Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Whole hog

After such a wonderful vegetarian experience at Rasa, what next but to explore the other end of the food spectrum?

St. John's Bar and Restaurant in London's Clerkenwell district is just around the corner from the Smithfield Market, London's wholesale meat market that has been operating here since the 12th century.

The beautiful arched market building was erected in 1868, designed by architect Sir Howard Jones, who went on to design the Tower Bridge. But on this cool and drizzly evening, it was closed, and we continued on past it to St. John's.

When our son was a small child, we described him as a "narrow band" eater, because there were so few things he was willing to eat. At one point in his childhood, he ate nothing but bread for almost a year. Parents who despair about their picky eaters should take heart from his example, though - beginning in his teens, his menu expanded, and now he eats everything from sweetbreads to sushi.

It was his suggestion to come to St. John. The restaurant was founded in 1994 by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, whose style celebrates British food and ingredients, and is credited with starting the "Snout to Tail" concept of cooking that uses the entire animal, including less popular cuts such as tripe, kidneys, trotters and other parts. Ferguson's book "Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking" came out in Britain in 1999. It was released in the US in 2004, and was enthusiastically promoted by Anthony Bourdain,

Today the St. John company has a bakery, a wine and bread shop, and a hotel that also serves meals. But following in the steps of other carnivorous pilgrims, we came to the original place - an old Georgian era building that was once a smokehouse. Its predominant color is white - walls, floors, linens.

The menu changes from day today, although some favorites remain.  One of the most popular dishes is the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad, which our son ordered for his starter. It came with a little scooper tool to pull the unctuous marrow out of the bone and spread it on grilled bread.

[The Man I Love] ordered grilled octopus

Our friend B doesn't eat red meat, so she ordered cured sea-trout in lemon and dill, served with cucumbers.

I was torn, but in the end I ordered something called Brawn, which is head cheese. A good thick slice came with some vinegared endive on the side. If you're squeamish about it, think again. It's like a terrine, only chunkier, with a rich, satisfying flavor.

On to the mains! Our son had sweetbreads. They were served with sweet English peas.

[The Man I Love] had Roast Middlewhite Pork Loin, served with cooked greens. This was a slice of rolled roast, deliciously porky and crispy on the outside.

St. John's is not just for carnivores. B had fried sole with tartar sauce. The fish was delicate and pure.

I had calves liver with courgettes. Now - you might think liver is offal but I like it. I don't eat it every often - years may go by before I have it again - but I was pleased to see it on the menu. Calves liver is a Venetian specialty that I had longed to try, but while we were there the weather was too hot to think of eating a heavy, rich cut like liver. But the chilly British weather makes a hearty meal attractive. And this was good, panfried so it was just slightly rosy in the middle, and well-seared on the outside.

We were well and fully fed, but we couldn't resist dessert.

Our son had Lancashire Cheese with Eccles Cake - this is a famous combination of sharp country cheese served with a flaky pasty bun filled with currants.

[The Man I Love] and B both chose the peach and sherry trifle

I had elderflower jelly with stewed gooseberries and shortbread. It must be jelly, 'cause jam don't shake like that! Cool and soothing.

The folks at the neighboring table asked us to take their picture, so we obliged. Then, they kindly took ours.

You may not have an appetite for eating offal, since in today's American culture, we've lost the taste for the so-called "unpopular" cuts. But it hasn't been like that for very long - maybe just a generation. I told my mom about this adventure, and she was a little amused by how trendy the concept has become. She grew up on a farm in Texas, and Nose-to-Tail eating was standard practice for her family.

If you have an adventurous palate, Nose-to-Tail eating is a sustainable way to indulge in your carnivorous impulses.


smalltownme said...

I think we would love to dine there!

My younger son ate only pale colored food (bread, chicken, jack cheese, etc.) as a toddler but he eats everything now.

I grew up with my Norwegian mother and her sisters, eating head cheese and pickled pigsfeet. But I drew the line at the stinky gammel ost (direct translation -- old cheese) after my aunt said you should bury it under the doorstep, and when it was too stinky to enter the house the cheese was ready. She kept her modern version contained in the refrigerator, but woe to me if I opened her container by mistake.

Mrs. G. said...

What an adventuresome bunch you are. Everything looks delicious, though the head cheese gives me pause. Great photo, too!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

"Snout to Tail"

Being more vulgar, I refer to it as "Rooter to Tooter". I look at the offal "trend" as being simultaneously more sustainable and more traditional. Until recently, nobody could afford to be squeamish.

Our son had Lancashire Cheese with Eccles Cake - this is a famous combination of sharp country cheese served with a flaky pasty bun filled with currants.

I wonder if this is an inspiration for Jamaican bun and cheese.

Gilly said...

I think I should point out to those of your readers who may not be familiar with us in the UK, that octopus is not native to British waters, and although delicious, cannot be described as an olde englyshe dishe!!

The rest of the food looked absolutely delicious! (well, actually the octopus did, I love it when I go to Greece)

DaveyWaveyGoodAsGravy said...

"Snoot to Boot"?

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Wow, from Venice to an impressive meal! You are braver than I, although my 19yo would enjoy the marrow -- in fact, everything but the bread.