25 Jul 2008

Making Fat Fashionable

'If you're going to kill the animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing...'
[Fergus Henderson MBE]
‘Fat is friendly’ according to Fergus Henderson, co-founder of Smithfield’s St. JOHN. Formerly a dilapidated smokehouse and Marxism Today HQ, San Pellegrino now consider the venue worthy of its 16th best restaurant slot. I went there in search of Braised Squirrel a couple of years ago only to be told that it was out of season. The ‘Stonehenge’ of unctuous Bone Marrow, spread on toast and sprinkled with chopped parsley and salt flakes more then made up for the nutty rodent’s mysterious non-attendance, however.
I ventured to the sequel of the spiritual sherpa of ‘nose to tail’ dining for a friend’s last supper in the UK. St. JOHN BREAD and WINE faces another market in the throes of gastronomic gentrification, Spitalfields. Like the original, it is basically a white cube occasionally interrupted by bold Times New Roman lettering. Solid tables regularly punctuate the chequerboard floor. These are wisely undressed, sparing launderers from scrubbing gory spillages.
Faced with a menu promising Snails, Ox Liver and Pig’s Cheek, several members (female) of our rather large party appeared tense. Needless to say by the evening’s conclusion, most had gratifyingly warmed to the notion of abattoir chic, all diving in, tapas style.
We started with a little humour. What initially appeared to be a fruit salad: kiwi, kumquat, watermelon and cherry turned out to be succulent tomatoes at various stages of ripeness, seasoned with a little salt and pepper. The tigers, with veins exposed, were particularly crisp.
After smooth Foie Gras & Duck Liver Toast, coarse Potted Pork was juicy, tender and soothing. It was served with slightly translucent gherkin discs.

Mussels, sprinkled with lots of finely diced Lovage leaf, melted like snails. Extruded Snails lacquered with Brown Butter, Nettles and onion strings tasted of lettuce pulled from the soil, mingled with mushroom. I felt no noticeable garlic.

Peas & St. Tola were spiked by small mint leaves. The organic Irish goat’s cheese was sliced thin and had a lovely aftertaste. Perfect synergy.

Cured Sea Trout was lighter in colour then salmon, moist, closely textured and thicker cut. It was served with a cucumber nest laced with vinaigrette. Long langoustines, shells like armour and one apparently covering its eyes, landed with a bowl of thick, eggy mayonnaise. I scooped the last drops with site-baked sourdough.

Crisp Pig’s Cheeks were throat-tricklingly, almost glycerously fatty centred. They lay next to cosy boiled baby potato textured Butterbeans.

A bottle of organic New Zealand Pinot Noir, brought under the kind corkage blanket, accompanied. Danny Schuster’s Twin Vineyards from Canterbury had slight sage notes on the nose, which worked well with the pork, with a milky, alcoholically hot, slightly sweet palate.
By now the eight of us were almost fighting to get to each new plated appearance. Two John Dory, side by side, looked like Piranhas and smelt of warm, lemony breadcrumbs. The fish incidentally wears a secondary, false eye dot near its tail to fool predators. It didn’t trick me, however, as I tucked into the fleshy meat around the socket, further freaking out our more squeamish companions. Marsh Samphire was muted by butter. I dearly wish chefs would stop deafening the salty freshness of this finely flavoured ingredient.
Ox Liver & Watercress was sensational. Hearty, warming, musky, winey (in colour as well as aroma). Somehow feral it also smelt slightly smokily of Worcestershire Sauce. This was the best dish; it almost made me want to befriend the butcher.
A bottle of ’96 Chateau Lanessan Cru Bourgeois probably worked well with St. JOHN’s liver as well as my own organ. It was slightly bitter, tasting of freshly turned soil and almonds with graceful, rounded tannins.
The recipient of Caramel Ice Cream complained it tasted too much like real caramel as opposed to some confectionery giant’s concoction. And the brain-freezing Lemon Sorbet with Russian Vodka was considered “too sobberingly refreshing”. Perhaps such comments wore worse on those uttering them. Either way, the vodka lead to a bout of “Hitchcock’s” according to the hiccougher…
Finally, Madeleines (fifteen minutes) were deeply fresh. A breath of the bakery across the dining room.
Having already been inducted into the St. John experience, I launched myself into this evening with gusto. Excepting the Samphire, I found respect for each ingredient, be it animal, fish, fruit or vegetable. All critics become fine tuned to frippery. Two small London restaurants, inexpensively built, loyally staffed, have revived the reviled. An accessible reminder about the power of taste. Cosy, nurturing, gooey and juicy...
Life-affirmingly, bloodily delicious, in fact.
'…there’s a menu flying over you…’
[Fergus Henderson on fowl]
Much has been written about Fergus Henderson’s attitude to living with a rare strain of Parkinson’s. Rather then regurgitate the details, here is what he ate in recovery following four hours of Deep Brain Stimulation: whole white truffle risotto (prepared by peer, Giorgio Locatelli).
St. JOHN BREAD and WINE - 94-96 Commercial Street, London. E1 6LZ
Nearest Station: Liverpool St.

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