Starters approx. £4-7, Mains approx. £15-25, Desserts approx. £6-7
Sundays at St John
St John had been on my hit list for a long time – too long. So, when the weather began cooling and the days got darker, and when my stomach began craving for heart-warming comfort food, I happily discovered that St John was open for Sunday lunches. What a brilliant idea, I thought, and promptly booked myself in for the upcoming weekend.
I think that most readers of this blog will already know as much (or more) about St John, and its head chef Fergus Henderson, than I do, so I will spare you all of the literally gory details here. Suffice to say that the original outpost is located just opposite the Smithfield meat market in 1994 and that the building was formerly a smokehouse. Henderson is well-known for his ‘nose-to-tail eating’ philosophy (in fact, this was the title of his first cookbook), and the interior of the restaurant mirrors his style of food: it is paired down, simple and honest.
In 2003, Henderson and his business partner Trevor Gulliver opened a second branch, imaginatively called St John Bread and Wine, near Spitalfields market (spot the trend?). The original restaurant’s baking operations had outgrown its existing baking capabilities, so this new site took care of the new baking needs and also housed a smaller, less formal restaurant serving food and drink throughout the day.
As you will read further down, Mrs. LF and I so much enjoyed our first visit to St John that we immediately booked Sunday lunch for the very next week upon leaving. So this review comprises two meals on two consecutive Sundays.
Meal 1: Initiation
It was a typically bleak autumn afternoon as we made our way East to the City of London, gliding stealthily beneath its dragon-crowned gates in the anonymity of the Circle Line. I had only ever seen St John from the outside, and didn’t realize there was a little bakery and bar on the ground floor, with the main restaurant on a slightly raised level up a small flight of stairs. (You can see some pictures of these areas towards the end of the post).
We made our way up and found the place to be about half full but with a nice but quiet buzz about it. Our waitress took us to our little table for two, which was nestled very cosily against the right wall. After being given the paper menu (a good deal of the dishes change every day, with only a few fixtures/signature dishes such as the infamous marrow), we were served some bread. It was a wonderful loaf of sourdough with a great crust and bags of perfect sourdough flavor. We loved it. And one of my unofficial rules that normally holds true in restaurants is that, if the bread is excellent, there is a very good chance you’re in for some good food, too.
We eventually ordered and took stock of the place. It is pretty much what I expected. Stark, basic, and mostly white. Industrial looking light fixtures, bistro-style wooden chairs, paper table cloths on top of the real ones, silverware that you can tell has been well used, waiting staff in kitchen whites. But most importantly, all of the diners there seemed to be genuinely having a good time. It was a posh school canteen for grown-ups.
After attempting to turn my eyes into binoculars while peering past the pass in the kitchen, to see what offal tricks these culinary wizards were conjuring, and soaking everything in, our efficient waitress came back with our starters.
And what a starter. Phwoah – just look at those bad boys! This was the signature dish I had been waiting to order. Despite my expectations being ridiculously high for what is after all a very simple dish, I was not let down one bit. This was one of the best and most satisfying things I’ve shoved down my gob in recent memory. It just worked on every level. The marrow was rich and smooth, with a half liquidized fat texture. Spread across the perfectly toasted bread (which was the right thickness for the dish), sprinkled with a bit of that chunky gray salt, and topped off with a good dose of fresh parsley and onions (with a faultless vinaigrette), I was eating way too fast. You had richness that was accented by salt and shot through the heart with fresh green acidity; you had smooth, you had crunchy you had chewy. It was all there…for about 2 minutes that is. Mrs. LF concurred and, had she been able to stomach it, would have had much more of it than she did (thank God she is slim and didn’t have the stomach for it!). No doubt, 10/10.
Meanwhile, she was slurping up another wonderfully simple and rustic dish, a bowl of split pea soup. And what it lacked in looks, it certainly made up for in taste. It was one of the best pea soups I’ve had, hands down. Pure sweet pea flavor, perfectly seasoned, with a great thick but not-too-thick texture, we couldn’t really fault it. Mrs. LF informed me that when she was growing up in the Normandy countryside, they often began their meals with a simple vegetable soup, and she thought it a great start to the meal. 9/10.
For my main course, I ordered something I had never eaten before – we were in St John, after all. The ox heart had been masterfully cooked, being seared on the outside but with a very soft and buttery core (zoom in on the second photo to see what I’m talking about), and I loved the way it felt in my mouth. The taste was quite full-on; after all, it is a friggin’ heart we’re talking about. It is quite a lean meat (being a muscle), and you can taste its high mineral content on your palate (it’s high in both iron and copper), but not unpleasantly so. It had a nice little accompanying sauce and a lovely aioli on the side, which was good because it needed a little kick from time to time. I could see how eating the meat itself could become monotonous after a while as for me it wasn’t like a sumptuous steak you’d keep coming back to again and again without relief. For this reason the aioli and the simply cooked sweet carrots were well thought-out partners. Overall, I was really glad I tried this dish and enjoyed it. Would I order it again? Not necessarily, but it was well worth the experience. 7/10.
Mrs. LF couldn’t believe how good her dish of smoked eel was, and neither could I when I tasted it. She commented that it had a “rich and strong taste of eel, yet it was perfectly balanced, so flavorsome and distinct and unlike any other seafood dish I’d had. The beetroot, which I never really loved before, was outstanding; it was as if they had marinated or cooked in some kind of vinegar, and that sharpness was the perfect accompaniment for the intense taste of the eel. I truly enjoyed this dish for its authenticity and honesty. 10/10.”
The puddings…ooh…the puddings. My god, they all sounded so simple, so satisfying, so good. But alas, as one of Catherine Tate’s characters might say, “we was well full” by then. So we decided to split one and rolled the dessert dice. Thank God we came up trumps.
We simply loved this dessert. It was a perfect jelly – firm yet with a bit of wobble – whose creators had achieved the miracle of blissful balance between the sweet and tart. But jelly on its own is not a proper pudding. Luckily, the good folks at St John agreed, and provided some cooked plums on the side, as well as a dollop of thick cream and two of the best rectangles of homemade shortbread I’ve had. Just like the marrow, salad and toast – it just all worked together. We wanted another one, but in the end, we were good little adult canteen goers. 9/10.
Meal 2: Conversion?
With an overwhelmingly positive first meal at St John, we were back the next Sunday, same bat time, same bat channel. But could Fergus’ kitchen charm us twice?
I had also heard good things about their calamari, and as they were on the menu that Sunday, I went for it. I was a bit underwhelmed. They were a little firmer than I thought they should be, but had good, sweet flavor and were well seasoned (like everything else at St John). The peppery rocket and sweet tomato provided good contrasts in both taste and texture, and I ate it quite happily though it was nothing compared to those towers of shins the week before. 6/10.
Given Mrs. LF’s previously mentioned predisposition for a simple potage as the opening to the show, she again opted for the pea soup, although on this day there was some ham too. It was again an extremely satisfying soup which did everything it could possibly have. 9/10 once again.
Being bang in the middle of grouse season, I thought I would have my first grouse of the year, and for that matter, my first grouse ever so far as I can remember. I knew that this bird has a very pronounced flavor, and I hoped I would like it. I was delighted to see that when I cut into the meat, it had been skilfully cooked – perfectly reddish-pink in the middle. It did indeed have a strong flavor, which is quite hard to describe if you’ve never had it. Gamey and rich, I did enjoy it but didn’t fall in love. It does have a wonderful texture to it, though. I liked it best when eaten with some bread sauce (I needed that sweetness), and while I’m sure you’d be hard pressed to find a better grouse that was better cooked in the UK, I just don’t think this bird is my bag. Saying that, the accompanying little slice of crispy toast with grouse pâté was divine, and they were right to only include one as it was insanely rich. I will give it a 7/10 because I think it was a well-executed dish but one whose main component wasn’t really to my taste.
Of her main course, Mrs. LF said: “I chose this dish because I love rabbit, and since I never had hare before I thought that it would have similar taste to rabbit but in a more gamey way, which I imagined I’d like. And like it I did. It had that raw, rural feel to it that reminded me of French boeuf mode (although not with beef!). The hare was perfectly braised, with the meat threading off the bone, and the rich sauce with its bits of carrots and onion was rustic and just right. 9/10.”
Before dessert, I had the chance to visit the bathroom, which proved to be just as starkly designed as the rest of the place.
After being mildly disappointed so far, more with my menu selections than with the cooking itself, I was looking forward to those glorious puddings even more.
After much heated debate, I had finally opted for the poached plums. After the success of last week’s dessert, I was again a little let down with this course. Not that it was bad, far from it. It just didn’t deliver that punch I had been expecting. The plums were well poached and had a nice sweet and sour flavor about them. The ice cream was pleasant if a bit forgettable, and the toast was a good vessel for soaking up the juice of the plums. But the real reason for my mild state of depression was that Mrs. LF was going on about how great her dessert was. So, being me, I started to pillage and plunder, which didn’t go down too well. I would give the plums 7/10.
Yes, now this was the business. This is what I had been dreaming about, another proper pudding that could hold its weight against last week’s finale. The custard was thick, sweet and extremely more-ish. This was especially the case when you ate it in tandem with a little bit of the sweet blueberry compote. And those shortbreads were back again, there for dipping, dunking, defiling. As the little dog from the Churchill ad says, “Oh, yes”. So we had our happy ending, the meal had been pulled back from the brink of slight disappointment. 9/10.
Parting Thoughts & Shots
Despite the fact that I didn’t particularly like some of what I ordered on our second visit, St John now holds a special place in both my, and my fair lady’s, heart. We love the simply prepared and delicious food and the place’s complete and utter lack of pretence. As I mentioned before, you get the best of what these often modest ingredients have to offer at St John. And if you like one of the meats or fish in particular, they are almost guaranteed to make a great dish out of it for you. I think their puddings deserve a special mention, because they are just so satisfying – no tricks, gimmicks or unnecessary components, just plain good combinations.
One thing we did discuss at the end of our second meal was the fact that while most people think of St John as a thoroughly British affair, we’re not quite so sure. Of course, Henderson is a British chef, and some of the ingredients (i.e. the grouse I had) are native to the British Isles. But Mrs. LF reckons that the majority of the cooking techniques in the kitchen are, at their heart, those of good French home cooking. To wit, the flawless vinaigrette on my parsley salad, the hearty potages and the sauces. And she was also quick to point out that Britain is not the only country that utilizes a wide range of cheaper cuts of meat in its menus, as French country and bistro cooking does as well. Sure, the puddings are mostly British, but I think the woman makes a good point.
Another thing one might consider is the fact that some people reckon that St John is the 14th best restaurant in the world. While I would say it is probably a unique restaurant in my experience with London dining establishments – and maybe the wider UK – I think that, if true, this is a very sad fact.
Again, Mrs. LF piped up with some insightful thoughts, saying: “Yes, it is unique, but it shouldn’t be. There should be loads of places like St John all over the country. It’s not rocket science after all. Not everyone wants poncy fine dining, but people should have ready access to this kind of food – they’re not cooking foie gras, caviar and truffles, are they? Every single town in England should have a place like St John – I mean, why don’t British pubs, those ancient symbols of tradition, serve food like this? St John represents the things that are disappearing from our lives (not just in Britain, but in France too), where once upon a time you could eat like this every day, even at your family table. I mean, this is the kind of food you’d go to get at your best Auntie’s or Grandma’s house.”
And this is unfortunately what makes St John unique; it is exactly that kind of amazing home cooked food that we should all be having much more of, both at home and when we decide to eat out.
But whatever the case, what is clear is that St John is surely worth a visit. For my money, I can’t imagine a better place to enjoy a leisurely Sunday lunch in the din of winter.
And one last thing. If you do believe it is the 14th best restaurant in the world, it is certainly pretty easy to get a table here (at least for Sunday lunch) compared to some of the others on that list. So go already.
Wine List: 7/10
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined twice at St John, both times for Sunday lunch.*