Nose to Tail at St John…

by Miss South on June 1, 2011

The restaurant fairy paid me a visit last night and took me to St John, home of nose to tail eating, and the place I have most wanted to eat at in London for years. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a little bit wary of the knobbly bobbly wobbly bits of the beast as they require more cooking skill than I feel I have, so I have always wanted the chance to try the weird and wonderful, but well cooked. And I wasn’t disappointed!

St John is well known as a proper foodie destination. Celebs and chefs routinely extol its virtues and Fergus Henderson often appears in the pages of glossies talking about the place. I therefore assumed that it would be somewhat luvvie, a bit poe-faced and cursed by the tight fake smiles of high end establishments (of all kinds) in London. I expected to enjoy the food, but feel slightly out of my depth here socially. So imagine my joy when, from the instant I arrived, I felt utterly relaxed in such a laidback dining room.

Neither of my dining companions really drink and I am more than happy to forgo booze at a big meal to allow me extra room to enjoy the food, so we decided not to order any wine while we perused the menu. I expected some kind of response to this, verbal or otherwise, since we all know restaurants tend to make their money on the alcohol. Instead our waitress simply offered tap water, told us to let her know if we needed anything else and got with describing the menu without any tone. Having had attitude about tap water and no booze in ten pound a head eat and go joints, this was most refreshing…

I hadn’t looked at the menu before coming out, enjoying the wait like a kid on Christmas Eve and wanting it to be a surprise on the day, but since I knew that come hell or high water, I’d be having the bone marrow on toast to start, I couldn’t wait to see what else was on offer. I couldn’t decide between roast wood pigeon or ox heart, finally plumping for the heart as I’ve had pigeon a few times before. R also went for the marrow to start and the roast lamb with seabeet for main. J couldn’t stay long so plumped for two starters, one of mussels and one of octopus to tide her over before she went to meet someone else.

The sourdough bread brough while we waited was fabulous, although the butter was fridge cold and difficult to spread. But then our bone marrow salad arrived and all thoughts of butter fell away, replaced by a new obsession. More of that fabulous bread, chargriddled with four huge hunks of bone on the side and a pick to mine every glorious globule of marrow and i was in heaven. Warm, yielding, glossy and gorgeously meaty, the marrow spread beautifully and rose to amazing heights when sprinkled with that most maligned of herbs, parsley. I can see why this dish has become legendary. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I could have eaten it for all three courses and still wanted more.

Then my plate of ox heart arrived though and I high fived myself mentally for ordering it. Thin strips of griddled heart with a slightly sweet and sour beetroot and beet leaf salad (and some studiously avoided horseradish), it was stunning. More like damn good thin cut steak in texture than offal tends to be, the flavour of beefiness was right up to 11 on this dish. I wanted to pop across the market and get a heart to take home, it was so good.

I almost forgot to look the other dishes, I was enjoying mine so much. J seemed to enjoy both the octopus and the mussels, which were beautifully served and incredibly fresh while R’s lamb was perfectly pink and plump and flavoursome. The dark iron-rich seabeet complimented it perfectly and she seemed to enjoy every scrap. All the dishes were delightfully fresh and simple but effective without faffing, foaming and fussing on the plate which pleased me hugely.

They also weren’t too enormous which meant that although sadly J couldn’t stay, R and I were able to order dessert. We had both hoped for rhubarb or strawberry to be on the menu, but were out of luck, opting for an elderflower jelly and shortbread and an Eccles Cake and Lancashire Cheese that allowed me to go for cheese and dessert with compromise!

I’m actually not that fond of currants or raisins thanks to some childhood experiences so have never eaten a Eccles Cake before and I probably won’t again after this one. It was so good, I think I might have been ruined for life. The fruit and sugar had cooked to form a crispy caramel to the base of the cake that was to die for while the cheese was just the right level of tart and crumbly to make every mouthful amazing.

R’s jelly was surprisingly unsweet and had an incredibly concentrated elderflower flavour that was very cleansing and refreshing at the end of the meal, but might have been overwhelming if we’d been able to finish the whole plate. The shortbread was almost as good as my friend Carolyne’s and worked beautifully with the rich ice cream and jelly. I really wish my camera hadn’t pitched a fit at this point and you could see how adorable it all looked.

This feast was surprisingly well-priced. Rude as it may seem to mention the price when someone takes you out for dinner, I was amazed to see that this top class food in such a well established and fashionable restaurant was in many cases less expensive than the equivalent course in a nearly renovated gastropub somewhere in London. We ate for well under £100 including the tip. And considering how good and unobtrusive the service was, the tip was excellent value in itself. R and I actually ending up sitting chatting over the table and tap water for another hour at least after the bill was settled and not once did we get a look or the enquiry as to whether we’d like a cab. St John really sets the bar high in so many ways for other London restaurants.

Considering I’ve dreamed about dining there for the whole time I’ve lived in London, I wasn’t let down by St John at all. In fact it exceeded all my wildest expectations and thanks to the excellent company as well as the wonderful food, rates as one of the best nights I’ve ever had in London. I even dreamt about the bone marrow too…

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