I ate out quite a bit when I was in London for a week last August. Of the places I ate at then, there were a few that I wanted to return to with the missus during our much longer stay in London this spring. As it happens, we didn’t make it to Hedone or Noble Rot on this trip, but there was no danger of skipping dinner at St. John. (Hoppers was the other place that I’d wanted to take her too and we made it there as well.) It wasn’t just the two of us at St. John: we were joined by our good friends who live in London and had helped us find our flat and get set up (we took them out to thank them), and at the last moment we were joined by another old friend who lives in the Bay Area and flew in for work. Between us we ate a fair bit of St. John’s menu on the night. Herewith an account of the proceedings.
I’m not going to go into any detail about the place of the restaurant or its chef/owner, Fergus Henderson in the world of fine dining. I covered that in my writeup of St. John Bread and Wine, where I also ate last August, and if you’re interested you can take a look at that. You might also want to take a look at my writeup of my previous dinner at St. John itself: then it was the beginning of grouse season and I partook rather heartily of grouse. Late spring/early summer is not the best time for game, sadly; less sad is the fact St. John’s kitchen is very good even when not preparing game.
Between the five of us we ate five of the eight small plates, six of the eight large plates and five of the desserts. You might think this makes us one of the leading authorities on St. John’s menu for June 5, 2017 (the menu is not identical from day to day) but, embarrassingly, none of us can remember what one of the five small plates was. The others cannot be blamed for this lapse in memory as, unlike me, they’re not committed to a sad life of online meal documentation. For myself, it’s a reminder that it’s a good idea to not wait 3.5 months to write a review of a meal: my notes from after the meal make it clear that I enjoyed my bite of the mystery dish but not what it was (at the time I’d expected to write the meal up very soon). I do have pictures of the night’s menu below and I turn it over to you as a game to try and identify which of the listed small plates might be the unidentified dish (pictured in the gallery). Here is everything else we ate:
- Asparagus and hot butter: About as minimalist a dish as can be imagined. Steamed asparagus, hot butter and salt. My northern Californian friend who is a runner made as healthy a meal as is possible at St. John and started with this. I didn’t taste it but she said it was very good asparagus.
- Brown shrimp and white cabbage: Now this I did taste and it was very good indeed.
- Brown crab meat on toast: This was mine and it was a lot of brown crab meat on toast and it was very good.
- Roast bone marrow and parsley salad: The most famous example of St. John’s literalism, this set of roasted bone marrows with parsley salad was the missus’. She got a lot more marrow in these bones than I got in mine back in August and very covetously hoarded most of it.
- Roast middle white, broad beans and trotter: Perfectly roasted pork with perfectly braised beans. Straightforwardly great.
- Sea bass, tomato and green sauce: As was the sea bass, also ordered by the Californian runner. I’d encountered the green sauce last year over sardines at St. John Bread and Wine and it was very good here again with very nicely done sea bass with lovely crispy skin.
- Braised violet artichokes, peas and mint: I confess I ordered these only to see what violet artichokes might look like. It turns out that as presented they’re not terribly exciting; but as cooked at St. John, they’re very tasty.
- Lamb sweetbreads, borlotti beans and bacon: This was mine. It was over the top and it was very good. I only ate half of it, however as…
- Snails, sausage and chickpea:The missus and I traded halfway through. This is not because she didn’t like her dish but because we’d both wanted to get both dishes. This stew was dynamite, we both thought, and probably the best of the large plates.
- Braised rabbit, fennel and aioli: But this rabbit was very good as well. Tender rabbit with melting fennel and a very nice jus. The aioli, though tasty, was a bit of a non sequitur.
- Bread pudding and butterscotch sauce: I’d gotten this last year and insisted everyone else had to try it. No one was disappointed.
- Buttermilk pudding and peach: I don’t have too much of a memory of this one as I barely got a taste of it (I was very full). The others seemed to like it.
- Dr. Henderson ice cream: This is the ice cream version of Henderson’s famous Fernet-Brance and creme de menthe cocktail and it’s an odd but pleasing bittersweet ending.
- Rhubarb sorbet and Russian vodka: I didn’t try this one at all. We were a little surprised that it came with a large shot glass full of vodka. At this point in the evening (there had previously been some wine consumed) none of us wanted to drink a shot of vodka and so we poured some over the sorbet and those who ate it seemed to like it.
- Madeleines (1/2 dozen): I did eat one madeleine though. Their madeleines are so goddamned good (this was my second time eating them on this trip—I’d stopped in at Bread and Wine during my Shoreditch street art crawl just to get some).
For pictures of the food and to play the “which item on the menu is the unidentified dish” game, launch the gallery below. (Apologies, as alwasys, for the quality of some of the pictures.) Scroll down for notes on service etc.
As noted above, there was also some wine. We started with a Riesling recommended by our server and went on to something red that I made no record of. This vagueness—as also evidenced by the forgotten dish—is not just due to the fact that I’m posting in late September about a meal eaten in early June; it’s also because only part of our attention was on the food. Three of us—the runner, my male London-based friend and me—have known each other since we were in our late teens but had not been around the same table together for a long time. We were catching up, dragging up old jokes and stories and grudges and generally having a grand time (and it’s not like the other two were left out—nobody there was meeting anyone else for the first or even second time).
The very basic descriptions of the food are down to the fact that St. John’s aesthetic militates against anything else. This is as unpretentious as an expensive Michelin starred restaurant can be. And they continue to pull off the magic trick of being both formal (white tablecloths, liveried waitstaff) and laid back (a loud dining room, relatively informal seating despite the tablecloths) at the same time. Though it might seem like a cliche to some at this point, I think a meal at St. John is a necessary stop in any foodie’s London itinerary. And, unlike some trendy places, it’s one that I, at least, want to stop at every time I am in London. Hopefully, the next time will once again be in game season.
Oh yes, cost: it wasn’t cheap but as my employers were paying for most of it, I did not pay close attention. I want to say about $80-90/head all-in, which, again, is a bill you can pay in many American cities for far inferior food (though, of course, the <$1.30 exchange rate helped).