Peter, London, and Other People’s Money
May 8 through 11, 2006
St. John - The Square - The Army Navy Club - St. John
Back to Road Trips
(By the way, if you need to know, the trick with those sleepers is to flatten them out before you lie down in them. For some reason they just don’t work right if you make the adjustments while prone.)
Landing at Heathrow was all a study in grey. Damp, cold, and very English. The immigration inspector expressed his doubts as to whether my passport would last until expiry, and I picked up the bags. As we’d arrived just after the Lagos flight, we were somewhat jammed at the baggage spot, with the conveyor belt choking up on dish packs bound up in duct tape filling up the carousel. I found myself catching the 7:55 train after arriving at 6:25.
As a further digression, the train, if you need to know, is still damned pricey. 14.50 for the regular shunt, and 23.5 for the express, which will get me as far as Paddington, which entailed another half hour wait in the queue. From there it would be a hack to the Marriott. I suppose I could have taken a cab all the way, and I had planned on that originally, but I’m just so damned cheap at times, even when it isn’t my money.
Washed, relatively unpacked, and changed, the first order of business was a few phone calls. I got in touch with my friend from Thailand, P, and talked of odds and ends. Then it was, of course, time for lunch. I suggested that, given our penchant for Asian horror movies, it would be fitting to dine in that paeon to offal, St. John. In an unscripted moment of synchronicity, P advised that his friends had recommended that if I was a foody, I needed to get to Smithfields’ Market.
It was obvious - I had a pilgrimage to make.
A cult following of sorts has built up around Fergus Henderson and his operation at St. John, just up the street from Smithfields’ market in East Central, just off the City. This cult has been led – loudly of course – by Tony Bourdain, notably in his Cook’s Tour, both the print and televised versions. As Bourdain is one of the people I respect highly (albeit as often for his cigarette and alcohol consumption as for his cooking) I take this with some weight.
Approaching the restaurant I found another address I’d like to have some day – Smokehouse Yard EC1. It’s a close second to living on Rue de l’Abattoir in Brussels.
Your first impression is one of entering a workshop, or a garage, but the smell of fresh baked bread puts that fear to rest. It was telling that Paula, the very pleasant young concierge at my hotel, when I told her I’d be lunching at St. John, spoke not of the entrails, offal, and brains, but of their baked goods and wines. Of course, I don’t often meet engaging young women who speak a lot of entrails, offal, and brains, now that I think about it.
I entered the courtyard, and was momentarily disoriented. There was a bakery directly in front of me, and an off-sales counter to the front and right. I saw an informal collection of tables and chairs, but that doesn’t seem so much a restaurant as an industrial picnic.
Then I notice the stairs to my right, and the sign that says “dining room”. Ever the sharp one, I supposed that that was probably what I was looking for.
The dining room was whitewashed frighteningly stark white, as whitewash often is. White walls, floors, simple layout of tables and chairs. The effect was like eating in an abattoir (my initial notes, and then I find Bourdain using the exact same simile). I smiled and relaxed, assured that this was something I was going to enjoy.
As I wait for P (I am in the habit, as compulsives often are, of arriving early), I went through the menu a few times, and through the wine list. Then I went through the menu again. I ordered their beer, a 6X ale that went down quite easily. The head is creamy, and the beer sits comfortably in my mouth, broad, soft, and yielding, with a nice crispness to the forefront. My waiter let me know it was from Wandsworth in Wiltshire, in the Devizes.
As I enjoyed the ale I noted that the wine list had a good range, nicely graded from the affordable up to a ’90 Pouevol at 1,990 sterling.
The menu confused me a bit. Obviously I am not native enough an English speaker. However, the wait staff are well informed, and open to being badgered with questions from the colonials. There’s a “lop” that turned out to be a breed of pig, named for it’s “lop eared” look; “long in the leg and body, covered in wiry hair, and slow to fatten”. (I lifted this information cheerfully from the Penguin Companion To Food, which is much better informed than I. I’ll continue to refer to it throughout.)
And then there’s the faggot. Again, stealing from Penguin, this is a “simplified form of sausage, easier and quicker to make at home than a proper one. A mixture of pork offal – liver, lungs, spleen, etc. – fat, breadcrumbs, onions, and flavourings to taste is parceled in squares of caul.” How could I turn that down, I ask you? Even better, it appears that it was ”an accident with a batch of faggots at a shop in Pudding Lane that started the Great Fire of London in 1666.” A flaming faggot, indeed. I’ve enjoyed wonderful haggis in Glasgow years past, so this drew my attention.
As I worked the menu, I enjoyed the bread they’d left on the table. Soft and pully with a crisp, crunchy crust. I had them bring me some more.
They had salsify on the menu, a root vegetable notoriously brittle and so difficult to dig up. This was popular in the 1800’s but has gone out of fashion in the last hundred or so years. Snails and liver and skate; mutton, rabbit, and marrow; all of this goes to a produce a wonderful menu.
My friend P arrived in the midst of my drooling, and we settle into more 6x’s and some serious ordering. He started with the halibut, bread, and green sauce salad, and I opened with the salted duck hearts (not on the menu) and the roast bone marrow and parsley salad. This marrow salad is what brings Bourdain back time and again, and I was anxious to try it before it becomes illegal (somebody somewhere must stay up late trying to think of good things that we shouldn’t be allowed to eat).
Roast Marrow and parsley salad
The marrow was excellent. All thick flavour fished out of the bone and scraped onto a nice piece of toast. The waiter was kind enough to bring me more bread so that I could stretch this out. P’s halibut was good, but lacked the carnal nature of my dish. I understand now the simple joy a large dog can have in snapping through the bones and slurping out the inner bits. Maybe I’ll join my mother’s hounds next time I’m home.
The day’s special: Salted Duck Hearts
The duck hearts were very tasty, far superior to what I’d made do with in Beijing in earlier days (As a warning to travelers to China - don’t order the tongues, they’re difficult, with a strong piece of cartilage down the middle, and the flavour isn’t worth the effort).
Moving to the main course, and more beers, I decided firmly that I had to eat a faggot in London, and that was the end of that.
Rabbit, Bacon, and Mustard
P went for the rabbit, nicely braised, the meat just pulling away, and far enough removed in form that I wasn’t haunted by the image of those bunnies being flensed in the underground markets of Spain.
Spring Greens as a side
As I look at the photo of the spring greens, I’m reminded that, for such an intensely carnivorous restaurant, their vegetable dishes are a joy. The spring greens had just the right crunch, and a beautiful depth of flavour
Faggot and Mash
The faggot was more like a large meatball than anything, but beautifully textured, with different bits of bits countering each other as you chewed through it. And the gravy was that nice consistent flavour best described as “brown” (which I quite like). The mash sopped up well on the side, and I came through it all feeling appropriately fed.
We passed on dessert. I’m just not that keen on sweets, traditional (syllabub – a sweet, frothy confection popular in the 16th to 19th century) or otherwise (lemon meringue pie), and used the time to take in a beer just down the street across from the market itself.
I was remiss in not noting the pub, but if you’re at the corner of St. John by the Market, you can’t miss it. Grimy, tobacco soaked, and generally disreputable I found it made for a very pleasant post lunch stop-off.
P passed on a bit of interesting information for me. As Smithfields’ market operates through the evening and into the wee hours of the morning, the pubs here had a special dispensation to open early in the morning to accommodate the workers getting out of the marketplace.
After a pleasant few pints of bitter we bid our adieus, and I set off for a bit of a walk to wear off a bit of that most excellent of lunches.
The Hoop & Grapes
Of course, a stroll in London must bring one at some point to a pub. As I strolled through the City, my (slightly blurred) vision was captured by the sign across the street for the Hoop & Grapes, a fine old 16th Century pub (I lifted this from the estimable London Taxi Tour site – www.londontaxitoursite.com just now.
The H&G offered Shepherd Neame on tap, advertised as “Britain’s Oldest brewery”, providing happiness in a pint mug for over 300 years (since 1698) (I made that last jingle part up, maybe I can sell it to them). I’d love to tell you more about Shepherd Neame, but that would only steal the thunder from the good Mr. Theo C. Barker who has written the definitive “Shepheard Neame: A Story That’s Been Brewing For 300 Years” (1998, available through Amazon UK). Anyways, enough credit for others. I had a pub on my radar, and it was putting it out on the streets that it had beer. I was trapped.
I’m reading a bit more of stuff I didn’t know about the H&G.
“A 16th century pub. The foundations it is built on date back to the 13th century. The building conveys a strong impression of what pubs were like hundreds of years ago. The ear shaped communication device set behind the bar is fascinating. Blocked up tunnels in the cellar, were said to link to the Tower of London. It is more likely that they lead to the river and were used by smugglers and river pirates. Well worth a visit.”
Neat stuff. I had no idea, of course, at the time. I slaked my immediate thirst on an Early Bird Spring Bitter (4.1%) - a hoppy bitter with no bubbles to speak of. It’s interesting as I think back upon it. This beer, with its quiet stillness, doesn’t bring Spring to mind, with its chaos and explosions of life, as much as it does the end of Winter, with the quiet thaw coming in.
But, where was I? Oh, yes, impressions of the pub. The usual dark wooden features. The chalkboard of pub lunches. The waitresses – as with most service in London English was a second language; these were Brazilians, I think – were busy complaining about life in the Big City. A couple of stripe suited stock exchange types were wolfing down some bitter. And there was an interesting collection of World War II based ads promoting Fokker beer – “Downed all over Kent. Just like the Luftwaffe.” (Interesting note, the Mayor of London has a blog site – www.mayor-of-london.co.uk ) complaining about this.
Given such notoriety, I had to try the Spitfire. I’m sad to say, I found it limp. A 4.5% Kentish ale, too soft on the palate to excite me. But that’s just me. I’ll take an aggressively hopped beer as prime choice any day. This was far from aggressive (but it worked against the Germans). They talk about how this is “malted” and so forth, but there wasn’t the depth of flavour that I found in Singapore’s Brewerkz’ Mo Gwai (damn, I liked that beer).
I followed with a half of Best Bitter, at 4.3% that was a joy to drink. Okay, after five pints o 6x at St. John, and three pints of I can’t remember what, and two pints here, almost anything is a joy, but I still remember the “niceness” of the aroma that came from that half.
I took advantage of this quiet time to start going through the good Mr. Henderson’s book. It slowly obsesses you. There’s a zombie like glaze that comes over you as you read his discourses on brains and livers, kidneys and spleens. But what really gets to you is the kindness in his phrase. When he talks of the “Welsh rabbit, the angst in whose life seems to be apparent in the eating” and of how, for wild rabbits “often badly shot up or mauled by ferrets, which tens to leave them as an off-putting mess of blood clots. (What you need is a good shot, who can get them in the head.)” you transpose yourself to a gentler, kinder, bloodier world. I’ll have more quotes with time, but that one has committed me to a trip in Al Khobar to a butcher there who will strip and sell the bunnies for you. (More news next weekend).
Oh, lest I forget, back on the beer, Shepherds Neame also produces the Bishop’s Finger, which is the only beer they had available (in the bottle) at Rules, on Maiden Lane off of Covent Garden. However, I didn’t eat at Rules this trip. Instead, I continued my walk down to the Thames, and had a pleasant stroll along the water. Finally I descended to the underworld at Westminster, making use of the new Dr. Who’ish station there (it’s all tubes and ducts and open plumbing…I really liked it).
Returning home, I did my Morpheus at Bond Street and arose from the depths. This, as fortune would have it, had me in striking distance of the bathrooms at The Hog In The Pound, where - after draining the bitter out of my life – I could indulge in an Adam’s Broadside at 4.7%. A nice taste with enough hops that sits in the back of the palate. This was one of my old haunts from my work here in ’99, and it pleased me that I could actively dispute the Jam on the non-existence of pubs on Oxford Street. I know, I date myself (no autoerogenous jokes, please).
I would love to write about my fabulous dinner that evening, in the company of crowned heads and supermodels. But, to be honest, I fell asleep. I had work the next day.
I loathe business travel.
Day 2 - Dinner on Tuesday at The Square.
Woking. What the hell was I doing in Woking! Alright, as a town’s name it does have nice Asian cuisine overtones…..
Okay, I was actually earning my salt. I suppose I must work at some point. I would love to be in Steingarten’s position of being able to use such lines as “I was in Paris eating professionally”. But that day is still not here.
After a long day on formats and standards, however, my appetite was working itself up to a fever pitch. Originally I had hoped to get into the Fat Duck, and my early phone calls from the Middle East had earned me first place on the waiting list. But when I’d tried to call in from London, I’d been unable to get through their phone lines. I put this down to poor planning on my part, and resolved to make it another day. I’m still young.
What I had settled upon instead, with some input from a number of my friends, was The Square. Two stars, and well recommended by the excellent site www.londoneats.com as well. The plan was that J, who was also part of this Woking work, and I, would take in the monthly post-lecture meeting of the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain, which, handily enough, takes place but a stone’s throw from The Square. In point of fact, the venue itself is the well recommended pub, the Guinea, located besides its counterpart The Guinea Grill, which falls into the realm of gastropubs. The Guinea had, in 2000, won the coveted Best Pie of the Century for their steak and kidney. But, that was beyond me at the time. I do know my limits, and one of these to hold myself to only a single meal every four hours. It’s good to have discipline.
J had an interesting story on the restaurant. As a last note on the Grill, they say that imitation is the ultimate compliment. Some years back a restaurant opened up a few shop fronts before them on the one-way road, calling itself the Grill Guinea. Taking customers as shrapnel is an interesting ploy (“We have reservations for the Guinea?” “But of course! And your name is? Oh! Here you are!”)
So, I spent a relatively delightful time chatting about the oil business with the crowd at hand (“Talisman? They’ll go anywhere, the Canadians. They’re daft!”) and taking in the fine evening air, the weather a balmy mid-20’s in May. It was one of those lovely evenings when the pubs spill out onto the street, and the odd, poor motorist that tries to brazen his way through the mob with his BMW is distressed to find that a crowd of hardened explorationists is unlikely to be cowed by his radiator grill.
All of this, of course, was amply lubricated by pint after pint of Young’s Bitter. I lost track at some point, as everyone seemed most eager to buy pints for everyone else, a charming custom that I took part in with no regret. The limiting factor is the number of glasses you can hold in two hands at one time. I recall that they also had Young’s Waggledance Honey beer on tap, a pale ale, and I suspect that I had some of that as well. But the Bitter kept my attention.
Finally, at around 9ish we decided to head for dinner. R had also joined us, and we made a threesome of it.
We approached Philip Howard’s The Square on Bruton Street from Bruton Place. I spotted it at once. The clean red lines of the restaurant stand out elegantly in the evening dusk. Once inside our reservations were confirmed (J had phoned ahead) and there was a brief moment whilst they added an extra setting to our table. In pure Steingarten (I do admire that man) we were taken to the bar first, and asked if we would care for a drink. I believe that this is rule number 3 for waiters, get the bar bill racking as fast as you can. But I am, perhaps, being unkind, given the excellent service we had throughout. We had dirty martinis, mine gin – Gordon’s. Stirred not shaken.
It was a Tuesday, so things were hardly crowded. The bar area was quite small, although comfortable enough sitting by the window watching the Mayfair traffic. But this was all just a distraction from eating. I was content to be ushered to our table and get my hands on the menu.
The Square has been around since 1991, but was located in St. James prior to 1997. They took their first Michelin star in 1994, and their second in 1998 for their modern French cuisine, developed by chef and co-owner Philip Howard. Howard, while not part of the molecular gastronomy movement per se (no liquid nitrogen to be seen, or odd grafting experiments shambling about the back room) does have a good background in biochemistry from Kent University prior to his taking up the knife in the cause of Harveys (now Chez Bruce), Roux and Bibendum.
Howard’s partner and co-owner in this is Nigel Platts-Martin, who has the distinction of heading a group of four restaurants that are all in the top placings for London; Chez Bruce, The Glasshouse, and La Trompette (and, obviously, The Square). They also list the one star Ledbury as a “sister restaurant”.
And, as a final lift off of the internet, they won the Best French Restaurant in London award from Moet & Chandon in 2001.
But enough of such filler. What is the food like?
I had no plans to waste time on reading menus for hours. It was already after 9, and I was hungry. We took the tasting menu, a mere 20 pounds more than the set menu, and put ourselves in the chef’s hands.
That left us free to agonize over the wines.
First up was a gewurtztraminer “Kritt” 2004, by Mark Kredenweiss, of Alsace, which would prove to have a nice spice to it, which is why it works so well with Thai and other such dishes. Here we were looking for something to carry us through the mix of the first three courses and get us to the foie gras in fourth position.
Once we made it that far, we’d rely on a Sauterne - Chateau Doisy-Vedrines 1996, 2nd grand cru classe - to catch the foie gras with a touch of sweetness. Once we’d covered that base, we’d pull back the remainder to hold in reserve for dessert.
That would leave room for a red to come in and take the brunt of the mains. We went with the inky darkness of a Rhone “Cuvee de la Reine des Rois” 1999, Domaine de la Mordoree (which always makes me think of Lord of the Rings). Parker gave the 2001 excellent marks, and it seemed a reasonable match for the fish and lamb.
With an appropriate battle plan in place, we settled in for the repast. Let’s take a look at what was in store:
Consommé of Wild Mushrooms with a Truffle Foam and Morels
Tortellini of Crab with Champagne Foam and Basil
Roast Scallops with a Purée of New Season’s Garlic, Fondue of Shallots, Chive Oil and Gremolata
Escalope of Foie Gras with Endive and Onion Confit and a Sweet and Sour Citrus Glaze
Roast Halibut with a Purée of Peas, Boulangère Potatoes and Pancetta
Herb Crusted Saddle of Lamb with Shallot Purée, Artichokes, Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil
Moccha Soufflé with Vanilla Chocolate Chip Ice Cream
We took the consommé as you would a miso. The flavour of the mushrooms heightened by the truffle foam. A good, earthy beginning. The wine worked well, offsetting the brown flavours with a spice on the sides and a little bit on the top.
The tortellini, on its own, was very good. Bubbles were still coming up in the froth, and there was a morel based reduction. The crab meat was delicate in comparison to these. The overall effect was a rich savour with a bit of texture.
At this point we were a little concerned, though. This was two dishes in a row with a fungal background, and it was, admittedly, early in the season for mushrooms. Likewise, we’d gone foam to foam. It was a little difficult to decide just where the chef was taking this. From the menu, I thought that, after opening a little heavy he would be lightening up with the seafoods, prepping us for the drop of the hammer with the foie.
But the next dish, the scallops, stayed on the same note. Again, as an individual dish it was alright (although, despite the alliteration, the shallots didn’t quite work with the scallop), but the story didn’t seem to be progressing.
The escalope of foie gras, along with the sauterne, put us in a less critical mood. The foie was all I could ask for, and Howard had come up with a nice conceit of a sprinkle of rice crispies for texture (okay, I’m pretty certain they were no relation to Snap, Crackle, and Pop) that worked delightfully. The sauterne did its job, pulling the flavours of fat and the slight bitterness of the endives and citrus through the mouth, best described as the feel of a large fish being gaffed along the port side (my mouth is more partial on the port side as opposed to the sherry). The caramelized onions filled in the missing edges of the palate as you’d expect them to. I can still resurrect that taste in my mouth.
We set aside the sauterne for later, and turned our attention to the red, which had been opened earlier and allowed to breathe next to a candle by our table. Very dark in its redness (I firmly believe that red is and always shall be a flavour), and the nose, while not as big as mine, stood forth well enough. Good tannins, a solid flavour.
With this, the halibut showed up. I was satisfied with it, but R and J felt theirs were overdone, and had gone a bit too dry. For me, I enjoyed the texture, especially as I’d been disappointed recently with preparations that had gone too soft with this fish. And, with slightly dry flesh, a pea puree’s sweetness and silkiness always carries well.
And then there was the West Country lamb saddle. The flesh melted as you bit into it, and the blood red Rhone worked beautifully with the herbs coating the meat. My first bite was a very satisfying, very carnivorous moment.
We lost J about this point, as it was getting on in hours, and she had a train to catch to get back home. R and I gave our attention to the cheese board, a magnificent collection of English and French cheeses. Given the fromage-deprived nature of growing up in North America it is always intimidating to have these massive trolleys rolled up upon you at the end of a meal. I relied upon our waitress for her recommendations as to the softest and smelliest, and she directed me to one from near her home in Alsace. Wonderfully pliable, and with the richest of aromas….the cheese, that is. I settled, with her help, on a variety of perhaps a dozen, and R and I chatted over business and food, while we returned to the remnants of the Rhone.
R and I called back the sauterne, and relaxed with some chocolates and then the soufflé, served with a dollop of ice cream pushed into the center. Add to this a couple of nice espressos, with just the right crème, and we found ourselves on the other side of midnight.
I would also mention that the service was excellent. The dishes were staged with appropriate timings, the courtesy appropriate, without a hint of pretension, just the right balance of friendliness without being too presumptuous, and the staff were well informed as to what their kitchen was up to.
Overall it was a good meal, and I don’t regret having chosen the tasting menu (I seldom do, as it obviates much of the responsibility I would have to bear in doing my own ordering). But I feel that this sort of menu, when done really, really well, offers the chef the opportunity to orchestrate a larger piece, rather than just concentrating on the individual movements. As is, it’s the cheese board that stays in my mind more than anything else. At a final price of around a half thousand sterling for the three of us, I might have hoped for a bit more.
Day 3 – The Army Navy Club – Pall Mall
The next night J and R and I had arranged to meet again at the Guinea, and from there to take dinner at J’s club, the Army Navy Club. Being a longstanding admirer of George Macdonald-Fraser’s Flashman, this was something I had no intention of missing.
We met at the Guinea again, or rather J and I did. R couldn’t get away, unfortunately. As I waited for J, I was again subject to this pleasant habit of the English of buying other people beers. Quite civilized, I must say.
But, we’re here to talk of the Army Navy Club, not of pubs revisited.
The Club dates back to 1837 when it was established, effectively, as a holding zone for officers who were waiting to gain admittance to the existing clubs, which were full at the time as the British military expanded with the Empire. The nickname “The Rag” came from disparaging remarks made by one (former) member who likened it to the The Rag and Famish, a local gaming hell of ill repute and low standards. The club members liked the reference so much that the name was kept.
J gave me a brief tour, and we took in the library, the medals, the ladies’ facilities (J herself had voted against the inclusion of women members), and the memorabilia. In the hall I listened as two naval officers admired the newest painting of Northern Gulf operations in the last war, but lamented that no submarines were present. They cheered somewhat when I pointed out that the subs were there, they were just obscured by water.
The dining room required a jacket and tie. Tall ceilings, and accompanying tall windows looking out onto the square. J recommended the Club more for the wine than the food, but I found the menu entirely serviceable. I ordered the venison carpaccio to start, and the Moresby Swamp lamb for the main.
For red we ordered the Chateau d’Angludet Margaux 1999, and for the white a Pouilly Fumee 2002 that they had ordered in for when the Queen came to lunch a few months back.
The head waiter – Nepalese, I believe, and very gracious – brought out the wines, and set the red aside to breathe while we started in on the white. The Club has a very good working relationship with a number of the chateaux in France, built up over the last hundred plus years. This has led, as J noted, to an interesting cellar.
With a jacket on, the room was a little warm, but not unbearably so. The point is that in order to defrock a vote of the members present must be taken to judge if the temperature actually is unreasonably high. At that point, and only at that point, can you loosen up.
The venison came out a beautiful carnal crimson, and the wine fingered its way in around the slightly cloying flavours of the game, clearing out the stretchy elements that tried to hide around my tongue.
The lamb also was good, although at this point I was paying more attention to the Chateau d’Angludet, which had a beautiful nose and nice overtones of berries. I was also interested to find that the waitresses all appeared to be from Seoul. After ascertaining this in my halting Korean (in all, I have perhaps five phrases, very few of which are suitable for pleasant company), I asked why the Club employed so many Koreans. “We do the best job, of course” was her reply. I wouldn’t argue with that.
Another wonderful cheese cart came by after dinner, and I smelled my way to the best choices. This alongside a Francesca Bin 27 Porto reserve finished things well.
I was feeling quite civilized at this point, so we retired to the bar on the ground floor. There I took a 12 year old Cragganmore to refresh myself after the strenuous walk down the stairs. As a note, Cragganmore was the first malt whiskey to be efficiently distributed by rail. They also had an ‘83 port in a decanter which took my eye, and then there’s their own tap of Young’s AAA – a very upstanding bitter at 4.5%.
At this point, with a flight the next day, I bid my farewells, and reeled back home, foreswearing any more drinking, and pausing only for a final pint of Guinness in the hotel bar.
Day 5 – St. John - The Last Lunch (with apologies to the New Testament)
Through the dark, drunken hours of the night, I had wrestled with the eternal question that haunts men’s minds in those moments between sleep and wakefulness…..what would I eat next?
And then, in a moment of rare clarity, it came to me. I should throw myself upon the turbid waves of predestination. I should return to St. John!
I had reasoned that, with a five p.m. flight from Heathrow, I should be able to accomplish lunch and be back at the hotel for a cab by 2 p.m. This meant that my arrival must be timed for 12:00 a.m. exactly!
It turned out that St. John opens at 11:00. Some time in the future, which coincides more or less with the present as I write in my comfortable home, I look to the St. John web site www.stjohnrestaurant.co.uk and find the following quote from the good Mr. Henderson:
"At eleven o'clock you have woken up and got in touch with your extremities, spittle has begun to flow. It's time for Elevenses.
Seed Cake and Maderia is the perfect combination for this hour - just the right amount of sustenance to safely see you through to lunch time.
Don't be alarmed by break in your morning, Seed Cake and Maderia is a quick affair, rather like a fire work display - a splendid, invigorating moment and then you move on...uplifted."
I took the same table that I had made use of the day before, ordered a glass of riesling (a vin de pays des couteaux du Libron – Domain Colombette), and turned to the menu de jour for inspiration and illumination.
Gull’s egg and celery salt looked interesting, if you like eggs, or gulls. I aspire to neither. The razor clams appeared cutting edge, and were sold by the bivalve. Asparagus and hot butter is something that is just comforting, and smoked eel and horseradish and the pickled herring took me back to my Amsterdam days, and a nightmare of little bones that would make Freddie Kruger smile. Venison saddle sounded good, and the crispy pig’s skin with dandelions was tantalizing, but reminded me too much of something I’d had in Chiang Mai. Langoustines & mayo didn’t do much for me, and I’d already done the roast marrow salad (it is one item that is always on the menu, deservedly so).
The mains were just as attractive. Roast lamb with chicory and anchovy; plaice, leeks, and green sauce appealed to me on a surname basis; the braised bunny was there again; fennel and berkswell has sent me back to my Penguin for a definition, but finally it has failed me. The best I can guess is that the locale of Berkswell has given its name to a cheese or some such thing. Guinea fowl and coleslaw. And a steak and kidney pie for two that I gave some serious thought to.
And there it was before me, like the Grail, lamb’s sweetbreads, little gem, and bacon. How could I turn down temptation like that?
My mind was mad up like a tossed together cot. Still, I had a plan. I would continue with my Riesling for the nonce, and have a razor clam to begin. I questioned the waiter on the eel, wishing to avoid too much work in picking out bones, and he salved my worries, saying “there may be one or two, but not many”. Obviously a different eel.
And, of course, I took the sweetbreads, which can be either the thymus gland from the throat, or else the pancreas of a young animal.
The wait staff were kind enough to go dumpster diving for me to locate a copy of the previous night’s menu. I looked ahead and ordered a glass of the premier cotes de Blaye from the chateau Haut Colombier. When they brought the menu, I found that I had missed out on ox heart with beetroot; pigeon and radishes (and I can just imagine the crunch); venison offal and bacon (which does make my mouth water); and black bream and monk’s beard. Again the Penguin fails me in my hour of need, but I have now come across the BBC’s food glossary (www.bbc.co.uk/food/glossary):
No fashionable menu is complete without monk's beard, or barbarata de fratea. Known in the UK as 'goat's beard' or 'Johnny go to bed at noon', these little green shoots are grown in Tuscany, where they're only in season for five weeks of the year.
I had been reading Nose To Tail Eating, Furgus Henderson’s book, quite regularly since I had bought it the two days before. Not only does it work well for recipes (I’ve since done the green beans, shallots, garlic, and anchovies at home, and, as I write, I have a pig’s belly brining in the kitchen and a bowl of fresh aioli to go with some steaming prawns), but the writing itself is so soft, gentle, and carnivorous that you have to admire it for its own sake.
Here’s an out-take on rabbits, and what to consider in sourcing them:
The pros and cons (of wild vs. tame rabbits) are as follows. With the wild, you need a good source as they are often badly shot up or mauled by ferrets, which tends to leave them as an off-putting mess of blood clots. What you need is a good shot, who can get them in the head. Though somewhat tougher, they have much more flavour than tame rabbit, which can sometimes be almost too subtle (though this can vary according to where the rabbits come from: Norfolk wild rabbits seem to have an easier time, which is reflected in their flesh, compared say to a Welsh rabbit, the angst in whose life seems to be apparent in the eating – though this is particularly suited to some dishes).
Do you know, I’d never considered the angst of a rabbit’s life before?
Grilled Razor Clam
I had almost finished savaging the bread when my clam arrived. Long and narrow, the meat in three connected boudins, liberally buried in fresh parsley. A salty background that washes away well with the Riesling
Smoked Eel & Horseradish
And this was quickly followed by my eel, a wonderful slab of meat, only lightly smoked. This was not the eel that I had had in the Netherlands. This was a marvelous cut, holding that familiarity of flavour of unagi, but firmer and a little tighter. The horseradish was just the right thing to accompany. I was in very good spirits.
I looked to my right, at the somewhat noisy table (or rather one noisy individual in a striped suit and an audience of two), and what I saw grabbed my vision and held it. A beautiful, steaming, steak and kidney pie, the middle of the pastry clutching at a proud piece of marrow bone piercing upwards through the crust and releasing the aroma from inside. I could smell the richness from where I sat, and looked at my watch to see if I had time to order one for myself (which I did not, alas).
Flashes of flame were coming from the kitchen, but everything appeared in hand. The hacking cough of the espresso machine drew my attention to my right, and I saw three beautiful Yorkshire puddings sitting up atop the refrigerators, their purpose a mystery.
Lamb’s Sweetbreads Little Gem & Bacon
My red arrived, as did my sweetbreads. A marvelous dish, full of colour and texture. Fresh green peas and lettuce with a good gravy, the fat from the coarsely chopped bacon glistening on the sweetbreads and the greens. The texture on the sweets was, spreading peaceably inside my mouth, to be carried away by a swish of the red.
However, time was not my friend, and I was quite aware that there would be a cab soon waiting for me on the other side of London. I had the cheque waiting for me, took a last, tearful look, and headed out for one of my most expensive cab rides ever, from Smithfields to Marble Arch in London lunchtime traffic, and then from there to Heathrow.