I first discovered the delights of offal when I started writing this blog, and not long after, I discovered the god of offal that is Fergus Henderson. Admittedly I have only cooked a couple of dishes from his books, and they were both delicious, but I have wanted to eat at St. John since first opening ‘Nose To Tail Eating’ for the first time. So, on planning a trip to our capital city, I booked dinner at St John pretty much at the same time as I booked our hotel.
In the run up to our trip, I did my usual thing and started to worry that St. John wouldn’t live up to my high expectations. I also read a few blog reviews, including this one, which questioned how the restaurant had ever entered the top 50 list (it has since left the list) and this did not help.
Before I knew it, we arrived at Clerkenwell via the Tube. I instantly liked the area, after the crowds of Borough Market and Covent Garden, the chilled out atmosphere of Clerkenwell was truly welcomed. On spotting a smart wine bar across the road from St. John, we decided to have a quick glass of wine as we had a bit of time to kill before dinner. We sat outside and listened as a rather posh, and tiddly, lady chatted with a friend; we learnt that she was cooking a roast at noon the next day and that she wanted to go to a party. The fact that she was already tiddly suggested that the roast might not happen, and this was only confirmed three hours later when we saw her very tiddly and throwing cocktails down her throat. Rather her than me!
We made our way to the restaurant where we were warmly welcomed by the head waiter who recognised me from my babblings on Twitter. I have said it before and I will say it again, restaurants (actually businesses in general) who do not use Twitter are seriously missing a trick. To tweet with your customers is an incredibly easy and cheap way to build up a bit of rapport which then results in business. It’s a no-brainer!
Rant over, back to the restaurant.
Our table was situated towards the entrance to the restaurant which meant that I had a view of the bar downstairs and although we were at the far end opposite the kitchen, I was still close enough to see the chefs working away. The room itself had an incredibly high ceiling and as it was full of people chatting and laughing it was far from quiet in there! That, the paper tablecloths, the plain white walls, scuffed wooden floor and the simple (almost un-ironed) uniform donned by the waiters made it clear that this Michelin Star restaurant was about the food, not the farce that formal dining can sometimes be.
I should also point out that the prices were pretty good too. In fact, a restaurant with these prices would sit quite nicely in Sheffield with starters at around £6-£7, mains at around £18 and desserts at around £7. The wines are a little pricier and the wine list is incredibly daunting as it’s all French. Not wanting to automatically go for the house option and not wanting to plunge for the Pinot Noir, on the basis that it was the only one I knew, I asked our waiter for advice. He suggested Les Rabasses, which at £40.40 was probably double what I would usually spend on a bottle (certainly in Sheffield anyway), but we trusted the waiter and went for it. It was a good choice and having little to no knowledge of French wines I was very glad to have someone else make the decision for me!
Onto the food. The menu changes daily so, although I had been keeping an eye on it, I knew not to pin my hopes on any one dish in case it didn’t make it onto the menu on Saturday. Thankfully I liked what I saw and it didn’t take me too long to make my choice.
I am sorry to say that I went for the foie gras (£11.60). I’m sorry because I know how unethical this stuff is and as someone who refuses to eat anything but free range, high welfare chicken, it is incredibly hypocritical of me to eat foie gras. Having said that, I love it. I have no excuse for ordering it and I have no clever argument for eating it. I had considered leaving it out of this review, just to avoid the potential backlash, but I probably deserve the backlash so here it is. I’ll apologise now for the state of the pictures…
It was, as expected, as creamy as butter and simply beautiful.
Gav had the rabbit offal (£7.30); the organs of one bunny rabbit served with beans and leeks. The meats were cooked perfectly, pink to the centre but deliciously tender. Having had chicken hearts before I expected the rabbit’s to be quite strong, but it wasn’t all that gamey at all. In fact, the kidneys and liver were also tasty. I didn’t manage to try the beans and leek, but Gav said that the flavours were simple and good against the offal.
Of course we had to try the bone marrow and parsley salad (£7.20). The marrow was fatty, rich and tasty and great on bread (no butter required!). The parsley salad didn’t really appeal (I hate parsley with a passion and I can barely stomach the smell of it, never mind the taste or texture) but it worked well with the bone marrow and although some people claim it’s the parsley that helps the marrow work, for me it was the marrow that made the parsley worked. Either way it was delicious and I can clearly see why this is the restaurant’s signature starter dish.
For mains I was tempted by the pie option, pigeon and trotter gear I think it was. Now, I’ve read a fair bit about trotter gear in Fergus Henderson’s second book, Beyond Nose to Tail, and I do love a good pie, but I had already spotted the lamb sweetbreads and there was very little that could sway my decision.
Sweetbreads (£17.60) were soft and delicate and served with peas and ham. It was an absolute triumph. So incredibly simple, but with such delicious flavour combinations, it was perfect. The light, summery taste of the peas worked very well with the sweetbreads and even though I don’t like mint in savoury dishes, it was nice to have a little in there just helping to lift the dish further. The broth was simple and worked with the ingredients rather than overpowering them as sauces can sometimes be guilty of. Along with a side order of greens (£3.70), it all felt pretty healthy too!
Gavin went for the brill (£22.50) and I’ll admit that if I had been served it, I would have been disappointed, but then I came to St John for the meat, not the fish. He had a decent chunk of perfectly cooked fish, served on the bone and Gav was happy with his choice. There was a salad of chicory which was pretty bitter and took some work from Gav to finish.
By this point I was pretty stuffed and I was eyeing up the apple sorbet and Polish vodka as a refreshing dessert, but the Eccles cake & Lancashire cheese (£6.80) was calling me. It’s their signature dessert and after a bit of gentle persuasion from the waiter I went for it. Thinking about it, this is actually a really obvious dessert choice for me. It was flaky pastry, salty cheese and a few currents, what’s not to love about that combination? Of course I enjoyed and, of course I was defeated. Writing this up I regret declining the offer of a doggy bag as I could easily eat a whole serving right now, maybe next time we’ll stick to one starter each so that I have room for my dessert.
Gav went for the chocolate slice (£7.50) which was another triumph. Thick, dense, rich chocolate served with soured cream and dates was beautiful. Again the flavour combinations were spot on a mouthful of all three elements was a delight, although the chocolate slice on its own would have been a more than sufficient dessert.
We’d had a fantastic evening. From start to finish, there isn’t one thing that displeased. The service had been very good, our waiter was lovely, chatty and helpful. He’d been there when needed, but not in our faces. The atmosphere was great with the restaurant packed with both large groups and couples, all chatting, laughing and generally enjoying themselves.
For a restaurant with a star it was great to keep our wine on our table (and be able to pour the damn thing ourselves), to not be afraid of making a mess (remember the tablecloths were paper) and to pay the reasonable sum of £127.80 for the privilege.
I highly recommend this to anyone who loves food, proper food. It was truly excellent and we will be back for more.
On our waiter’s recommendation we headed over to The Zetter Townhouse bar after our meal. This is an amazing little place. Walking inside you feel as though you’re walking into a posh (very posh) house party or some gentleman’s club. It was very cosy and we were too late to grab a table, but a stool at the bar was good enough for us (and it gave us a great view of the cocktail makers at work). It also meant that we didn’t have to wait long for our drinks. I had a gin martini (what else?!) made with Beefeater 24. Gav had a cocktail, I forget which. Both were good, and for £20.50 they’d have to be! Ouch! The bill stung, but it was our first taste of ‘London prices’ (up until now we thought the prices had been pretty similar to those found in Sheffield) and it was a bit of a treat so the sting didn’t linger too long.
Back in Kings Cross we hunted down the Euston Tap. This is a tiny little bar/pub with a huge array of beers, including many Thornbridge ales, which, as a Sheffielder, was pleasing to see. Watch out though as beer snobbery is rife here, to the point that when I complained that my wine glass smelt of antiseptic the bartender wouldn’t smell it, claiming that he ‘knew nothing about wine’. What-e-ver! He changed it anyway. Gav enjoyed a half of something with a stupid alcohol content and we both enjoyed sitting outside watching the buses come and go from the bus station. It was what it was, a watering hole and as I’m not a beer fanatic I didn’t fully appreciate it, although I am thinking that it’s probably about time I got into this real ale lark…