If you ask every good chef in the UK who their favourite chef or restaurant is, quite a few will answer Fergus Henderson at St John. Gordo first heard of him in an interview with Anthony Bourdain, the New York chef who wrote Kitchen Confidential, a book that Tony Wilson brought once as a Christmas present for Gordo. Bourdain then turned up at the annual Manchester Food and Drink Festival a few years back. That may well have been something to do with Tony.
The place looked like a barn that had been requisitioned by Florence Nightingale back in 1853, painted white and scrubbed clean every night ever since. WAGery it ain’t. Spartan it is.
Bourdain spoke highly of Henderson back then and in the past eight years his stock has risen considerably. In 2004, Bourdain wrote the forward to the re-published Nose to Tail Eating, a cook book which most chefs worth their salt have in their book case. This is an homage to what you can do with a pig. And other stuff. The names of the dishes are wonderful. Pea and pigs ear soup. Ducks legs and carrots. Warm pigs head. Heady stuff indeed.
On a recent trip to London, Gordo thought it about time that he visited Mr Henderson’s restaurant. It’s next to Smithfield Market and you could easily miss it. You walk through a bright hall into a strangely shaped room, with a bar on the left with some good draught bitters, a bakery on the next wall and on the third, stairs leading up to a dining room on the first floor. City trader types were eating at tables in the bar. The place looked like a barn that had been requisitioned by Florence Nightingale back in 1853, painted white and scrubbed clean every night ever since. WAGery it ain’t. Spartan it is. The brokers were eating great doorstep sandwiches stuffed with lovely looking grub. The smell of freshly baked bread permeated the place.
Spotting Drew Smith, ex editor of The Good Food Guide and Gordo’s guest for lunch, he walked over and found himself being introduced to Trevor Gulliver, the owner of the restaurant and Bill Knott, a food writer. A pair of likely lads.
“Pleased to meet you Gordo”, says Bill, “Do you Northerners always walk into bars with your shoulders back and your flies undone?”
Oh fuck, Gordo is definitely going senile.
Drew and Gordo go upstairs into the restaurant, a busy space, which has tables with crisp white linen, simple wooden chairs and the same bright airiness of the bar downstairs. There is an electricity in this room; people are buzzing. They either know, from previous visits, or believe, from friends' recommendations that they are about to get a treat.
Brown shrimp and white cabbage (£6.80) showed the kitchen’s attitude to salads. Don’t muck about too much. The dish was nearly a bland start, but with a tickle in the way of a squeeze of lemon, some ground pepper and bit more salt it came to life. The shrimps were the Morecambe Bay types. Gordo prefers them served the French way, shell on and eat the lot. The Langoustines and mayonnaise (£12.80) looked pristine, with a golden yellow, just made mayonnaise which was class. Gordo forgot to ask but they looked like they were timed correctly, they go all crumbly if you aren’t careful. The bread proves it's worth. We could have chosen Razor clams (£2.70 each, tried later, bloody fabulous, a real treat) Peas in the pod (£4.00) or indeed Salt hake, tomato and little gem (£7.20).
Now, when Mr. Henderson visited the Manchester Food and Drink festival, he showed us one of his classic dishes, Roast bone marrow and parsley salad (£6.60). Gordo arrived to that late, grabbed a couple of pieces of the bone, got dug in with a spoon. Yeah, well?
Having read Bourdain’s forward in Nose to Tail Eating, Gordo decided to give it a go again, as a middle course. Four three inch pieces of sawed-off marrow bone, having been simply roasted in the oven. A teacup sized pile of parsley salad, laced through with finely sliced shallots.
Two slices of farmhouse bread toasted. Butter. Salt. (Fleur de Sel, as it happens, Gordo having been given a lesson by Drew). Buttered the bread. Dug out a wobbly chunk of marrow. Sprinkled with the salt. A bit of the Parsley Salad. Suddenly, you understand Matisse’s Blue Nude IV. It is the simplicity and the construction. Each piece of the construction requires the other. The unctuousness of the marrow, the crunch and smokiness of the bread with the sharp little bits and pieces delivered with the salad was utter magic.
Roast suckling pig and braised peas (£22.80). Two slices of creamy white pork, ringed with perfectly crispy, salty crackling. Very, very good this. Grado, on New York Street here in Manchester do a similar dish every Monday lunchtime which comes a very close second by the way. Back at St John, the braised peas are great. As are the two ‘sides’ of spring greens (£3.20) and Jersey royal potatoes (£4). Drew had a superb looking pile of smoked eel, (£15.60), off a big meaty fish. Accompanied by a watercress and potato salad that looked a honey.
Puddings were Eccles cake and Lancashire cheese (£6.30) and rhubarb trifle (£6.70). Gordo was interested to see how Mr Henderson handled the Eccles cake and try and figure out what the hell the cheese was doing there. Gordo was assured by a member of an absolutely professional front of house brigade that this was a traditional Lancashire dish. Gordo was sceptical, he had never heard of it. The cake was sublime, with a pastry so moist and buttery, crisp on the outside, puffed into a dome with a one centimetre layer of gooey raisins inside. The cheese was Mrs Kirkham’s, brought to room temperature and served in a thin-ish wedge next to the Eccles cake. On their own, both pieces were superb. Together, it was like meeting Brad and Angela walking arm in arm down a back street on a warm June day in St. Tropez.
The rhubarb trifle was poor. It was ‘over worked’. Too smooth, too sweet, too rich. No Jelly? No Biscuit? No Sponge? Not to either Gordo's or Drew’s taste. We told the waiter and he took it on the chin.
The same waiter had earlier pointed Gordo away from a £40 bottle of wine, recommending instead a bottle of Vin de Pays de l’Ardeche, ‘Grange de Mirabele’ by M Chapoutier. Chapoutier is a very safe pair of hands in the Rhone, if normally at the high end of the price range. This was on at £28 and drank like a top end wine. Keep your eye out for it. The red was a big, inky Cahors, Chateau de Chambert ‘Orphee’ (£47.80). Rare, here in the UK and very interesting.
What Fergus Henderson does at St John is treat very carefully chosen ingredients with total respect. He wants the flavour to shine through. It will not get Michelin stars: it will however deliver lessons to anyone who is interested in cooking food, with utter simplicity and charm. Go if in the smoke.
|Breakdown:|| 8.5/10 Food |
|Address:|| St. John Bar and Restaurant |
26 St. John Street
Reservations 020 7251 0848
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