St. John Restaurant, London, England.

September 2019

Reading over the history of Fergus Henderson’s famous restaurant starting in the late 1990s, noting the persisting single Michelin star, and remembering my brother’s enthusiastic endorsement of the “nose to tail” idea, we booked ourselves for lunch here with of course high expectations.

Sorry, it’s a disappointment.

One rides the tube northeast out of town to Farrington and then walks a few blocks to a white-painted industrial front that leads into the BAKERY, and up steel stairs into the dining room. Here on worn board floors are maybe 70 seats on nice brown bare chairs at paper-over-white-linen tables. We were early (12:30) for lunch but the place filled up to about 50% over an hour or so.

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The menu is eclectic (and we are told online don’t expect us to tell you what’s on it before you arrive because we are out there exercising our creativity day after day and it could be just about anything): crispy pig fat, razor clams, kohlrabi, grilled sardines and tomatoes, roast bone marrow starters and roast kid, lamb’s tongues, hake with bread and sea aster, violet artichoke with goat’s curd and mint, grilled ox heart with braised red cabbage and horseradish. Lots of desserts. Welsh rarebit, potatoes, other vegetables as extras.

Server is an unusual character, female, middle-aged, bouffant blonde crewcut, definitely businesslike. She was initially friendly but as things got busy increasingly dismissive and absent. The cutlery, glassware, and plates were what you would expect in an institutional cafeteria, and plunked down in front of us as if we were students or inmates.

The clientele was overwhelmingly men. Now contrary to popular belief there’s nothing wrong with men in my opinion, but there was something consistent about males eating in this rough-hewn environment. The bakery down below has apparently become a lunch venue and as we left it was full and there were no women customers there at all. I can’t explain this.

First came Welsh rarebit and crispy pigskin. The former a sort of poutine of gravy with something darker on bread, presented to be accompanied with Worcestershire sauce. It tasted exactly as you would expect from the ingredients. Our starter of crispy pigskin was next on a plate with I guess dandelion which were curved thin slightly bitter-flavoured hard-to-manipulate vegetation without unusual salad vegetable flavour, along with pig skin that was crispy but oversalted even for me. The onion and caper and dressing improved both of them a bit.

The mains were lamb tongues and a kid chop. The tongues were the high point, tender and sour-dressed, delicious with their big braised beans. The chop must have come from an older kid. It was 60% bone, and I’m sorry the meat was tough and flavourless. I had kid once years ago in an osteria in Siena it can be both beautifully tender and gently goat-flavoured. This was neither and I hacked away at it eventually splattering some of the reduction sauce over the top of the two big accompanying roasted carrots onto the paper tablecloth.

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Server recommended a carignane of the local brand for £48 which had a suspect bitterness on the nose and in the mouth and otherwise was about at-expectation.

What’s going on here? I’m afraid it’s worn-out food ideology. But it serves me right for still believing in it. I absolutely revile ideology in diet (please read my book Forbidden Food), and rough-tough take-it-as-it-comes is just as bad as crazy bizarre snake brains, or extremely expensive affected nonsense exploding from thousand-dollar three-star plates. I love a beautiful place, gentle respectful service, evocative smells and music and all the rest of it, but in the end it has to taste good!

And this didn’t.

We were out the door after finally getting someone to bring us a bill for about C$210. I wouldn’t go back and in my opinion neither should you. And by the way, server, get yourself a job you like.

Food 6.9, service 5.2, ambience 8.5, value 7.1, peace and quiet 8.6.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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