26 St John Street
London EC1M 4AY
BY NEAL MARTIN | OCTOBER 22, 2020
Foie gras on toast
Skate cheeks, fennel and rocket salad
Guinea fowl and trotter pie
Brown bread ice cream
|1986 Domaine Georges Vernay Condrieu
|2016 Domaine Thibaud Boudignon Savennières Clos de la Hutte
|1986 Domaine Nicolas Joly Savennières Clos de la Coulée de Serrant
|2001 Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett
|1988 Trotanoy (Magnum)
|1991 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Estate
|1995 Morgenhof Premiere Selection
|2012 Auguste Clape Cornas Renaissance
|2011 Emrich-Schönleber Riesling Grosses Auf der Lay
I was “chez Mum” in Leigh-on-Sea, daughters in tow to inhale some fresh estuary air, when my mother made a passing remark about growing up in the 1950s. She recounted how in those times of austerity, her parents would recycle dinner for the following day’s breakfast. Her father was a local butcher and often returned with a bloody package of offcut meat tucked under his arm. It was flagrant waste, immoral, to discard food. Every part of the animal, including all its innards, constituted a potential meal; even bone could make a tasty broth. In much of Western society this attitude to food persists mainly in the older generation. I observed this myself as a teenager working in a supermarket delicatessen. Pensioners patiently queued for their black pudding, liver, tripe and brawn, while young parents would inquire whether the pig had gamboled freely in the open air before ordering their premium ham trimmed of fat. Outside of Western society, especially in East Asia, that pernickety attitude toward what we consume does not exist. As long as it is not injurious to your health and tastes good, then for many people, anything goes. [Postscript: this last sentence was written before COVID-19.]
Over the last two decades, the concept of using every part of an animal has come back into fashion. It even has a name: nose-to-tail eating. In the UK, you could argue that its renaissance is down to one revolutionary restaurant and one very influential chef: St. John Bread and Wine and Fergus Henderson. You can see its progeny all over London, not least Brat and probably half the “kitchens” dotted around the East End, currently opening and closing according to the government’s daily decree.
The St. John exterior
In October 1994, Henderson, together with business partner Trevor Gulliver, established St. John within earshot of traders’ cries from Smithfield Meat Market on the outskirts of the district. It is located in a former smokehouse, and Henderson ingeniously maintained the stark, whitewashed brick walls, high ceiling and dark grey concrete floor, keeping the decor so minimal that it resembles the cafeteria in a posh prison. At a time when restaurants were fitting interiors with flamboyant artwork and plush velvet leopard skin banquettes, St. John stripped everything back to the bare essentials. And it worked brilliantly. In my experience, the austere decor never fails to create a bustling, noisy atmosphere that conjures a warm feeling of being in the place to be seen.
Foie gras on toast
Then there was the menu. In the mid-1990s, as the capital began reinventing itself as a mecca for foodies, embracing fancy techniques and molecular gastronomy and ingredients so exotic that you had to look them up in the Oxford Dictionary, Henderson headed in the opposite direction and deftly transferred nose-to-tail eating into the fine dining environment. St. John was so ahead of its time that in its early days, the restaurant struggled. It was only when tastes began catching up with Henderson’s vision that it became a success, and it continues to thrive 25 years later.
I began frequenting St. John in its early days around the late 1990s. The former HQ of a respectable wine merchant lay just up the road, and after many morning tastings, I would repair to St. John for lunches that habitually merged with supper. The ingredient that I remember discovering was bone marrow. Spreading it on toast was strange, even daring at the time; nowadays, many chefs use it. When I joined Robert Parker, the venue for my celebratory farewell dinner was St. John’s “snug” private dining room, a whole suckling pig ceremonially wheeled inside with sunglasses on its severed head. Later, I became over-familiar with the restaurant and dined less frequently, occasionally finding myself ravenously chewing every morsel of what looked like an emaciated sparrow, then diving into a McDonalds on the way home to fill my empty tummy. St. John and I had a conscious uncoupling. Then, last January, I was determined to celebrate my 49th birthday, having been unable to do so the previous year. So, I rounded up a few chums and invited suggestions about where to dine. St. John came up, and I must admit feeling some hesitation. But why not? And I am so glad I agreed because the dinner reignited my love for this institution and reminded me what makes it so special.
Skate cheeks, fennel and rocket salad
The menu is pretty straightforward, with pared-down descriptions. This is where you come for cod roe, grilled ox heart, deviled kidneys, offal, roast Middle White and seasonal game: pheasant, snipe, grouse and woodcock.
I began with foie gras on toast. You’re right, I should not be eating this calorific dish, and I imagined my heart surgeon wagging his finger admonishingly. I promised to eat a mouthful and donate the rest to a fellow diner (this was pre-COVID-19). Of course, five minutes later, it had disappeared down my gullet. To make amends, I ordered the far healthier and doctor-approved skate cheeks with fennel and rocket salad. This was stunning. The fennel brought spice and sharpness to the perfectly cooked cheeks and the rocket added a dash more fire. My mouth almost exploded with all that flavor – simple yet devastatingly delicious.
Guinea fowl and trotter pie
Next was the main attraction: guinea fowl and trotter pie. OMG. Let’s put this on the record: St. John makes the best pies in the world. Don’t argue with me. Their pies are perfection. St. John is to pie what DRC is to Pinot Noir.
You haven’t lived if you have never split that flaky crust with your knife, let the steam and heady aromas waft out, watched the glutinous filling ooze across your plate and then tucked in. At first bite, all the world’s ills are forgotten. It is almost impossible to put into words how delicious this pie is, so just gaze at the photo for a minute and imagine mopping up that sweet, creamy sauce with the trotter and light-as-a-feather pastry and popping it into your mouth. Got it? Good.
Brown bread ice cream
To finish, the novel idea of brown bread ice cream, which sounds ridiculous but tastes bloody amazing. Genius – that’s all I have to say.
Given the experienced palates around the table, I advised guests to bring whatever bottle they wished. I prefer eclecticism on the wine front rather than a theme, and certainly we enjoyed an array of fascinating bottles from around the world.
We commenced with a 1986 Condrieu from Domaine Georges Vernay, served blind. I actually guessed it hailed from Spain, since I detected a subtle flor-like scent on the nose. The palate was almost punishingly acidic, with a sour note that I personally found distracting. It just lacks a bit of fruit on the end and, to be brutally honest, it did nothing to change my opinion that Condrieu is best enjoyed young. Still, it was interesting to taste. Two Loire wines followed. I was bowled over by the first, from a producer that I am unfamiliar with. The 2016 Savennières Clos de la Hutte from Domaine Thibaud Boudignon delivered vivid and delineated scents of grapefruit, grass clippings and a scintilla of lanolin on the nose. The palate was well balanced and full of tension thanks to a fine bead of acidity. There was a tang of salinity that I really appreciated, not to mention a sense of energy that should ensure it ages well in bottle. This is a producer to keep an eye on. The first Loire was paired by a 1986 Savennièrres Clos de la Coulée de Serrant from Nicolas Joly. I have to confess that after tasting several mature examples of Joly’s wines, I am not overly impressed, and they come across as “interesting” rather than wines I take pleasure in consuming. The nose was dominated by waxy, resinous aromas and cried out for more fruit, while the palate was balanced and redeemed by a keen thread of acidity. Yet I could not really engage with this Savennières, and it felt enervated on the finish, perhaps due to its 30 years of age. Then we were graced with the presence of a delicious 2001 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett from Dr. Loosen. Unlike Joly’s Savennières, which seemed to be testing me to see whether I was “worthy,” Ernie Loosen’s Riesling just dished up what you wanted and said, “Dig in, mate.” Bright aromas of Japanese yuzu, jasmine and orange pith burst from the glass, while the palate remains as fresh as a daisy after almost two decades, boasting a little more residual sugar than expected, almost Spätlese in sweetness, all delivered with quite superb delineation and poise. This is a great Riesling from the irrepressible Loosen and I can see it offering another 15–20 years of drinking pleasure.
Moving on to the reds, the 1988 Trotanoy from magnum tasted better than bottles I have enjoyed in the past. There is a tertiary aspect to the nose, autumn leaves and woodland scents permeating the vestiges of black fruit, maybe a little rustic in style compared to other vintages. The palate is nicely balanced and retains freshness after more than 30 years, though the tannins are a tad coarse and the finish feels slightly austere, not unlike many of this wine’s Pomerol brethren. Given the larger format, bottles should be consumed sooner rather than later.
The 1991 Chateau Montelena put the Pomerol in its place, incontrovertibly emerging as the star of the evening. The bouquet is utterly sublime, offering enticing scents of blackberries, iodine and a hint of cassis, opulent but beautifully controlled and defined. The palate does not disappoint, delivering plenty of fresh black fruit laced with raspberry preserve and cassis, all wrapped up in a seductive velvety texture that belies the structure underneath. Wonderful! The 1995 Premiere Selection from Morgenhof in South Africa is a cuvée that has only been released three or four times as far as I am aware. It bore resemblances to the Montelena, albeit not in the same class, with plum, black cherries, cassis and slight banana skin scents on a nose that appears to have aged little over a quarter of a century. The palate is likewise relatively primal, featuring precocious dark cherry and cassis fruit, although I feel that after so long in bottle, the patient taster ought to be rewarded with more secondary aromas and flavors. Nevertheless, it was thoroughly enjoyable and not a bottle that you see often. The 2012 Cornas Renaissance from Auguste Clape represents his entry-level cuvée, so it was no surprise to find it loaded with unassuming, easygoing charm. The bouquet is open for business, presenting brambly red fruit, leather and white pepper that are instantly likable. The palate is soft but not flabby, offering plush red berry fruit, tobacco and candied orange peel notes. The tannins are fine and supple, and as such, I would drink this over the next 5–8 years. Finally, my own contribution was a stunning magnum of 2011 Auf der Lay Riesling Grosses Gewächs from Emrich-Schönleber. This was perfectly on point, a wine that is firing on all cylinders right now. The nose of dried honey, lanolin and hints of marmalade blossom intensified over the course of 30 minutes, evolving nuances of wet wool and orange peel with continued aeration. The palate is intense, powerful and full of tension. Having developed secondary waxy notes, this is a cerebral and captivating dry Riesling from the Nahe that I absolutely love.
The evening stumbled to its conclusion. It had been a wonderful night. My appreciation for St. John was back stronger than ever, even if the stemware is just as insulting to fine wine as it has always been. (I have never understood why a very decent wine has to suffer goblet glasses last seen in Abigail’s Party and at Coche-Dury.) It was wonderful to celebrate my birthday with friends after having been denied the opportunity 12 months earlier. This being the final week in February, there was brief mention of the coronavirus in China and the growing seriousness of its spread in northern Italy; little did we know what was around the corner. But whatever happens, I will be back.