Thursday, May 23, 2013

Foodgasm at St. John

Otherwise known as the best restaurant I have eaten at since moving to London.*

*as seen thusfar. And I've eaten at a decent number of restaurants here. Especially in comparison to how often I went out in Helsinki.

My bestie from back home, Rhinda, recommended this place to me via an Anthony Bourdain article. Basically the tone of the article was, "if I had to die with something rolling out of my mouth, these are the places I would choose to be eating at when that happened."

He then chose the 13 places around the world that he would die happy eating at. This was first on the list (not necessarily in priority, but just listed first). Hoho, Don! Something to be proud of!

The parents and I were contemplating eating at this place for my dad's birthday but it ended up being too much of a hassle for Easter weekend, hence why we ate at Papaya instead, which was also delightful. Hong Kong P and Turkish C being in town, however, well...that was just a reason to celebrate. And being known foodies...well, I can think of no better reason than to go out and try this place.

I made the reservations. Unfortunately they were completely booked for the weekend so we only got reservations on a Monday night. Whatever, we were going to make it work in order to taste this food glory.

And oh my god was it food glory. Anthony Bourdain, you definitely do not disappoint in your food recommendations (not that I'd ever in my life think that he would, but this just reaffirms my faith in the man and his good taste in life choices).

We arrived half an hour early after my nervousness of potential transit delays and just our general running-lateness. Contrary to what happens with Finn, however, we were shown to our table despite being early and were able to be served right away. This was pretty amazing all things considered.

I just realized I've not named "the place." The place I'm about to rave about incessantly? St. John. It's located between Farrigondon and Barbican tube stations in the central part of London (very much zone 1).

The inside is absolutely adorable. Even before you get to the restaurant you're greeted by a gorgeous bar and bakery. I would definitely come here on some random day just to sit and admire the natural lighting and fabulous interior design. Whoever did this should apply for a job at Apartment Therapy. I'm sure they already work there, actually:

The inside of the restaurant is actually pretty plain. Similar lampshades, pure white tables with white chairs and white table cloths. There are white pegs lining the walls so you can hang your coats (extremely practical and beautiful at the same time). Simple and tasteful. The focus is on the food and the wonderful open kitchen. We were seated at the table next to the kitchen. We watched our food being prepared. It was mouth-watering.

So, to the meat of the situation. What did we order?

A crapton of food. That's no joke. Three foodie girlfriends, one very well-regarded restaurant known for its bone marrow offerings and other weird land animal dishes? Uh, yeah, lots was going to be ordered. And wine.

The Appetizers

We ordered three appetizers. We considered ordering more, but we wanted to pace ourselves. There was so much we wanted from this menu. And it was all fairly reasonably priced (anywhere from 5-10pounds per dish). Very reasonable given the quality of restaurant.

We asked our waitress what she would recommend and we ordered all three of her recommendations: the bone marrow (highly raved about and recommended by every piece of news we'd read about this place, including the Anthony Bourdain article...we would have ordered this even if she hadn't mentioned it), crispy pig skin, and ox liver salad.

The ox liver salad. Thinly sliced, tossed with marinated onions and greens (I don't know what they're called but they come in clusters and are very common in all salads I've had here). Absolutely fantastic. The dressing was something very similar to hoisin and it was delicious. Bit savory, bit sweet, but not cloying or overbearing. The ox liver itself was meaty, not chewy, and did not taste like organ. It was more like meat than anything. Very enjoyable. Highly recommended.

The crispy pork skin. This was more like crackling that had been made into chips, sort of like pork rinds but much much crunchier. Like pita chips. These were then tossed with some sort of veggie stems (not sure what these were, to be honest), all in a mustard dressing. The pork skins, I'll be perfectly honest, were a bit too much. They were really fried and really crunchy. A bit too hard at times. Like eating really thick pita chips made out of pure pig skin. Normally that would be an awesome thing but I could taste their oil and somehow this wasn't appealing, despite the greens and the mustard sauce. We all agreed that this was our least favorite dish. Worth trying but unfortunately not the best.

The very highly-anticipated bone marrow plate. We were so excited about this. And it was well-worth the excitement.

We were each given little implements to scoop the marrow out as well, though these looked like seafood forks. I've understood from watching Martha Stewart that there are actually dedicated marrow spoons that look like elongated salt spoons. Narrow and a bit deep. One of these days I will have a beautiful set of them, just for my marrow consumption.

Anyway, this was a bit of a process, but I'd do it all again in a heartbeat to eat this dish.

First you scoop the marrow out onto your bread, then sprinkle it with course sea salt (which is also on the plate, though you may not see it), then top it all off with the parsley salad (parsley, red onions, all coated in olive oil).

In a word: incredible. The marrow was juicy, succulent, exploding with flavor. If you've never tried marrow before I encourage it with all my heart. It's like the best (warm) pate you've ever had. This was oilier than I remember my previous marrow experiences, but this did nothing but accentuate the experience. No detractions whatsoever. I was in absolute food heaven at that point. I didn't care that there was marrow oils dripping down my fingers. I would gladly have eaten that entire appetizer dish of marrow by myself. And if I ever go here again, I definitely will.

The Mains

Hilariously we all ended up ordering the same thing: the grilled ox heart. Not sure what it was about this that all called to us, but it did. I was reminiscing about my wonderful experiences eating seared baby reindeer heart and decided to go with it because of that. Hong Kong P also decided the same because we were both debating between the same two dishes - this, or the pigeon that was cooked medium rare. Tough choice, because pigeon is always delicious (I'd just in the past few years figured out that one of my favorite fowl, squab, is actually pigeon)...but you can get pigeon anywhere. Especially in Chinese food. Where else could you get grilled ox heart?

So the decision was made and three orders of grilled ox heart were ordered.

Actually it just ended up being okay. And I'll tell you why: though the meat was tasty (sort of tasted like organy-steak), the horseradish it came with was completely overpowering. So despite the meat itself being really quite good - you could tell it was well-marinated and certainly grilled to perfection and quite good when it came to you still warm on the plate - eating it with the accompanying sauce was like having someone shoot acid into your nose over and over again.

Eventually we broke down and asked for a small serving of honey to go with the horseradish. I know, total sacrilege when it comes to eating in gourmet restaurants...but really, something needed to be done about this horseradish situation. The chef definitely gave us the "look" when we asked our waitress to bring the honey over. What can I say? I absolutely love food and most ingredients in their raw and powerful forms. I even love extreme spicy. But acid in my nose? Just a little too much for me.

The carrots themselves were braised to sweetness and were glorious, but overall I thought this dish was a bit disappointing in comparison to the appetizers and what was to be the experience of the desserts. But I'll get to that next.

The Desserts

As if having three appetizers wasn't enough (and it wasn't) we decided to order three desserts as well. This came about as we were looking at the dessert menu and three things called to each of us.

First, Chef (our friend, not the chefs here, who probably started rolling their eyes at us since the honey incident) recommended that we order the madeleines off the menu. So that was already one of our choices checked off.

Second, there were many specials of the day that sounded fabulous.

Third, why not three desserts? There were three of us anyway and they were all reasonably priced again (about the same as the appetizers). We decided we would live a little.

So we ordered the madeleines (six, not twelve), honey mousse, and a chocolate pot.

The honey mousse was perfection. Like a parfait that's so sweet and light you just want to eat it slowly. Accompanying it were spiced prunes that had been stewed in bergamot. I heart these so much. They were heavenly. There was also a gingersnap cookie or something similar with it. All three combined brought me to my knees. Sweet, creamy, spiced, and a little bit of herb. Fantastic combination. The guy who made this dish? Promoted in my book.

Next was the chocolate pot. A bit different than we were expecting (and smaller). Surprisingly served cold instead of hot (we were expecting something like fondue, not a fudge). This was basically cold fudge with creme on top, served with a honey shortbread cookie. The cookie was fantastic, I'll say that. The chocolate itself was smooth, but otherwise disappointing. Not particularly memorable, unfortunately. I would recommend something else if you're gonna get something.

And the madeleines. Oh the madeleines. Chef was not wrong in recommending these. Now I've had madeleines all my life. And they've always been good. But oh my god. Hot and fresh from the oven? So soft they're like bread in your hands? And so sweet and buttery they're basically like cornbread but without the texture? I have no words for this but delicious. I could eat these all day, everyday. And that's no insult to the madeleines I've had before - they're all good. But these were incredible. The funny thing was, they weren't even that pretty. Just goes to show, you never can tell.

By this time I was feeling euphoric. Very good food is a fine and rare treat for me and everything was splendid. Even the wine, which we all got single glasses of:

A French red, Le Clos. 2011. Incredible. Fruity, smooth, absolutely no aftertaste. Exactly what I wanted. Not even a breath of overalcohol. Fabulous. According to some internet research I believe it to be this bottle.

This, was a splendid evening out. And with my visiting Helsinki ladies, no less!

I will say that any foodie friend of mine who visits should come to this place, hands down.

Total, including tip, we paid 40pounds a person for the food we had. Including the wine. And I didn't even mention that it came with bread and butter at the beginning. Yeah, that kind of awesome. I can't even imagine what this kind of food would cost me in Helsinki (we're talking a good 80euros likely) or even in California (probably something like $85).

Yes, I will definitely come back here. That, you can bet on.

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