Although I am only here for about 48 hours, I did want to try at least one of the many exciting restaurants in London. In fact, the March 2005 issue of Gourmet magazine proclaims London “the best place in the world to eat right now”, and gives a lot of suggestions to support their claim.
So I decided to focus on a part of town that I hadn’t visited for almost 19 years — the east end. I walked around Spitalfields, Shoreditch, Hoxton, Clerkenwell, and Islington. More on that later.
I ended up having lunch at St. John restaurant and bar, in the restaurant (which is a serious splurge, particularly at the going exchange rate!). The palpable buzz surrounding this restaurant is amazing. It’s a very traditional British restaurant that I think has been accurately described as “aggressively minimal.” The surroundings are simple — white walls, floor, and tablecloths, simple wood chairs, with unadorned tableware — in a small dining room with a warehouse feel to it.
The primary theme of St. John is using the entire animal, particularly their symbolic mascot, the pig. The tagline for the place is “nose to tail eating,” which is also the name of the restaurant’s cookbook. There is consistently more offal on this menu than I have ever seen anywhere else. For example, the main course special today was pig cheeks, and there was marrow and sweetbreads on the menu as well. Not being a fan of offal, I was a bit concerned about being able to find something to eat, but I had to check it out given all of the raves I had heard about it. As you would expect from an “aggressively simple” chef, the food was all simple, simple, simple, and well-prepared from high-quality ingredients.
I started with a squid, fennel and arugula salad. The portion was very large for a lunch starter, with big cuts of the flat bits of squid. The squid was perfectly cooked, not at all rubbery. The sauce was a simple broth with grated fennel bulb, subtle but delicious. The squid was topped with baby arugula in a mustard sauce. Until I really swished things around and mixed the fennel broth with the mustard dressing, the mustard flavor overwhelmed the fennel and I didn’t get any fennel. But once they mixed it was a really nice mix of flavors that I wouldn’t have put together. Each component was really, really simple, and when they merged they created a harmonious, yummy higher level of complexity. In other words, it was yum-deli-icious!
The main course I chose was a poached chicken with leeks and aioli. Again it was a very simple presentation, with the chicken poached in a simple broth and served in some of the same broth. The leeks were whole, and the (pleasantly garlicky) aioli was presented on the side. Each of the components of the dish was simple, and unlike the squid, was not particularly interesting. As with the squid, the dish actually improved as I was eating it because the simple flavors merged. I found the optimal strategy was to take a bit of chicken, some leek, a good dunk in the broth, and then a little swish in the aioli. I can’t enthuse about this dish as I can about the squid, but it was good and interesting once the flavors combined.
The brown bread was baked on the premises and excellent, served with fresh cream butter. The house vigonier was a good wine to accompany both dishes. The portions were so large that I didn’t have room for dessert. I’m glad I went, although given the cost and that I don’t eat offal, I wouldn’t make a habit of it if I lived here.