My first visit to England took place in 1977. I spent three weeks there, two in London sandwiched around a week driving through the English countryside in a little red Mini. I was a 23-year-old rock ‘n’ roll guitar player who had aspirations of being a professional musician. And outside of my home turf of Greenwich Village, no other place had as much allure for me as London. While that was well before I acquired a taste for fine dining, I had already developed a keen interest in food, mainly cheap eats and ethnic cuisine. But friends who had visited England had warned me about the food. How could this be, I asked myself? I simply couldn’t imagine that there was a place in the world where people didn’t like to eat well, especially a place where they made such great music.
Before arriving in England I spent three days in Rome and three days in Paris. It didn't take me long to have a seminal culinary moment. On my first morning in Rome, I found the cappuccino so astoundingly good that I had six of them in 90 minutes, capped off by a whipped cream–filled cornetti at the pasticerria in the Stazione Termini. And after three days of experiencing the glories of Italy, I got off the overnight train from Roma to Paris to find food paradise. Never before had I seen displays of pastries, cheeses, meats, etc. all laid out so beautifully. It didn’t take long for the cornetti to be topped by what seemed like the perfect croissant, which I suspect was really a stick of butter with the wrapper removed with a little flour thrown into the mix. France and Italy were just as my friends had travelled to Europe had said. Delicious.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived at Charing Cross Station in London and found that the pastries being sold weren’t beautifully golden like my glorious cornetti and croissants, but had a pale white exterior. In fact, they hardly looked cooked. If baked goods were analogous to people, London’s pastries would be the equivalent of albinos. But the baked goods at the stand in the station were just the beginning of my British culinary journey. I was staying at a B&B in Bloomsbury and right next to the Russell Square tube stop there was a sandwich shop. Hungry lads that we were, one day we decided to pick up a sandwich before getting on the tube. Looking over the menu, I decided on “Tomato and Cheese.” It turned out to be two slices of white bread, one slice of what we in the U.S. call American cheese, and a single slice of tomato. The counterman grabbed a pre-made sandwich and asked if I wanted some “salad sauce.” Not one to turn down free condiments, I assented, and he smeared what turned out to be a mayonnaise-like substance on one of the slices of bread. Coming from the land of the overstuffed pastrami sandwich and the double-decker Club sandwich, the skimpiness of the sandwich seemed truly bizarre.
Over the next three weeks bad food became a way of life for us. Considering that London is only 300 miles from Paris, even closer to the French port of Calais, how could it be that the food in one place was made of gold and the other made of straw? Surely there was a place that served up simple roasts of top-quality meats and poultry and good-quality vegetables prepared simply but well? But whenever I inquired about such a restaurant, nobody ever had a response. Being a true believer when it comes to food, I never gave up hope that such a thing as a good traditional British cuisine could exist. In fact ten years after my first trip to London, the President of a top recording company had invited me to dinner and asked me what I wanted to eat. I told him I would love to have traditional English food, figuring that if anyone was in a position to know where to get a good version, it would be him. But he took me to a place on the Fulham Road, the White Horse was the name I believe, and it wasn't much better than pub food.
It was against this backdrop that in 1994, Fergus Henderson opened his restaurant, St. John, just down the block from Smithfield's Market, in an old bacon smokehouse that had stopped production in 1967. Henderson couldn't have chosen a more appropriate setting for his restaurant. St. John, with its whitewashed walls and simple wooden tables, seemed more like a place where you asked your server for another glass of mead than one more posh London upper-Middle restaurant. But St. John not only looked different, Henderson had created a revolutionary dining concept. Typically we recognize chefs who have created new forms of cuisine. Paul Bocuse and Ferran Adra come to mind. But unlike those chefs who invented something new, Fergus Henderson became famous because he invented something old.
We decided to split a series of appetizers for the table which the restaurant served in two flights. First, a beautiful plate of prawns with meaty tailes served with a small bowl of homemade mayonaisse on the side. They were delicious, and after tasting them I was unhappy that I had to share them with my fellow diners. Then came smoked prats with horseradish cream on the side. Good flavor, but ultimately I'm not a a sprat man. They're just too difficult to eat because they are bony, even though technically you can eat the crunchy bones. But they reminded me of whitefish, and I'm definitely more of a sable and sturgeon guy than a whitefish guy. A simple slad of salsify and greens which was a bit wilted, followed.
Pork terrine with some vinegary cornichons started the second flight of appetizers. The terrine was loosely packed, which I found appealing. The flavor was deep and savoury, and the cornichons were a perfect foil. Then some delicious fresh-tasting sliced cold Middlewhite (a breed of British pork) served with quince. Finally, the house signature dish of roasted marrow bones served with a parsley side salad which has always been terrific whenever I have visited the restaurant.
For my main I had a superb veal chop. Originally, I ordered the lamb but our server came back with the bad news that it had sold out. I asked her to inquire of the kitchen whether they had something interesting hiding in the larder, and she returned a moment later to offer me a loin veal chop with braised red cabbage. The veal was aged beautifully. I don’t know if they age veal as long as they age beef, but this was the equivalent of 28-day-old beef. Cooked perfectly medium rare as well. I scraped every bit of meat off the bone. One of my dining companions ordered the roast woodcock. And while some at our table commented that it could have been hung a bit longer, the meat had this amazingly creamy texture and a deep, slightly gamey flavor. Two others had chitterlings which I somehow managed to miss.
Dessert at St. John seems as if it has been prepared in a bakeshop out of Victorian times. Gluttons that we are, we decided to opt for six plates which the four of us would split, including a nice cheese plate, treacle tart, Eccles cake with a wedge of Lancashire cheese (which was superb), goats-milk yogurt with a crème brulée top, vanilla-apricot ripple ice cream, and a chocolate pot. The restaurant offers BYO for a very reasonable 10 pounds, and we managed to knock off a number of bottles during the course of the evening.
St. John certainly isn't fine dining. If you can draw an equivalent, it is on par with the type of luxury bistro you would find in France where the chef has a knack for when to turn his roasts. On its face the concept is so simple, it makes one ask why it took until 1994 for someone like Fergus Henderson to come along and reinvent the equivalent of the wheel? Was it really that difficult to do? Look at that lovely Eccles cake in the photo. It’s filled with dried currents, sugar and some spice, and it is stuffed into what we in New York would call a Danish pastry. Why did it take Fergus Henderson to figure out that the outside of the bun was supposed to be a golden brown instead of a pale white? Or why was he the first to realize that Britain can produce lamb, veal, and pork that can actually taste good? The truth is, nobody knows the answers to these questions. We just accept the fact that one day Fergus Henderson came along and filled in this very large culinary blank. A-