St. JOHN Bar and Restaurant (SJ) is an establishment right around the corner from Smithfield Market in London, England. Although closed when we were there, the market has been operational since the 10th century, then mostly as a livestock exchange. It is the UK’s largest wholesale meat market and occupies around a two-block area. There are also satellite establishments of SJ but the Smithfield location is the original and the mother ship.
I have always wanted to eat here but on previous visits to London, I didn’t seem to have the time. Although my latest visit to London was short, my traveling companion and I were determined to make it here this time.
The restaurant was started in 1994 by chef Fergus Henderson and partners. Fergus has never had any formal training or worked under any other chef. Although using all parts of an animal in cooking has been known for thousands of years, SJ was the first to popularize this and coined the phrase nose to tail.
Chef Henderson has famously quipped, “If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing.” Seems reasonable to me. St. John Bar was awarded a Michelin star about ten years ago. The food presentations at SJ are deceptively simple, but more on that later.
As you walk into the restaurant there is a courtyard that has a bar. There is also a bakery that has off-sale (take out) baked items and wine. The restaurant formerly housed, among other tenants, a smokehouse. The proprietors had decided to keep the original look of the smokehouse (painted white brick with no art on the walls). This sort of minimalist look really complements what is served on your plate when dining here.
The dining area of the restaurant also maintains a minimalist look. If it looks empty it really wasn’t. The host insisted that I aim my lens where there were no diners. Fine with me.
The menus change daily. Here was the lunch menu that day.
You may notice a few different things on the menu. Potted pork is one of them. What is this you may ask? Its pork that’s cooked low and slow for many hours, then mixed with clarified butter and homogenized into a spread similar to rillettes. Lamb faggot is basically a lamb meatball made from pork offal cuts (heart, liver and pork belly), wrapped in caul fat (abdominal membrane of a pig) and baked. Eccles cake is a pastry crust filled with currants. You may notice the menu is structured (top to bottom) with starters, mains and puddings (desserts).
The dish that SJ is most famous for is their roast bone marrow and parsley salad.
As mentioned before, the presentations here are deceptively simple. Veal bone marrow is spread with a Marrow Spoon on toast, lightly salted and topped with a parsley, shallot and caper salad dressed with a lemon/olive oil dressing. It was delicious. I have had this stateside with the bones cut longitudinally. The dish was hard to eat at the two establishments previously sampled due to over-salting by the chefs. It’s much better to let the diner salt their dish as is done here.
After some thought, I really think the brilliance of this dish is to get something that costs one GBP, make it taste really good and charge people a lot of money for it. The late Anthony Bourdain has described the bone marrow and parsley salad served here as what he would request for his last meal on death row. He was not far off.
The braised cuttlefish, a special that day, was next. The cuttlefish is braised in red wine and its own ink and served with onion and a dollop of garlic aioli. Another excellent starter.
We really wanted to try everything on the menu but of course, that was not possible. We split the braised rabbit with mash and the roast hogget, Jerusalem artichokes and pickled walnut. Both of these items were excellent, though heavy-duty, suited for after a long day in a farm field in autumn.
The rabbit is braised with bacon, shallots, 30-40 cloves of garlic, white wine, chicken stock and thyme, parsley and bay leaf.
Hogget is officially a sheep that is between one and two years old. The cut here came from the leg. Pickled walnuts are green walnuts that are brined, turning them black. They are then pickled in some sort of vinegar solution to finish them. They were perfect on the shallot/arugula salad, dressed with olive oil/lemon vinaigrette.
I do not eat Jerusalem artichokes too often, and they paired perfectly with the meat and salad. Jerusalem artichokes are not really artichokes, but a root vegetable from a species of sunflower. Full of flavor, they taste like, well, artichokes!
A side of greens was also ordered, that day it was hispi cabbage. It is wilted then sauteed in butter. It is a thicker leaved cabbage variety. Rather than be mushy, it stood up to the meats served to us and was another excellent vegetable pairing.
To finish the meal (and us) off, we ended with a bread pudding topped with butterscotch sauce. The bread pudding is made from stale raisin bread, suet (sort of a type of lard), allspice, rum, butter, eggs and brown sugar with other ingredients. The butterscotch is made from double cream, sugar and butter. Vanilla ice cream seals the deal. I didn’t even want to think about how many calories were in here but the dish was exceptional. This comes from a person (myself) that never eats desserts. Wow!
I have been wanting to eat at SJ for many years and finally did. The cuisine here is inventive, reasonably priced (for London fine dining) and delicious. As it was too early in the day we did not sample any of the wines but the Wine List looked very good and is all French.
I can see why SJ is considered a culinary temple that most are all too happy to go back to. If in London, a must-do. They will not disappoint.
St. JOHN- Smithfield
26 St. John St.
London, UK EC1M4AY
011-44-207251-0848 (from the US)
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 12-3PM, Sunday, 1230-4PM; Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 6-11PM, closed Sunday for dinner; Bar:11AM-11PM, Monday-Friday, Saturday, 6-11PM and Sunday, 12-5PM; all major credit cards accepted, Reservations highly recommended.