I can't think of any good reason for having waited this long to dine at Fergus Henderson's St John Bar & Restaurant.
I can only be thankful that sometimes, good things really do come to those who wait.
When the occasion finally came to eat at the legendary nose-to-tail restaurant, it was quite a fitting one. My brilliantly batty fellow food geek friend Goz was turning 30, and he was determined to celebrate with a whole roast suckling pig.
Actually, I'm pretty sure he was determined to eat as much of the pig as possible himself as well. He ensured that we showed up to dinner in the worst shape possible, having spent the afternoon trying not to smash our faces on treacherous floor of the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland ice-rink, then trying not to throw up our insides, nose-to-tail et al, after a particularly diabolical fairground ride that felt like you were being spun inside a washing machine that got caught up in a tornado.
(Goz said he had nightmares of falling that night. No sympathy from me, buddy. None.)
But just walking into St John started the process of soothing my frayed centre of gravity. The white and grey walls and plain concrete floors and weathered wooden tables may make the place look a touch factory-like to some -- the building used to be a ham and bacon smokehouse -- but it signalled to me that we were going to be in very good hands food-wise. They certainly weren't trying to distract me with anything else in the room.
Well. Maybe with just a few wee drinkies, while we earlybirds waited by the bar.
Eventually we reach a quorum and pile into our private dining room, and tuck into some dense gorgeous-smelling bread... somewhere between rustic and sourdough. Such a good choice at the time... but such regret later when the volume of food just wouldn't stop.
And so it begins. We start with how all big meals at St John should start -- with its world famous roast bone marrow and parsley salad. Use little steel scoops on sticks provided to extract the wobbly grainy-protein marrow globs out of the shanks, spread on toast, sprinkle salt, and bring a refreshing lift to the ultra-rich marrow with a tuft of very lovely vinegar-dressed parsley. Such decadence from such simplicity.
In Singapore where I grew up, us friends would sit around a table at an all-night prata (Indian savoury pancake) place talking trash, and order Indian mutton tulang (bone marrow) soup. When only the bones were left we'd each take a bone and THWACK THWACK THWACK on the table until those little globules of marrow yield and gloop out into our waiting mouths.
The St John rendition is a much more genteel experience, but let's face it, it's just not as fun without the thwack thwack thwack.
It took a lot of self-control not to plow into this plate immediately, but I just wanted to show you the nutty jerusalem artichoke and sweet red onion and briny green olive and peppery cress salad. I really need to try this at home at some point.
And then our headline act arrives. By the time I unwedge myself from the far end of the table to go out into the holding area to take a photo, there's a neat nose and tail plate carved out. This bugger is much larger than what I usually see at Chinese weddings. Definitely worthy of Goz's food lunacy. The folly of scarfing so much bread before starts to sink like a brick. Literally.
The birthday boy has an intimate moment with the pig, before we pass the plate around, and like the true Chinese we are, dig into the cheeks and chew on its ears and tail. There's not much other than a skull left to hand back to our waitress by the time it does a tour around the table.
Three massive platters of meat and skin and bread and onion stuffing get set out, along with some really gorgeous potatoes and greens cooked in I don't really want to know how much butter. The pork was superbly tender and moist and sufficiently seasoned that I didn't feel the need to grate salt and pepper all over it. Gorgeous.
One of our friends -- clearly with eyes bigger than the meat platters and our collective stomachs -- orders for the table some sweetbreads and langoustines. I can't remember what I thought specifically about the sweetbreads (in general they're not my favourite things) but I was really blown away by the langoustines. They went so fast I failed to get a photo. All that had been done to them was boiling and then chilling, but my god they were amazingly fat and firm and meaty and oh so sweet. Mr Henderson has clearly got some fisherman mafia behind him, and I want to know who, dammit.
Yet another example of sublime simplicity -- the best madeleines I've ever had. Warm crust, feathery light not too sweet insides. There was a fair amount of groaning around the table by this time, after the pig and Goz's birthday apple pie. But for these madeleines, quite a few of us pushed through the pain to nibble... on... just... one... more.
The cutest not-so-little doggy bag you ever did see.
Appetites over-sated, friendships teased and then reaffirmed over birthday toasts, we finally waddled home, vowing to come back and try other dishes on the menu like venison heart. Except that since then I got word from a very credible chef source that a better bite-for-buck bet was to try sister establishment St John Bread and Wine.
It'll be a pretty damn hard act to top. But hey, I don't believe in being pigheaded about such things -- not when it would be delightful to be proven wrong.
St John Bar & Restaurant
26 St John Street
London EC1M 4AY