The 10 greatest things I’ve ever consumed at St John
Writer Tom Howard discusses his favourite dishes with St John co-founders Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver.
If you ask me, St John is the best restaurant in London. It’s a simple place. The walls, tablecloths, and waiting staffs’ clothing are all just plain white, the glasses and crockery are basic, bog standard. Every pendant light hanging from the ceiling is black, every chair is wooden and brown, the menu descriptions are direct, and to the point. It’s all just “Pigeon and Braised Chicory”, or “Crispy Pig Skin and Dandelion”. There’s no ‘pan-fried’ nonsense here, no surplus waffle. Put simply, there are no unnecessary distractions, which, ironically, makes it the easiest place in the world to distract yourself from actual life for two, three or ideally four happy hours. And I should know, I’ve been there loads.
I first went on my 27th birthday when a group of us shared (and failed to finish) a Whole Roast Suckling Pig, and eight years later I’m still obsessed with the place. I crave it if I go for too long between visits. I check the menu regularly (it changes twice a day, so this never gets old) and I feel like I’m missing out when, alongside the classics like Bone Marrow And Parsley Salad, there’s something I’ve never seen before on there – an example from right now: Apricot Ripple Ice Cream. Which sounds amazing.
The food, I suppose, is the main attraction. Co-founder Fergus Henderson pioneered the still-booming nose-to-tail eating craze here, famously saying: “If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing”. And even though St John opened way back in the olden days of October 1994, it’s still the place to come if you’re interested in eating a spleen, or a head, or a heart, or a trotter. It will be prepared expertly, cooked perfectly and probably served with an impeccably complementary seasonal vegetable. Don’t be fooled though, it may have a reputation for being a celebration of all things meaty, but, actually, that’s doing it a bit of a disservice. On my last two visits I’ve eaten Turbot with Fennel and Green Sauce, Brown Crab Meat on Toast, Smoked Sprats with Horseradish. A year or so ago I even had a whole dover sole. All of these things, you may notice, are fish. They were all excellent, and while I’ve never had a vegetarian main course here, I’d bet my life on them being absolutely banging too.
The wines they make with their friends in France are equally terrific. This is where co-founder Trevor Gulliver comes in (as the St John website puts it: “Fergus puts it on the plate, Trevor puts it in the glass”). All the wines are delicious, but it’s the dedication to affordability that’s most endearing. If you order by the glass, the cheapest option on the menu is a St John wine. If you order by the bottle, some of the cheapest options on the menu will be St John wines. Once you’ve eaten, if you want to take away a three-litre box of St John wine and really get your money’s worth, you can totally do that.
There is a generosity to the place, too. Eat at St John and you’ll get as much free bread and butter as you fancy. Before today’s interview, Henderson makes sure me, the photographer and himself all have his well-documented elevenses of choice: a slice of seed cake and glass of madeira. He dips the cake in the booze before eating it, so I do the same. When we start talking about wine, Gulliver is quick to open some bottles and fill some glasses. Nice and full, not just tasters. While we’re talking, the restaurant staff all take a break to sit down and have a Full English with sausage, bacon, black pudding, tomato, eggs – the works – and loads and loads of baked beans. “Heinz?” I ask. “What else,” says Henderson.
It seems like he has created the world he wants to live in. Often when you come to St John he will be here too, approving menus, pottering around the bar area, having a glass of something stiff, or just eating a pie. He doesn’t cook here anymore – the head chef is Jonathan Woolway – he oversees operations instead. It brings to mind that much overused John Peel quote about Mancunian post-punk band The Fall: “they are always different, they are always the same”. You know what you’re going to get, and yet it always surprises. Not all of my experiences here have been amazing. I have had disappointing dishes. But in a way, that adds to the allure. I like that there is a degree of risk to ordering food at St John. There is no guarantee, I suppose, that you will enjoy eating brain (but it’s reassuring to know that if you don’t like it here you probably won’t like it anywhere). On the flipside, it’s amazing to think that I may not have had had my best ever St John experience yet.
Fergus works his way through his seed cake and madeira, Trevor sits next to him, and we take some time to discuss their greatest hits (according to me anyway). They also teach me the word “NEIARRGH” which has a kind of mythical quality. It’s used for those special extras that elevate food to another level…
Deep-fried Skate Cheeks and Aioli
The plate looks simple – some fat balls of fish, a large blob of sauce. But nothing can prepare you for the eye-watering, nose-running, fire-breathing fierceness of that aioli. Fergus: “Skate flesh just lends itself to being deep-fried. It’s firm and has bite. It just works.” Trevor: “It asks for that treatment. Often people will eat a fish and leave the cheeks. It’s like that little oyster under a chicken. Or the pig cheek.” Fergus: “There’s a lot of garlic in the aioli too. The ratio is… in the book [1999’s Nose To Tail Eating: A Kind Of British Cooking]. Loads of garlic to a certain amount of olive oil. You can have it with lamb, beef… it’s the NEIARRGH factor. It’s a treat eating lamb chops but it can be a little dull, so they need the NEIARRGH: aioli, capers, things that have a NEIARRGH. Aioli is meant to be emotional. It should bring a tear to your eye, of joy.”
Celeriac Soup and Crispy Back Fat
Large bowl of earthy wholesomeness and hot pork. It sent my friend Mike on a two-year quest to try and replicate its magnificence. He failed every time. Fergus: “Celeriac is very regal. It’s a lovely thing. We get British celeriac because it has on the boxes: The Ugly Vegetable. It seems a very British thing to celebrate the noble celeriac. Soup is sometimes a bit forgotten, but it shouldn’t be, it’s a good thing. It has a sort of stroking quality, stroking you on your insides. Again there’s the NEIARRGH factor with the back fat. A bowl of celeriac soup needs that little companion. Always pork. Fry it off, cook it down so it’s delicious, and no rushing.”
PHEASANT AND TROTTER PIE (FOR TWO)
It was February 7, 2018. I was there. Ash was there. Leonie was there. The pie was there. The three of us truly bonded that day. Fergus: “Ah well, yes. The pie…A pie should have a base, so you have a suet crust on top and then the base is like a pudding almost, it’s joyful. Pie dishes in pubs always have some lid you can take off and that’s not really a pie. Nobody can grow tired of a good pie. The bone marrow in the top is like those little china blackbirds, it helps it steam off. The trotter provides some extra joy.” Trevor: “Pheasant isn’t particularly interesting. But it finds its home with trotter in a pie.” Fergus: “Trotter is a staple in the pies, with maybe rabbit, chicken, pheasant, ox tongue. They produce a happy pie.”
BATH CHAPS AND DANDELION
Without a doubt, ordered these not knowing what they were. Couldn’t believe how damn juicy they were. Couldn’t believe how damn crisp the dandelions were. Fergus: “It’s a pig’s head boned out and brined and rolled and tied into a sort of pig’s head cigar. We poach it, or fry it, or boil it. It’s like a trotter, it knows no bounds. If you poach it, it becomes this wobbly fobbly thing, or if you fry it off it becomes a rich and steadying thing. The dandelion is your NEIARRGH.”
KID FAGGOTS AND SWEDE MASH
First time I tried a St John faggot was when someone on my table found them too intense,
so I gobbled up their leftovers. I have revisited many times since. Fergus: “A faggot is made with liver and belly, pork belly… if you did an x-ray from here to here [motions to his chest and belly area] it’s most of those bits. The difference between a faggot and a meatball is liver content. We use kid because there’s a lot of them roaming around, and we like to give them somewhere they can call home, but pork or venison is also good. You make faggots juicy with pork belly. You need pork belly or you’ll get dry faggots.
I’ve eaten this every single time I’ve been to St John. Every table needs one. Cheese on toast – as a side. Name one meal that wouldn’t be improved by that. Obviously you can’t. Fergus: “Ah! On the menu since the day we opened. The chef in charge of the rarebits counted how many we sold in one year and it was impressive. Thousands. Tens of thousands I think. It might be our most ordered thing, though I suppose the bone marrow must be close. The rarebit comes on a classic sandwich loaf, not sourdough. You make a roux with flour, ground pepper, English mustard powder, butter, Guinness, and you stir it. Trevor: “Our cheddar comes from cheesemakers, Montgomery’s or Keen’s, so it tends to be the leftover nubbins and it’s got a proper strength to it. Rarebit is very popular in the bar, because it’s ideal drinking food.”
TWICE-BAKED CHOCOLATE CAKE
A description from a friend: “made me float three feet off the ground. Pretty special” Fergus: “A pastry chef should learn how to fly like a butterfly and express themselves. And chocolate is great. I’ve never stopped to ask about the twice-baking, actually, which is slightly weird. I must enquire about that.” Trevor: “The pastry chefs are the whizzbangers, they’re the ones who want to play with fireworks, take some chemistry lessons, that’s why they’re pastry chefs.” Fergus: “The chocolate is 73% cocoa. That 3% makes all the difference.”
BREAD PUDDING AND BUTTERSCOTCH SAUCE
A St John classic, that’s been on the menu from the beginning. So sweet and filling and soothing. Order some madeleines to mop up the sauce with. Fergus: “Why waste bread? We use leftover bread. Different kinds of bread. If you were a real St John perv you could probably tell what day’s bread is being used. The butterscotch sauce does what butterscotch sauce should do.”
RHUBARB JELLY AND SHORTBREAD
Jelly is not, I repeat not, for children. I mean, it is. But not this one. Waaaaay too tart. Fergus: “Jelly is so pure. It wobbles. It’s remarkable.” Trevor: “And there’s a hint of delicacy in the wobble.” Fergus: “The blush of the jelly is made with the poaching juices of the rhubarb, and the poached rhubarb is served alongside it. I’m not sure you need the shortbread, though. The number of times I’ve told the pastry chefs that, but they still put it on there. It’s nice that they express themselves, but shortbread has its place – with whisky. There’s no nicer way to spend an afternoon then having a dram and a bit of shortbread, a dram and bit of shortbread, a dram and a bit of shortbread. That’s where the shortbread should be, but I’ve lost that battle.”
On January 21 2018 I had three and my brain broke into two pieces. An excitingly dangerous drink. Friends who don’t like it are friends not worth having. Fergus: “They do have a slight mind-altering quality. There’s a story. My old man was in Paris, staying at some hotel, with a wise Czech partner of his. One hungover morning they went to the barman and said, “I want you to make me a drink”, and handed over the recipe. The barman brought him the drink, Dad drank it, and the barman said, “This is extraordinary, you’ve changed, it’s amazing”. He needed to try it for himself. Dad returns to Paris a few months later, in the same bar, looks at the cocktail list: Dr Henderson. Slightly contentiously I changed the recipe to two parts Fernet Branca, one part Creme De Menthe, because it’s too minty otherwise. Original was two equal measures. My Dad wasn’t too best pleased about that.”