The Guardian describes St. John as “profoundly edible”. This is an interesting description of a restaurant known for having ox heart, squirrel or bone marrow on the menu. However, St. John is by now a London institution, with two locations, and from the moment I read about it in Anthony Bourdain‘s A Cook’s Tour, I knew it had to be my first London fine-dining experience.
I can’t afford to eat out in London often, and I definitely can’t afford to spend more than seven to eight pounds on those occasions that I do. This leads to the creation of an intricate knowledge of coupon and two-for-one establishments, 5-pound lunch specials and three or four standby restaurants with entrees big enough to share with a friend. Not really an atmosphere for gastronomic exploration and safaris, but it gets me by.
But to celebrate my new job and give myself a break from my (unfortunately) usual habit of skipping dinner completely on Friday nights in favour of the pub, I decided to meet my friend in St. John’s Bar, where we could order two small dishes, a bottle of wine, and go home feeling full(ish). … Or at least full of awe and wonder at what we had just eaten.
St. John itself has a wonderfully unpretentious, minimalist atmosphere, and the original location, opened far before London ever rediscovered its food culture, is next to Smithfield Meat Market — a grand structure I hear one should visit at 4am when it’s said to be abuzz with various cuts of meat, but visiting which remains on my eternal list of things to do.
The bar menu changes often, and is presented in chalk next to the bakery that sits within the bar. As the evening wears on, more and more items are crossed off, and due to my late finishes on most Friday evenings, many tantalising items had already been consumed without me: crispy chicken necks with rocket salad, bone marrow and parsley salad, treacle mousse and bitter chocolate tart.
In my brave state I ordered the most unusual thing that seemed to be left: ox tongue with bread, salad and green sauce. My friend V., a little tamer and fresh from eating dinner, ordered dessert: honey mousse with shortbread and prunes.
My apologies for the photo, but I was doing 6-second shutter speeds with no tripod, and V. was understandably impatient to eat her mousse. Using a wine glass for stability with a hungry friend can only buy you so many opportunities for a focussed shot. Needless to say, the food had that high quality of character I so rarely get the opportunity to consume: not only were the prunes, the mousse and the shortbread absolutely delicious when eaten separately, but when eaten together you could taste the deliberate composition of the dish. What a treat.
Because we ordered and paid separately, dessert came first, which didn’t really bother me too much, since I don’t hold true and fast to archaic dining traditions, like eating breakfast foods for breakfast, or eating my appetiser before my main course. Although it did bother V. She wasn’t too interested in picking apart my ox tongue when it arrived after our dessert had been cleared. In addition, I don’t think V. was really digging ox tongue. More for me!
The tongue was nice: tender, juicy and not at all chewy. I had never eaten it before, what with the look of tongue in grocery stores being more than a little off-putting. However, when served up without visible tastebuds, it’s not very different from thinly sliced tenderloin. The salad had capers, basil, mint and olive oil — a nice delicate touch to the bitter rocket and lovely squishy croutons.
Perhaps there will be a day when I can go back to St. John, move myself into the actual dining room of the establishment and leave feeling sated and soporific, but I enjoyed the energised, half-starved feeling I got from using a small amount of money for a reasonable sample of their bar menu. And in true penniless gourmet style, I stole the wine bottle with the St. John label and took it home as a souvenir.