In the past three months, I have shown you food from such a variety of places to eat. I have guided you through the sometimes cozy and sometime riotous pubs of London, to the slightly pretentious gastropubs that prepare art on the plate (and charge way too much for what it’s probably worth). We’ve taken trips to the cafés with their cozy atmospheres, unique sandwiches, and always-delicious coffee, the glorious food halls of London’s department stores, the amazing markets, and the always-alluring candy shops…plus so many more.
But there is one restaurant (although it’s actually two under the same name and ownership) that are unlike any other eating establishments in London. These are St. John Bar and Restaurant in Smithfield and St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields. The two places are really famous and every single guidebook I read had at least one of them as a must-visit. So, staying true to the food enthusiast within me, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
What makes St. John so unique is it’s extremely traditional approach to British cooking. They call their cuisine “nose to tail” food because, as many people did back in the days when supplies were so limited and nothing was wasted, St. John offers meals from the entirety of the animal, nose to tail. This includes any animal too, with special emphasis on wild game. If you don’t believe me, let me just give you a small selection of today’s menu. For a starter, you have the option of a roast bone marrow and parsley salad, mallard legs and swede, or duck liver toast. And for you main, how about the lambs tongue, turnips, and anchovy, the chitterlings, kale, and mustard, and if you are really brave, the lovely ox heart. Not all of the options are like this though. They offer normal cuts of meat as well traditional English vegetable options for a side dish. The desserts are very unique and elegant too and nothing too out of the ordinary. And though they are known for their interesting meat options, their artisan bread, handmade in the Spitalfields establishment every day, and their best quality of wines are their claim to fame too.
First I visited the Bar and Restaurant and the building itself was astounding. It used to be a smokehouse in the 1960s but when the industry ceased, it fell into major disorder. The abandoned building was just used by anyone to meet their needs and served as a greenhouse, Chinese beer store and place for young London hooligans to hold parties. The upper floors were even used as the headquarters of Marxism Today. But when the owners and chefs Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver opened the restaurant in 1994, they decided to keep with the original look.
It felt like walking into a huge warehouse; the were walls completely bare and whitewashed, only made modern by some sleek stainless steel furnishings. I entered in the bar area where one can get a small plate and a drink for lunch or passersby can pick up a loaf of the famous bread. Long light fixtures hung down in an almost ominous way but the comforting, warming touches of the rustic wooden tables and bar stools somehow created a cozy feel. There were many personal touches too, like the blackboards displaying the menu in chalk and the unique, yet striking bold black type on the white walls. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen but very inviting and intriguing. The smell of fresh bread of course helped to enhance the overall atmospheric experience as well. Off the to side was the restaurant and, although a bit fancier, still kept with the style, mixing the rusticity of wooden furniture and floors with pristine white tablecloths, dishes, and walls and sparkling silver accents.
But now lets talk about the food. Fist off, it’s expensive…really expensive and although I wanted to try all of the unique things, I couldn’t bring myself to do so, especially since I didn’t know what half of the menu items were and if I would even enjoy it. So I stuck with a main meal and a dessert, but even that was enough to create a fulfilling and pleasing experience. I was first given a huge slab of their delicious white sourdough, filled with big holes and with that perfect tough, chewy texture that gave my jaw a little ache by the time I finished. It had a really nice pungent tang as well which was mellowed out by cold, creamy butter.
For my main, I chose the braised rabbit and stewed prunes in a shallot and bacon broth. I had never had rabbit before, perhaps because I used to have one as a pet, but I put my emotions aside and because of that, discovered something delicious. Helped by the fact that professionals cooked it, the meat was so tender that it literally fell of the bones. It reminded me a little of chicken dark meat but was actually much sweeter and milder while still retaining that slightly unfamiliar gamey taste. Because of the rabbit’s sweetness and the juicy, fruity prunes, the salty broth was lovely contrast and helped to give the meat even more moisture.
And dessert was just as amazing. I chose the poached pear in warm red wine with homemade buttermilk ice cream and brioche bread. Though it took a long time to prepare, it was well worth the wait. The pear, stained deep burgundy, sat in a pool of wine and was so soft, that it only took a quick swipe of my spoon to dish up a bite. It was a perfect balance of sweetness from the pear and bitterness from the wine and the ice cream complemented this flavor nicely too. It was only lightly sweetened but the cold creaminess really helped to calm my taste buds after the wine’s acidity. And the sweet, crumbly brioche served as a lovely, buttery palate cleanser as I switched between pear and ice cream.
St John Bread and Wine was a little different, but really stayed true to St John’s image. Located just outside Spitalfields market, it caters to the groups of businessmen coming in for a delicious meal. They offer a two-hour breakfast service, one-hour of elevenses, and finally a lunch with many options of small plates meant to be shared among groups. They have a short supper service in the late evening too. Up until about a week ago, this is where all the bread baking took place (they’ve just opened a new bakery), but Bread and Wine still held that really lovely yeasty bread smell and also kept with that minimalist, warehouse look combing sleek/modern with rustic. I decided to try it out for breakfast, as I have heard many wonderful things about it, and taste their very famous bacon butty sandwich, rumored to be the absolute best in London. And I can now confirm that rumor to be true. Just to let you know, a bacon butty is nothing but toasted, buttered bread with bacon in the middle but St. John’s version was so much more and at the height of quality.
To start, the sandwich took my breath away when it arrived in front of me because of the sheer size. It was about as long as my face and as wide as the distance between my thumb and pinky finger. It had beautiful grill marks on the top and I got a really happy warm feeling inside as I picked it up. I heard the crackling of the toast as my fingers pressed upon it and felt the butter escape from the pores of the bread and onto my hands. It came with a side of homemade apple ketchup for dipping too, but the sandwich was so large that it didn’t fit into the cup and I had to apply the ketchup with a knife. When I finally took a bite, I found myself in sheer bliss.
The bread was by far the best I have ever tasted. It’s really hard to explain but I just know that I will never in my life consume a piece of bread that matches this. It was lovingly crispy from its toasting, which gave in a nice burnt flavor at times. The crust was chewy and tough but the interior was so fluffy and spongy and soft it felt like pillows in my mouth. Yet, it still somehow had a lot of dexterity; but I enjoyed how long it took to chew because each bit released another stream of the encased butter. The bacon was superb as well and came from a high quality breed of old spot pigs. It was also grilled and the burnt bits added and even deeper smoky flavor. It was wonderfully salty but the tangy sweet ketchup balanced everything out. Each bite was long and savored and my cup of hot tea was well appreciated to wash down this enormous beauty. As tacky as this sounds, it really was a breakfast I will remember for the rest of my life.
I wish I had the money and the time to go to St. John even more, but sadly, all good things must end at some point. So I have pictures and the lingering memories on my taste buds to hold onto. So, for any visitors to London, I will by far recommend this (along with Fifteen of course) because it is so unique more traditionally British than any other restaurant in the city. So here it is, yet another London food publication serving as an advocate for St. John.