St. John (London)

St. John: Grouse
As you’ve probably forgotten, I was in London for a week and change at the end of August. My first meal was at the smaller, Spitalfields outpost of Fergus Henderson’s empire, St. John Bread and Wine. In the throes of jet lag, I wrote that meal up only a few hours after eating it. The rest of the week’s eating has taken me a long time to fully write up—indeed, after the review of Hedone in mid-October I all but forgot that I still had two more to go. Here now is the first of those two: a Friday night dinner at the St. John mothership in Smithfield. This has become hallowed ground for foodies from all over the world and as I am entirely conventional there was not much chance that I would not stop in here as well. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I might have skipped it if the Bread and Wine location had offered a slightly different menu the night I dined there. You see, I’d wanted to have their iconic roast bone marrow with parsley salad and I’d been hoping for grouse as well, and neither were on offer there that night. Luckily, the mothership came through. 

I won’t say very much more about St. John or Fergus Henderson; I went over the place and influence of both in some detail in my review of the Bread and Wine location—and if you don’t know much about the restaurant I’d recommend giving that part of that review a quick glance first. I’ll add only that after posting that review I was chided gently by an English friend (he who blogs about New York food at the Sign of the Pink Pig) for taking too much at face value the oft-repeated claim that Henderson and St. John serve up traditional, vernacular English fare. It’s more accurate to say that they take traditional ingredients and (some) dishes and re-conceive them in a contemporary idiom: a meal here is not a trip in a time machine to a bygone England. And in the year of Brexit that’s a really good thing.

The feel of the restaurant is very much like that of the Bread and Wine location—a canteen-like aesthetic and atmosphere—only much bigger (and louder). All of the Spitalfields branch could fit inside the area that holds the bar and bakery and assorted seating at the mothership, and the main dining room is about three times as large again. It was packed when I got there, late on a Friday (my reservation was at 9.30 or so) and the crowd was quite mixed, in terms of both age and ethnic background. There was, by the way, a very large crowd of young(er) people outside the restaurant when I arrived. I’m still not sure if these were patrons who’d gone out for a smoke or if this was spillover from some other establishment in the vicnity—the restaurant itself was rather full even with all of them outside.

I may have been the sole sad, solo diner in the main dining room but they took good care of me. Apart from an initial fumbling whereby two different servers approached me and then seemed to assume that the other had me, I was checked in on regularly and despite the hectic dining room (and kitchen—which is visible from the dining room) I was not rushed when asking questions about the menu. Luckily, my server did not talk me out of the two things I most wanted: the aforementioned roast bone marrow and the grouse (the season for which had just started); she did give me very good advice on dessert: a lovely bit of bread pudding sitting on butterscotch sauce, with a scoop of ice cream on top—I was expecting the grouse to be good (and it was) but I’d had no expectations of the pudding (which was just as good in its way). For more, see the captions in the slideshow below.

This was not a cheap meal ($75 says my credit card statement). But coming from the US, where proper game is a dream and grouse a dream within a dream, and with the cooking at a very high level, it’s hard to complain. It should be said, in case it’s not obvious, that Michelin star notwithstanding, St. John is not the place to go to for cheffy fireworks or chemistry set cooking. This is comfort food even if you didn’t grow up eating it and nobody else did either.

Okay, only one more London meal report to go—lunch at Dishoom in Covent Garden (maybe next week).

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