TABLES – ST JOHN’S
We don’t see ourselves eating in London like we would in any European metropolis.
The fear of being contaminated with trendiness in the fashion Capital is stronger than anywhere else. The number of restaurants that have opened in the past couple of years whose designs rival one another in creativity and are the center of attention in all the Lifestyle pages is impressive. Luckily, all you need to do is step into one of those pubs whose carpet reeks of beer spilled by the past 15 generations to find what constitutes this city, a tradition anchored in an eternal kingdom where the stylish James Bond forever remains her Majesty’s agent. And from the looks of the mixture of generations still present in these said pubs, it’s not going to end any time soon.
So to talk about St John, a young restaurant opened in 1994 in a smokehouse that has become the gold standard of ‘classic English’, the jaguar of gastronomy, you must first wander around the neighborhood a bit, and try not to completely miss the geo-culinary landscape that you have found yourself in. You are in Smithfield, quite simply the oldest neighborhood in London dedicated to food. It was in 1150, no less, that you could find here the first animal market specialized in the commerce of horses, pigs, cows and pheasants. Smithfield is also a nightmare for an entire generation, a four-day fire in 1958 that put an end to the myth. This is when you realize that tradition is not taken lightly in the appropriately named United Kingdom. Everything was built back up to the way things were, and at number 26 St John Street, the smokehouse didn’t budged, and is now where you are greeted.
At the helm, Fergus Henderson, a guy with a passion for meat, to the point where he published in 2012 the 3rd tome of his book series “Nose to tail” entitled "The Complete Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking". You’ve got it vegetable-loving friends, or worse, vegetarians, this place is not for you, it may even disgust you. Here all animals are noble, from the pig to the rabbit, but so are all the pieces, especially the lower ones. Henderson seeks to sublimate the animal, to understand all of its gustatory subtleties. So, on the menu, you will find the prime cuts, but also the liver, guts, kidneys and one dish that has been on the menu since the opening and that says it all: Roast Bone Marrow on toast with parsley salad. This is a classic English dish, sometimes called « prairie butter » or « poor man’s foie gras »; Queen Victoria’s knights probably reveled in it. It is simply bone marrow, at St John’s they use veal bones, baked in the oven with a Swiss sense of timing. Overheat it and the marrow melts, under heat it and it is too compact and cannot be spread. At St John’s, it is just as it should be, end of story.
We also ate another dish symbolic of Henderson’s culinary culture: purely British roasted pork loin, from Tamworth to be exact. Indeed, those cute redheaded little things that have disappeared from the countryside and that are close to their cousin the boar in size are bred in the tiny city of Stafford between Birmingham and Nottingham. Disappeared because this breed, probably more intelligent than others, is completely incapable of resisting the intense production system and today is under an endangered species protection program.
We will let you imagine the desserts, light as a feather of course, the madeleines, the Ginger loaf with butterscotch, a kind of French toast with concentrated corn syrup, butter and crème fraiche.
After leaving St John’s, browsing though the trendy shops seems quite incongruous. The program would more likely be to slap on your boots, slip on your Barbour jacket, mount your horse and go hunting in her Majesty’s forest.