St. John Bread and Wine (London)

St. John Bread and Wine: Grilled Sardines
I am in London for a little over a week—I arrived yesterday. I am here mostly on bidness but obviously am going to do a spot of eating as well. I didn’t actually have anything planned for my first evening in town, as I didn’t know how exhausted I would be. As it happens, despite an exhausting, delayed flight and long lines at immigration at Heathrow, I was ready to have a good meal. I guess when your last two “meals” have been provided by an American airline real food becomes more urgent. As my hotel is within walking distance from the Spitalfields St. John Bread and Wine, the satellite location of Fergus Henderson’s famed St. John, I decided to call and walk over. A table was easily secured and it was a pleasant walk—just short of a mile—that whetted my appetite further. And let me just say that between the snatches of Hindi and Bengali conversations overheard on the streets and people crossing those streets with no regard for traffic lights—to say nothing of all the looted Indian antiquities in the museums—I’m feeling quite at home in London.

(I wasn’t actually planning to write this meal up so soon. I have dinner scheduled at St. John’s Smithfield mothership later in the week and figured I’d write both meals up together and post the writeup after returning to Minnesota. But as I lie awake in the early hours in my bed in my pod-like room at the CitizenM hotel, with nothing else to do, this seems like a decent use of time.)

A quick word about Fergus Henderson and St. John in case you don’t know much about them: Henderson opened the original St. John in 1994 and is known principally for his emphasis on traditional British cooking and on so-called “nose to tail” eating; indeed, his book, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eatingis one of the central texts in the development of contemporary Western restaurant cuisine and foodie culture. The influence of Henderson, his restaurant and his book is hard to overstate. The ideas that Henderson has come to epitomize can be gauged in a sense by the names of two of the well-known figures who have championed him in the US and what they themselves stand for in the culinary/foodie world. One is Mario Batali, whose own restaurants and philosophy emphasizes vernacular cooking in an informal atmosphere. The other is Anthony Bourdain, whose brand could be said to be culinary authenticity—I mean by this not the type of cultural authenticity people fret about when eating at “ethnic” restaurants but the notion that food must in a sense be true, in terms of ingredients, a lack of flim-flam, and a relationship to a folk tradition.

It is hard to imagine the huge wave of what we might call the luxe incarnation of roots revival cooking in the US in the last decade—places as different as The Publican in Chicago and Gjusta in Los Angeles—without the transmission of Henderson and St. John’s ethos. (Indeed, stepping into St. John Bread and Wine last night I was struck by how similar Gjusta’s aesthetic is—and the feeling continued as the food came out.) On the minus side, he is probably more to blame than anyone else for the ongoing epidemic of chefs talking about “respecting” animals that have been slaughtered for the table.

The restaurants, it follows, are casual places. The Spitalfields location reflects the original with its spare white-washed walls but is more casual still. There are no tablecloths here and there is only the one large room with a small bar off to one side, the kitchen opening directly into the dining room and wine bottles arrayed casually on shelves on the wall. The staff are informal and affable and the food comes out as it is ready. The menu here is not identical to that at the mothership, but as there it changes daily. And no, you can’t count on eating the famous roast bone marrow and parsley salad here—last night, for example, it was not on offer. The menu is dominated by small plates, all of which cost less than £10 and all of which, if what I had is representative, contain a lot of food. There are also a few larger plates (just south of £20) and then a much longer list of desserts (puddings on the menu)—and another board lists further nightly specials. The wine is all French and there is a small selection of beer and cocktails on a board on a wall.

As I couldn’t choose one or two of the smaller plates, and as none of the larger plates quite grabbed my fancy as much, I decided to go with three smaller plates. All three were quite different from each other and showcased the skills of the kitchen in different ways.

  1. Potted Pork with Pickled Cucumber. This was on the nightly board and was really very good. A very large portion of potted pork, dense and rich without being the slightest bit cloying or resistant to the tooth. No garnish in sight to distract and only some excellent pickled cucumber on the side to cut through the richness of the pork. A very good start.
  2. Grilled Sardines, Tomato & Green Sauce. This was just excellent. Two perfectly grilled sardines, topped with a “sauce” of chopped herbs, and a large roasted tomato. Simple, hearty, excellent. I left only the backbones of the fish on the plate.
  3. Quail & Bramley Jelly. A perfectly roasted, plump quail served with a dollop of excellent jelly featuring Bramley apples (I asked). Though I liked the sardines better, this dish perhaps best sums up what I was trying to get at above: just two things on the plate (no garnish here again), rustic ingredients of very high quality, treated with care and impeccable technique. I left the carcass as bare as the last lonely tree of autumn and began to worry that they might be talking about me in the kitchen as my plates came back.

I washed all this down with half pints of the Four Pure Pils and IPA, in that order, both of which were on tap. For dessert I asked my server for guidance and he recommended that if I had time I try their madeleines as they are one of their specialties. I had the time and felt it would be foolish to resist. And a good thing I didn’t. I got half a dozen of the madeleines and a pot of tea. I subtract some points as they did not have any Darjeeling, but their breakfast blend helped erase the traumatic memory of Delta’s “tea” from earlier in the day. I ate four of the madeleines at the restaurant and brought two back to the hotel (I just finished them while typing this up).

For a better look at the restaurant and the food please click on an image below to launch a slideshow. As always, please forgive the image quality—between the warm yellow light in the dining room and the blue light pouring out of the kitchen, my camera’s white balance had a tough time (my inability to focus properly is my own fault).

All of this came to £43 or so with a 15% tip. Not a cheap meal but you could easily knock £10 off, and probably more if not dining solo. I recommend it highly. And while I made a reservation earlier in the evening, it was not really necessary. The restaurant was not empty but there were plenty of free tables. Now I’m looking forward even more to my dinner at the Smithfield original later in the week.

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