I love checking out restaurants and eateries when I travel. It literally gives me the flavour of the destination, and for a moment, let’s me to do what the locals do. In these cases, to eat where they enjoy eating. It’s not just the food that I am there for but also the local vibe of the place. Hence I try to avoid touristy spots.
One of the most iconic and well respected restaurants in the city, St John (26 St John St, London EC1M 4AY. Tube: Farringdon) was among the first in UK to start the nose-to-tail dining concept which drew on the traditional frugality of cooking. I always wanted to eat there, and finally made the trip.
St John is in Clerkenwell, a hip, stylish neighbourhood these days, and my old stomping ground as a postgrad student at City University in the mid-1990s. Except that back then, Clerkenwell was a bit of a brown site, full of abandoned buildings, and rough, forlorn streets. Emerging from Farringdon tube station a couple of weeks ago, I was blown away by how completely gentrified the neighbourhood had become since my student days. I used to walk through this area every morning to get to lectures, and knew it like the back of my hand. But now, I couldn’t recognise a thing. And all for the better. The neighbourhood was bright, buzzy and cleaned up. Had to stop and take multiple pictures. I was reminded my student days there were several decades ago, even if it felt like just a couple of years had passed. How time flies.
Anyways, just up the road from the no-longer-dark-and-scary Smithfield Market, St John is known for its meat and offal dishes. But its extensive wine list and wines-by-the-glass options are an exceedingly happy bonus too.
The restaurant itself is in a cloistered, white-washed, institution-like space – perhaps to focus our attentions on the food—while outside is a more casual, bright bar setting with even more libations.
Unfortunately, we did not have an ideal start. The starter of pig skin with fennel (£10.80) was a pile of stiff, tough vegetable and animal fibre to chew through. The endodontist among us said the skin was so tough it risked a cracked tooth, so we masticated slowly and with care. Thankfully it was the only downside to the meal.
Living up to its reputation, the mains of grilled hare saddle with potatoes and pickled walnut (£24.90), roast venison with celeriac (£26), and tripe with root vegetables (£19.80) were very good. The meats were tender and juicy, cooked just right and the flavours all came through nicely and well balanced. The food here is straightforward and unadorned, but really well executed – which is what St John is known for.
Desserts here were fantastic too, though it is not their proclaimed forte. The chocolate cake (£9) pudding thickly dripping with sauce and accompanied by an indulgent side of double cream, and the rich ginger loaf sitting in a moat of luscious caramel (£8.70) were really enjoyable, and called for a tasty Pedro Ximenez (only £5!). It was a sugar overload, but well worth it. The husband preferred something light and less cloying, and the potent vodka and sorbet combo called out to him.
With that, we rolled out of the restaurant and tottered back to the tube station quite satisfied indeed. Another successful holiday meal that was well worth the trek to Clerkenwell.