We’re early so we decide to have a little wander around Smithfield before arriving at the restaurant. We pass door upon door of generic coffee shops and take-away food outlet close to the station. An impressive, expansive building comes into sight – the wholesale meat market. Since the 10th century, first a livestock then a meat market has occupied this particular site. Between the bustle of the growing city and the ease of access to farms, Smithfield was well-positioned for this charge. It is suitably impressive with its pale stone arches, red brick infill and large cast iron and glass roof.
It’s getting on to noon so the market is closing as it’s been open since 4am. Time for the workers to knock off and have a full English and a pint. Slabs of gammon, thick fingers of sausage and a puddle of beans are washed down by hand-pulled cask ale. The Fox and Anchor has been serving the market porters for hundreds of years from 7am each morning.
We pop our heads into The Charterhouse, which is a school, almshouse and former priory. A small complex of historic buildings, part of it is now open for the public to add to the thousands of feet that have walked over the same ground. London’s like that though. Thin ribbons of roads weave between modern office buildings and public ale houses hundreds of years old. There’s no imposed grid system taming the streets with curbs and pavement here. It’s easy to imagine that you’re walking the same paths that thousands of others have over many, many years.
Eventually, we circle round on the main road back to where we need to be. Scaffolding and bright orange bollards are a common sight as much construction is underway. Cranes dot the skyline. There’s no point decrying that ‘they’re ruining the city’ as cities are dynamic places. They stretch their limbs, reconfiguring to meet new demands. People ebb and flow as industry, commerce and residential factors change. Cities have been, and will always, remain living organisms.
‘It should somewhere here.’ Steve pauses and holds his phone square in front of him. I pull up and step close to him, to allow the free flow of lunch-time pedestrian traffic. In doing so, I now see the simple black font (possibly Times New Roman) announcing our destination.
St. JOHN Bar & Restaurant
‘It is,’ I say and point over his shoulder. ‘I know we’re early but let’s just go in.’ We’re still half an hour early but I’m too excited to wait.
‘Just a minute.’ Steve turns me 90 degrees to my left and there just a metre or two away is the man himself. I put my hand over my mouth then scramble for my phone. I take a couple of photos of the food menu and wine menu as cover before nonchalantly snapping a couple of him.
Fergus Henderson is legendary in culinary circles. I see Fergus as the progenitor of a new approach to British cooking. In the mid-90s, he opened St John restaurant with Trevor Gulliver, the wine half of the partnership. And in 1999, the untrained cook published his first cookery book Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking. His bold approach to meat consumption quickly became a classic amongst industry and public alike.
So here we are, metres from a legend outside his original restaurant. It’s like seeing Father Christmas himself, in a bright navy pinstripe suit, white shirt, red socks, brown brogues with walking cane in hand. Steve tugs at my shirt and we walk through the portico and into the bar and bakery area. A staff member directs us up the short, black metal staircase which leads into the dining room.
To describe the interior as pared down is an understatement: no art hangs on its white-washed walls; a simple coat rack runs along the walls at picture-rail height; paper over white table cloths, dark brown stained chairs and painted, worn floorboards; basic salt and pepper grinders play floral arrangement relief on the tables.
A tall, lithe waiter soon arrives at our table with menus in hand. He smiles as he greets us and hands us the menus. I find myself staring at the few grey hairs in his beard. He announces a couple of specials for the day, then leaves us to peruse our options. Deciding on what to order is always a process of negotiation with us. I am looking for a balance of dishes with different proteins and no doubling up of ingredients. Sadly, I can’t stomach neither horseradish nor hot mustard so those options are immediately ruled out.
A metal basket of breads is brought to our table with a slab of butter. Wide slices from both brown and white cob loaves are laid out, their beauty self-evident. It’s a confident place that offers such simple things to begin with. Chewy, slightly tangy inner crumb with a satisfying exterior crunch is only achieved with years of sourdough practice. The demand for St John’s bread has been so strong that they’ve opened a separate bakery in one of the London markets. The options are limited – white, brown, light rye or fruit.
I want to order us wine but I have little frame of reference for the mainly French offerings on the wine list so I’m going to need help. Jean-Patrick, our waiter, offers assistance. ‘Perhaps if I know what you’re eating then I can suggest something to go with it.’
‘Well, I was thinking something white or pink. I work in a winery region at home in Australia so I’m familiar with those styles but I don’t really know French wine that well.’
‘Why don’t I bring you a sample of both our whites?’ Two small footed glasses are delivered with generous amounts of wine for us both to taste. We settle on the 2017 Languedoc blanc, plenty of fruit without being sweet, and a small amount of oak.
Our order is taken and the three starters are quick to arrive. The first plate holds two pools of thick, buttery yellow mayonnaise. Plump anchovy fillets and two soft poached eggs sit proudly atop. Tiny capers and a bunch of baby cress finish off the plate. The second plate has a mound of potted hare, thick shreds of meat obvious, with celeriac remoulade and one fat pickled walnut. The final plate presents a meaty fillet of house-smoked eel with cucumber and dill tossed in a hot mustard dressing. We decide against the signature dish of roast bone marrow and parsley salad as we had an excellent example of it for breakfast the day prior.
For the main course, we’re sharing devilled kidneys. Six portly kidneys nestle together on a thin slice of toast. The whole lot is bathed in a piquant gravy, featuring a generous hand of Worcestershire sauce. It’s sweet and vinegary and sour and rich all at once. In a similar vein, the Welsh rarebit is all crispy, cheesy goodness. To assuage any possible guilt, I also order a vegetable side dish. Thick green ribbons of cabbage have been lightly steamed and tossed with lashings of butter, salt and pepper.
I’m done. Only a few ribbons of cabbage and a swirl of gravy remain. The wine is finished and my elasticated outfit is proving a wise choice. Just one more mouthful of cabbage perhaps. I’ve never tasted cabbage so sweet and unctuous. That’s it. No more.
‘Would you like to see the dessert list?’ Jean-Patrick suggests as he clears the plates.
’No, I’m all good,’ I say.
‘I already know what I’m having – Eccles cake.’ Steve’s grinning like a small child. ‘You sure you don’t want a glass of something sweet, my sweet? How about a sloe gin?’
I cave swiftly. ‘Alright. Wouldn’t want you eating alone.’
The dessert arrives quickly. It’s a rotund shiny pastry sitting next to a thin, triangular slice of Lancashire cheese. No more and no less. The food on the plates speaks for itself. There’s no garnish, no flurry, no attempt to disguise the food for anything other than it is. I sit back into my chair, interlocked hands resting on stomach and look around the unadorned dining room. I sip my sweet, berry-infused gin while Steve picks up the currants that fall out onto the plate. ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.’
‘Glad to hear it, love.’