Tuesday, March 13, 2012

St. John: Nose to Tail with Fergus Henderson

Fergus Henderson caused something of a sensation when he opened his restaurant St. John Bar & Restaurant in London in 1994, and since then it's spawned a cult following. One of the most influential restaurants in the world, Henderson's culinary skills are impressive enough to have brought chefs to their knees in adoration. Anthony Bourdain apparently knelt in respect before Henderson after his first time dining there, and Chef Mario Batali says of his cooking, "it makes me want to torch my own Babbo restaurant and move to London to heed the master's call." St. John specializes in "nose to tail eating", with a devotion to offal and other cuts of meat rarely seen in restaurants, such as pigs' ears, pigs' tails, trotters, bone marrow and, when in season, squirrel! Henderson's defining principle is — "If you're going to kill an animal," he reasons, "it seems only polite to use the whole thing." 

St John Bar & Restaurant, a former smokehouse near Smithfield meat market

In a former life, self-trained Fergus Henderson worked as an architect, so it's no wonder that St. John’s setting is a unique architectural space. The Michelin-starred restaurant is located in what was a derelict smoke house, adjacent to London’s famous Smithfield meat market. The interior has been striped down to its bare bones to reveal, what has been described as 'abattoir-chic' on account of the meaty, offal orientated dishes Henderson likes to serve. Harking back to the days when very little went to waste, anything can be served here. Some may find this hard to digest but we decided to give it a go and judge the food for ourselves. Call it a delirious dash to the other side of the culinary spectrum.

Striking high ceilings and whitewashed walls are a dramatic setting to Henderson's 
minimalist nose-to-tail cuisine

The interior of the restaurant mirrors his style of food — it's paired down, simple and honest. "We've painted the walls white, installed a bakery in two of the chimneys, a kitchen, dining room and private room in the former packing rooms and topped the bar with 20-foot high skylights." The striking 30-foot high ceiling with whitewashed walls and exposed staircases, provides a dramatic setting for the stark minimalism of Henderson's bold and simple food. Whereas some chefs create dishes that look as if they were styled by a battalion of interior designers, Henderson goes for utility, remaining resolute in his simple and straightforward no-frills approach.

The busy bar at St Johns

A fabulous smaller menu is available at the bar

St John's stylistically minimal dining room - stark and simple

Aside from launching two restaurants and a small hotel with partner Trevor Gulliver, Fergus Henderson has published his own cookbook, Nose to Tail Eating, a collection of recipes that has marked him out as one of Britain's most innovative chefs. His staunchly British recipes often reclaim traditional English recipes that make 'delicious virtue' using every part of the animal, revitalising vintage cuts such as ox heart, bone marrow and tongue, with dishes such as Rolled Pig's Spleen, Duck's Neck Terrine, Roast Woodcock and Crispy Pig Tails. Not for the faint of heart, Henderson's cookbook is ideal for people who love to eat "on the wild side." 

Henderson's best-sellling cookbook - Nose to Tail Eating

A chef that has been called "a living god in the world of head-to-hoof cooking," we were truly looking forward to experiencing St John's 'offal' cooking firsthand. Known for exquisitely plain food, the restaurant's innovative menu changes daily, but always includes Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad, one of his signature dishes. The roasted marrow arrives in its bone with a dish of gray salt, toasts, a tiny spoon, and an untamed mound of dressed parsley. Stark, simple and delicious. St John also serves a whole suckling pig, which has to be ordered a week in advance, and is enough for 14 to 16 people.

The menu changes daily at St John

Our wine selection for the evening

Roast bone marrow and parsley salad

Fried Spratts with homemade tartar sauce

Ox Tongue with Chicory and Anchovy Salad

Braised Hare with Swede

Lamb Sweetbreads with Radishes and White Beans

Roast Middlewhite and Braised Carrots

Welsh Rarebit as a side dish — looks like hell, but was delicious

New Potatoes and cabbage

Ginger Loaf with Butterscotch Sauce

St John Cheese Plate: Dorsten Goat, Soft Tagworth, Stitchelton & Bermondsey Pressed
with Fennel and Cumin Seed Biscuits made by Terry

Terry is the lovely guy who bakes all the breads, biscuits and baked goodies at St John

Salted Chocolate Tart

Half Dozen Madeleines packaged up for the flight to Rome in the morning

"There have been a lot of strokes of fate involved in my life," Henderson says, perhaps alluding both to his culinary successes, from St. John to the publication of his two cookbooks, but also to his brush with Parkinson’s, which was cured through experimental surgery in 2006. Henderson maintains a thoroughly relaxed, if not refreshingly aloof approach to his work. "It’s best not to act like a surgeon in the kitchen. The best menus are created when you’ve got a bit of time to move around, read some books, and find your inspiration outside of the kitchen — and once you get out there, it’s everywhere."

Fergus's Roasted Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad 
Serves 6 as a starter; 3 as a main

12 3 to 4-inch high calf or beef marrow bones
2 bunches of fresh, flat-leaf parsley
2 shallots, peeled and chopped finely
4 tbsp of capers
1 french baguette, sliced and grilled lightly in the oven, or toasted
Maldon sea salt

For the dressing:
juice of 1 lemon
extra virgin olive oil
pinch of sea salt and pepper

Heat oven to 450°F. Add marrowbones, standing up straight, to an oven-proof pan and roast for 20 minutes. Depending on how thick they are, you may want to check them at about 15 minutes to see how the inside looks. The marrow should be loose and melted-looking, but still slightly firm.

While the bones roast, make the parsley salad by lightly chopping the parsley and then tossing it with the shallots, capers and salt and pepper. Toast or grill some slices of baguette until they take on some colour. After the bones come out of the oven, toss the salad with the lemon and olive oil dressing.

Serve two to three bones per person along with a few pieces of toast, a serving of parsley salad, a knife and a small bowl of Maldon salt. Use a small knife or spoon to take the marrow out of the bones and smear it on the toast, sprinkling a bit of the sea salt and topping with a bit of parsley salad. Serve with a thin and reasonably acidic red wine.

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