Restaurant Review: St. John, London, UK
Updated: Sep 15, 2022
Fergus Henderson will likely go down as one of the greatest chefs of our lifetime. A genius in the world of nose-to-tail eating, he is the enigmatic and brilliant chef/owner of the magnificent St. John in London. I am a proponent of using the whole animal, always have been. Too often today, consumers are disconnected with where their meat comes from. The cycle goes something like this: Show up at the grocery market, buy your pre-packaged cuts of meat, cook at home, repeat. But that chicken leg you're about to munch into did, in fact, come from a chicken that was, at one time, running around a barn or pasture. Ages ago, when human beings hunted the majority of their food, the thought of just slinging the innards into the garbage and only keeping the meat was unthinkable. Every single part of the animal was used... mostly out of necessity. We have lost touch with this part of our gastronomic history -- if we are going to kill and consume animals for sustenance, we should be using every part of that animal, if for no other reason than respect for the animal (but also because offal, when done correctly, is damn good).
Sure, sure who doesn't love a good tenderloin? But what about the liver? Heart? Bowel? In cooking, the number one mantra to live by is don't **** it up, a phrase which has profound meaning, when you think about it. If you start with quality ingredients, your job (whether you are an amateur cooking for friends and family or the executive chef of a Michelin-star restaurant) is to let those ingredients shine. A high-quality, aged, marbled cut of beef, in all honestly, requires disturbingly little effort to make it taste good. The same can be said for incredibly fresh seafood or produce from your local farmer's market. Offal, on the other hand, needs work. It requires effort. Pig liver is not inherently tasty. Tripes are quite foul if prepared incorrectly. Cooking offal requires true skill, skill that takes years of practice to perfect -- it ain't easy to make kidney taste good. And nowhere is this art practiced at a higher level than St. John.
I've toured through the UK several times -- it's a part of the world with which I feel an odd connection. Maybe it's the countryside, the incessant rainy weather, or the history. I'm not quite sure, but in any event, I've always made it a point to tell myself "this time, this visit... I'm eating at St. John". Well, I finally had that opportunity on my last visit in early spring 2019 during a week-long trip to London. The menu at St. John changes regularly, depending on what is available from the butcher and what happens to be in season, so what I had below (with the exception of bone marrow, a St. John staple) will likely not be available during your visit.
I started with bone marrow and smoked salmon roe on toast. The bone marrow at St. John is served in the traditional fashion (wait for it.... in bones) with a side of toast baked at the associated St. John Bakery, parsley salad, and sea salt. Creamy, fatty, and delicious, the bone marrow is incredible on toast with a little sea salt sprinkled on top. The salmon roe was absolutely spectacular. I've had a lot of roe throughout the years (it's one of my favorite things to eat), but I've never had it smoked. Smoky without being overpowering, it was a lovely take on a classic.
Bone Marrow, Smoked Salmon Roe, Guiness.... mmmmmm
Main course was grilled ox heart in a lovely reduction with mashed turnips. Absolutely superb. Heart happens to be a favorite of mine, a dish I've had many times from various species, but this was my first time having ox heart. Big fan.
Grilled Ox Heart
Because I'm a glutton and just can't help myself, I ordered a second main course -- rabbit kidneys. This was my first time trying kidneys, and per the words of my server, "If you've never had kidneys before, they're a lot, but if you're going to try them, this is most definitely the place to do it". So, naturally I had to give them a try. A strong flavor of offal cut by a lovely red wine reduction, they were "a lot", as my server had alluded to, but I thought they were delicate and superb.
Kidneys on Toast
If you happen to be in London, I urge you to give St. John a try. Traveling and eating in different parts of the world is about experience and learning -- it's about growing who you are as a person and your palate. St. John is a treasure, one of those special places where great chefs are doing what is right with food. If you are new to the world of nose-to-tail eating and offal, step out of your comfort zone and try something new. I promise you will be glad you did.