St. John restaurant review: a modern British feast to cure my homesickness

Longing for home, Molly Codyre finds solace at a bastion of nose-to-tail cooking

<p>The bone marrow has been on the menu for 26 years – and for good reason</p>

The bone marrow has been on the menu for 26 years – and for good reason

In all honesty, I wasn’t really sure how to review a place with as storied a history as St. John. Alongside almost any new restaurant opening or high-profile chef appointment in recent years, there seems to be a note about said person’s time training at St. John. This is perhaps the best measure of the restaurant’s impact on London, and the most fitting tribute to its importance in carving out a new era of English cuisine. So, instead this piece will be more of a celebration. An ode to a restaurant that changed the face of London’s dining scene, and has quite rightly earned a reputation for being a bastion of modern British cooking.

I have weekly crises about living so far from home. Usually on a Tuesday morning, often when it’s grey outside, I’ll sit with my breakfast and let the homesickness seep in. It’s a feeling that comes from living in a place where home is a 24-hour flight away and your family is best accessed by a FaceTime call. London is a city that can chew you up and spit you out, and sometimes the constant cycle can be exhausting. And yet, there are moments – days, evenings, fleeting sights on the lengthy commute – that show that living here is worth all the heartache. Getting off the train at Farringdon and strolling through the immense history of Clerkenwell to a restaurant like St. John felt like one of those moments where London pulls you in and leaves you feeling full of wonder that you’re here.

The brown crab meat on toast, simply dressed with lemon, was perfection

The restaurant is a cavernous space, so imposingly white that my partner noted that a line of hospital-grade camp beds wouldn’t look out of place. To me, it felt more like a converted church – a place for diners to come and worship at the altar of gastronomy. It could come across as sterile, but instead it feels joyous – the low hum of other diners, the satisfying scraping of plates and, most importantly, the service. I’ve never eaten here before, and yet the staff made me feel like a welcome regular. The wine list is largely French, long and reasonably overwhelming, so I asked for something “light and red” and our waiter pointed one out immediately – easy as that (it was a great choice too – the L’hurluberlu from the Loire, if you fancy trying it). While I like to think I have a fairly good knowledge of food, I’m not embarrassed to admit I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of ingredients. When I asked what something was on the plate there was no snobbery or upturned noses, but rather an answer (kohlrabi) and a discussion about how interesting it was as an ingredient.

Then, of course, there is the food. Oh, the food. This is not a place for the squeamish or faint of heart. Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver are almost solely responsible for the adoption of the “nose to tail” approach to cooking, and that phrase is not used in jest. Every aspect of an animal is utilised here – whether it’s ox heart, lamb sweetbreads or devilled kidneys. However, the menu is well balanced. Yes, it’s meat- and offal-heavy, but there is also a smattering of seafood dishes and a number of vegetable plates to break up the heaviness. The cured longhorn beef came with pickled beetroot and a dollop of horseradish so punchy that it just about cured my partner’s hay fever. The brown crab meat on toast was perfection – simply dressed with lemon, allowing the often lesser-favoured element of the crustacean to shine. The bone marrow, however, was in a league of its own – “it’s been on the menu for 26 years for good reason” is how our waiter so aptly put it. The deeply fatty marrow was balanced by the crisp acidity of the lemon-juice dressed parsley, caper and shallot salad, all of it elevated by the addition of grey salt. It was the kind of mouthful that encapsulates what is so incredible about food.

We were gluttonous in our ordering of mains, and if I was to return, I’d do it differently. I would swap out one of the meat dishes for something lighter, and I would (sob) possibly not add on the infamous Welsh rarebit as a side – this is something that deserves to be savoured on its own, and could warrant a quick lunchtime pew accompanied by a martini. That is not to say that it wasn’t all wonderful – of course it was. The lamb’s kidneys were an iron-filled joy, their intense flavour pairing beautifully with salty bacon and creamy mash. The braised mutton proved why the older sheep is often an overlooked ingredient. The meat was as tender as its younger counterpart, and had almost melted into the juices of the stew, a touch of aioli serving to enliven each rich mouthful.

The braised mutton was as tender as its younger counterpart

However you choose to order, make sure to leave room for dessert. Where in some places the third course can be seen as an afterthought, at St. John the selection is even longer than the choice of mains. The madeleines are a classic, but we somehow found space in our bellies for the chocolate and pistachio terrine; it was light yet velvety, with a dollop of creme fraiche adding a refreshingly tart finish.

This last week has been riddled with more homesick moments than most. Battling the post-holiday blues and coming to terms with the news that my sister is moving home at the end of the year, I spent more time than usual yearning for home and rejecting the comparatively foreign London. And yet, after just three hours at St. John, those feelings began to dissipate, and I was once again filled with the firm knowledge that I am exactly where I need to be.

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