One of the pioneers in bringing English cookery, to use their noun, into the contemporary world is Fergus Henderson. In 1994 he opened St. John Restaurant and Bar near the historic Smithfield Market in London. His food, considered by many to be a bit twee, another Britishism, meaning a mite too cutesy, turned out to be the stuff of which dynasties are made. Books, a second restaurant, bakery, wine shop and hotel...merely that sort of thing.
The mother ship is in an old smokehouse, the interior white and spare, a 20-foot ceiling with skylights in the bar, and a dining room, enclosed, a short half-floor up. We sat at a table in the bar, which has many of the same things as the dining room but whose smaller servings gave us the chance to sample more items. From there, one can watch a baker at work, and the barmen keeping things mixed up. The drill here, by the way, as it is in most pubs where food is served, is to order at the bar, tell the barman your table number, collect your drinks and return to the table. The food will be delivered.
Henderson, who always has rejoiced in using as many parts of an animal as possible, was the fellow who popularized marrow bones. Roasted, served with the excellent house bread, a long, narrow utensil to winkle the marrow out of the bone, and a parsley salad, they shock the eye of the uninitiated but thrill the palate, the unctuous richness spread on the grilled bread, perhaps with just a sprinkle of sea salt. Forget butter; this is a kingly dish. We'd had it in Oregon in July from a British chef who'd never tried Henderson's but freely acknowledged his reputation and asked for a comparison. Henderson's bones are crosscut, but the Oregonian lengthwise cut makes the marrow far more accessible. Henderson's parsley salad was all about the parsley with capers in a supporting role; the other version, while not as brilliantly green, was tarter from more capers and offered a contrast that we preferred.
Bread and butter is an extra item; we think in this case, it's well worth it, since the bakery has such a high -- and well-deserved -- reputation. And the butter reminds Americans how butter ought to taste. We used it with smoked sprats that arrived with a little pickled red cabbage, its tartness offsetting the richness of the sardine-like herring. (Yes, heads. Yes, bones.) More cabbage, this time the crinkly Savoy, came in a cool, delicious salad that mixed the vegetable with a creamy tart dressing and brown shrimp, what we'd call bay shrimp. And then there was smoked Gloucester Old Spot hog with dandelion shoots.
Immense artichokes floated by, one for a single diner who put down a newspaper to deal with it, another to a table of drinkers who shared it and the vinaigrette as an appetizer. They also had a plate of beautiful crayfish, large and pink, that tried to lure us.
But dessert called even more winningly. A crisp meringue shell held poached black currants spooned over a nice blog of thick English cream, the dark, intensely-flavored currants a lovely purple against the cloud of egg and cream. Again, a nice contrast of textures and the tart berries against the cream and sweet meringue.
But the winner and (centuries-old) champion was the posset, which has been around since the Middle Ages. Milk is cooked with wine or ale, which thicken it, the whole spiced according to the income of the household. Up until the early 1800's, possets were the traditional bridal toast. St. John's didn't seem to have any alcohol, but we didn't miss it. A small bowl of what appeared to be custard was creamy, deeply lemony, and, not surprisingly, rich as all get-out. A finger-length shortbread cookie came alongside, clearly made with more of St. John's excellent butter. Serious coffee afterwards, a fact of life all over London these days. An all-French wine list with lots of interesting choices by the glass.
Very casual in the bar, sometimes a bit dressy in the restaurant. Reservations pretty much imperative in the restaurant, not taken for the bar. Check the website for information on their information and clarification on the seemingly complicated schedule for opening. (Remember Sunday lunch is still a serious meal in the UK. Definitely not a brunch.)
Good enough to make the diner not blink an eye at the occasional quirks.
26 St. John St., London EC1
020 3301 8069
Tube: Barbican or Farrington
www stjohnrestaurant com
Bar: Lunch through Dinner Mon.-Fri., Dinner Sat. Lunch Sun.
Dining room: Lunch Sun.-Fri. , Dinner Mon.-Sat.