February 10, 2006

L is for Londre…

Pussy cat, Pussy cat where have you been?
I've been to London to see the Queen.
Pussy cat, pussy Cat what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.

The chair was in the spare white-on-white eating hall of St. John’s Restaurant. The Queen was not there, but the prince of nose-to tail eating was—Fergus Henderson.

Near the junction of St. John Street and CowCross Street across from the ancient meat market of St. Bartholomew, Henderson weaves a gustatory magic with the slightest of hands. His cooking is as straightforward and just as beat poetic as his speech. “ A bit like Christmas, isn’t it?” as he describes the gifts that people bring him to cook: a jute bag of wild garlic, a whole calf carcass being driven from Scotland, a bag of fennel pollen from Italy. “Happy table” as the dining room chatter of the City’s ‘suits and ties’ elevates to match the happy food.

And ‘happy’ does enter often into the conversations at our own happy table as Judy, Tricia and I dine with Fergus on a midwinter menu of crispy pig’s cheeks in a monk’s beard salad, roasted woodcock and wild teal and beetroot. “If the animals live a happy life that means the farmer is happy. If he’s happy, the cook is happy with the food he gets. When the cook is happy, we’re happy when we eat the food. It makes a happy chain.”

I watch the head chef and a tight kitchen staff of five define Henderson’s highly touted menu with modest gestures born out of sure hands. Surely, they too are happy. Head chef John Wigley plucks the feathers off the woodcook’s heads before tucking the stiletto beak into it’s own breast. They roast with their innards still tucked in to be served as a gamey tripe on toast. Fergus smiles, “Fortunately, they poo before they fly.”

Look here.” Fergus leans into the tightly packed treasure trove walk-in cooler- a side of beef, several legs of lamb, a suckling pig, a bucket of calf tails and tongues lie in waiting. Cooks bustle the meat into recipes. The piglet gets tin-foil earrings. A large meaty rabbit is wrapped in fennel twigs and trussed with bacon before being cooked slowly in the bread oven. The fennel-scented meat served in a large bowl at the table with ladles of the winey broth.

Pots of stock are cooling on a counter as a pail of carrots are peeled and left whole to cook “because they stay sweeter.” They glow neon orange in the monochromatic setting. A plate of cooked sprout tops—a deep green punctuation to the slow roasted, braised and meaty menu. Rhubarb Eton Mess is a mosaic of delicate pink stripes over a scrumptious cream and meringue dessert. These color points are not accidental. Every detail is thought through from the crispy waiters’ white to the sole graphic design of the black and white portioned pig logo on a small ashtray. It is a thoughtful kind of place.

Sometimes the best thing about living in Gascony is how fast I can get out of town: to San Sebastian-3 hours, Barcelona-4.5 hours, and when I couldn’t think of a French ‘L’ word- Londres, just 1.5 hours by flying pig.

Photo of Fergus Henderson by Tim Clinch


Sam said...

you are blessed,
is it your Saint's day or something?

David said...

I have a reservation in March at St. John's...can't wait to go!

Diva said...

I double dare you to match Kate's lunch!

Barbara said...

Welcome back. You were missed.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kate,

St.John is my absolute favorite restaurant in London. While I briefly entertained an idea of writing a foodie murder mystery, I had the loo downstairs pegged as the location for the murder in the openning chapter! All that white walls, and all the meat! It would have been perfect.

David dahling, get 10 friends together and do a proper pig fest. You'll love it.


Kate Hill said...

I agree the wc's hold fascinating possiblities, but visions of 'Sweeny Todd' disappear the moment FH opens his mouth; I felt more in the presence of Willie Wonka. How about a B&W movie instead? And D., I am afeared you must have ten friends for all those oh-so-British school treat desserts. enjoy!

Richard Leader said...

I'm ashamed to say that I've never eaten at St Johns, despite living in London. Convincing my wife about the whole offal thing is a life-long mission. I do have the cookbook though (Nose to Tail Eating) which I adore.

Anonymous said...

Fergus Henderson owes much of his success to London Chef Paul Hughes (frequent visitor to Mezin) who taught him all about offal and medieval recipes.
Paul, now does the best Charcuterie in London at The Ginger Pig in Marylebone W1