Since Amy and I have been together I think we’ve only spent two Thanksgivings in America – not because we don’t enjoy turkey, but because it is often the cheapest time of the year to leave the country as many expat Americans are returning home. And true to form, this year, despite a sizable delay at JFK, we had only 47 other passengers for company on our British Airways 747 flight to London, so enjoyed the “luxury” of a row of economy seats each.
The purpose of this trip was, principally, to visit my new nephew, William, who, we discovered, is a charming young chap with pink cheeks and a propensity for chewing his fingers, drinking milk, and synchronizing his burps and farts – some skills you just can’t teach. However, we also planned to visit old friends we hadn’t seen since our wedding 18 months ago, and, if we could fit it in, actually see some of London.
I’m sure many of you have heard and/or seen about the culinary renaissance that has been happening in the UK over the past ten years or so, that the country is rightfully proud of. Marco Pierre White, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Rick Stein, and Heston Blumenthal, among others, have all made huge names for themselves domestically and internationally for their reinterpretations of classic British dishes and focus on the excellent produce of the British Isles. Much of this gastronomic progress has been realized in the restaurants of London, turning it from culinary wasteland to hot spot almost over night.
Now, my experience of dining in London as a resident were generally not at these temples of fine food, but instead at more down-at-heel places like the many gastro-pubs and curry houses. So, the first opportunity we got, Amy and I raced off to a local boozer in Putney (the Coat & Badge) for a quick pub lunch of pork pie, chips and mushy peas, washed down with a couple of pints of Fuller’s London Pride (a bitter made just over the Thames in Chiswick), and that evening, followed it up with a typically Anglo-Indian take-out curry from the totally average but completely wonderful Putney Tandoori.
Chucking back a chicken tikka jalfrezi and a lamb dhansak was like putting on an old sweater – familiar, comforting, and with a smell that evoked many happy memories. Rose-tinted memories for certain, because I’ve committed some fairly miserable and embarrassing mistakes of judgment at Indian restaurants over the years, including the time I ordered a fahl (an insanely-spiced dish), took one bite and then rubbed my eyes with a chile-soaked finger, and spent the rest of the night feverishly rinsing out my sockets fearing I’d blinded myself.
The day after our curries, we headed into London proper – to the centre/center – to revisit the nasty-ass basement bar where Amy and I stumbled across one another nearly six years ago, do some shopping down Neal Street, and then head up to Farringdon for lunch. Amazingly, the Gardening Club (the basement bar) looked like it had been given a face-lift, and was now, curiously, serving lunch, but neither of us could really face going inside for fear that it might change our cherished memories of the place. So, pushing on, we enjoyed the recent fall in value of the pound vs. the dollar and actually did some non-food shopping for a change.
One of the other “new” breed of British chef/restaurateurs, we knew about from having read about him, seen him on TV and bought his book, but who has garnered far less international celebrity is Fergus Henderson of St. John Restaurant near Smithfield Market. He is most famous for his widely-copied dish of roasted veal marrow-bones and parsley salad which we had eaten and loved at both Gabrielle Hamilton’s fabulous Prune, in NYC, and more recently at L’Express in Montreal. Now we wanted to try the original.
Below a sign featuring a hand-drawn pig, we entered the restaurant down a short hallway (the building which houses the restaurant is a Georgian-era carriage house, and one enters via the former carriage entrance the courtyard of which is now covered and serves as the restaurant’s bar, bakery and cafe area), and ascended a short flight of stairs to to the dining room full of anticipation. Factory-style lamps illuminated a white-walled space completely circled by head-high coat-hooks, and a thickly-painted floor was decorated only by ordinary white-clothed tables and dark, well-worn chairs.
Check out the slideshow above to see what we had for lunch, and then listen to the podcast below to learn more about St. John Restaurant, and our excitingly awkward meeting with chef/owner Fergus Henderson.