Nose-to-tail eating is a fast growing dining concept here in London. The champion of this concept is none other then Fergus Henderson, the head chef of St. John Restaurant. The philosophy of this ‘nose-to-tail’ eating basically embraces the cooking and eating of animal parts (mainly pigs) that are not commonly consumed by modern brits. The American version of Fergus is Chris Cosentino who dabbles in all sorts of offals. *yum*
The truth is, nose-to-tail or head-to-tail eating is not a new concept. Well, at least to millions of Chinese and folks from all over asia. For generations, we have eaten almost every single part of the pig, and the Chinese do not try to disguise the parts by shredding or removing ‘unsightly’ and ‘recognisable’ bits. There’s fantastic dishes like braised pigs trotters, pig’s brain, stomach and tail soups, stir-fried liver, kidney noodles just to name a few. How about other creature parts like braised fish eyes, chicken’s feet, fish head curry? Woah…major drooling happening right here.
Anyway, having heard so much about St. John Restaurant in London, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was where we were heading for my birthday treat last week. The restaurant based in Farringdon, was nothing short of a converted shop / warehouse. It was rustic, simply furnished with coat hooks around the perimeters of the walls and an open kitchen. Somehow you just know that it’s not a place for a fancy, posh meal with too many confusing cutlery and wine glasses. It’s where you would go for good quality, fresh produce in a relaxed, friendly dig. And I was right.
The bread basket came fresh from their very own bakery. The nutty aroma of the crust combined with the even, chewy texture made for a great hunger filler while we drooled over the menu. Seeing that it was my birthday, we also splurged on a rather pricey but delicious bottle of French white from Savigny.
The wait staff were really well organised and professional. The servers did just that – serving. Then there are those who are more in the know taking orders and advising about the menu. Friendly, comfortable atmosphere with a lot of buzz and activity.
As amateur diners of St. John restaurant, we didn’t know that their bone marrow starter was a must-have. Pity…but don’t you worry bone marrow…we’ll be back! Even though their menus change daily, their bone marrow and parsley salad is a contant feature. phew.
Instead we ordered the squid and red onion salad and the clams with laverbread. The squid and red onion salad was tasty and fresh, with a good bite from the squid and lots of red onion juices coating the salad greens. Albeit a tad cold for my liking. However, two thumbs up for the clam, bacon and laverbread starter. Laverbread is actually a seaweed that is glistening black and is well known as ‘Popeye’s spinach’ of the sea. In this dish, you don’t actually see much of the laverbread in its true form as it’s been chopped up into tiny, tiny bits. The true winner is in the combined flavours of the clam juices, the salty bacon and the ‘smell of the sea’ from the bits of laverbread. With a slice of toast buried beneath to soak up the juices, it’s one of the sweetest starters I’ve had in a while…
For mains, we ordered Mallard with red cabbage. Mallard is the most recognisable of all ducks, with the prominent greenish turqoise heads of the drakes and the brown, spotty looks of the hens. The meat is strong in flavour – rich and smoky. The red cabbage was buttery, tender and sweet and complemented the strong flavours of the duck.
I ordered Roasted Middlewhite with Lentils. I have never had Middlewhite before. It is apparently a rare but distinctive breed of pigs. Known to be ‘beautifully ugly’. I can only say when my plate arrived with a half inch slice of roast pork and lentils, I thought there’s got to be a whole lot of stuff missing. Where’s the gravy??? However, when I took my first bite, I knew the very reason it’s left on its own. The white, soft flesh was sufficient. There was no need for gravy or herbs. The flavourful, clean and sweet taste of the pork was spectacular – accompanied cleverly by a slightly dense and creamy lentil side. Perfect.
Now comes the unexpected star of the show. We saw on the dessert menu that we could have fresh, baked madeleines, with a 15 minute wait. Now, not often do you see something as simple as madeleines on a restaurant menu. This intrigued us and so we ordered half a dozen madeleines as well as a double chocolate cake with toffee milk ice cream to share. I’m not the biggest fan of chocolate cakes, so to me, the cake was rather ordinary – probably really good for choc lovers. BUT I do love the toffee milk ice cream! It was creamy with a nice, rounded taste of caramel and slight hint of milk tea. I know – I doubt there’s milk tea in the ice cream, but it reminded me of a good, milky sweet taiwanese bubble tea. Gorgeous.
The surprise star was actually the madeleines. When the platter of hot madeleines were placed on our table, our olfactory senses went into overdrive. It was as if we stepped into grandma’s kitchen when she’s just baked a fresh batch of cookies. The hot, buttery madeleines were moist, not overly sweet and simply divine. We could hardly get the chocolate cake over and done with, so we could savour the madeleines on its own. There’s probably nothing special about the madeleines, but just knowing that it’s fresh out of the oven, gives it that extra special drool factor.
Overall, I loved my experience at St. John and the best part was that it did not burn a hole in our pockets at all. I’m looking forward to my next visit with the bone marrow and definitely more madeleines!
St. John Restaurant
26 St John Street
London, EC1M 4AY