad I am that I listened. Sure, I’m biased when it comes to marrow, but this marrow (£6.70) is what all the other bone marrows in the world dream of becoming when they grow up. Even if I hadn’t smeared pieces of crunchy grilled toast with the impossibly soft and stunningly supple marrow, even if I hadn’t then sprinkled it with coarse granules of salt, crisp leaves of parsley, and beads of capers, seeing versions of this plate float around to the other tables in the dining room would have been enough. I’m not exaggerating when I say each looked like a veritable mini Stonehenge. I’m exaggerating even less when I add that my mouth is watering even now, many meals later.
It would have been hopeless to chose an entrée that could possibly compare to the lusciousness that was the marrow, but I tried my hardest with the lamb tongues, butter beans and anchovy (£16.00), which was also served with curly leaves of kale. The tongue, which I haven’t had in years, was intensely flavored, meaty and dense, and its sauce added just the right amount of salty energy. Something I realized while eating, though, is that I apparently really hate the butter bean. Could there be anything more boring and more tepid-flavored than this legume? I don’t know if Keith noticed, but I kept on offering him bites of bean or placing them, uninvited, on his plate.
At first, we thought we weren’t going to get dessert but when our server suggested the treacle tart, we realized that fighting the urge for sweets was a silly battle. The thing is, our server all but abandoned us soon after mentioning the kitchen only had one tart left; all of our attempts to catch her eye or get her attention seemed to be categorically ignored. By the time we did manage to put our order in, the treacle, of course, was gone. We ended up instead with a lovely clementine trifle (£6.70), but no amount of custard, sponge cake and fruit can make up for the loss of a pastry filled with sugary syrup, butter and cream.
I think my love and consumption of meat has been well-documented thus far, but it should be noted that St John, remarkably, has a very nice selection of vegetarian dishes. Even more remarkably, the restaurant’s menu changes daily; while there is some overlap and while some starters, mains and desserts remain the same (read: marrow), there’s no guarantee that diners will be able to replicate a previous day’s entire meal. Nor should a diner attempt to. Where’s the fun in that?
And, for no reason other than I just plain would like to, I’ll end with Chef Henderson’s famous quote explaining his cooking mentality:
If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing.
26, St John Street
London EC1M 4AY
+44 20 72510848