St. John Bread and Wine – London, UK
It was wonderful to be back in London, the site of a brisk 36-hour layover en route to meet my sister's probably-future in-laws in Kempen, Germany, all while exporting American Thanksgiving in a sort of benign culinary imperialism. Attempting to finish my qualification for American Airlines' highest status tier, I opted to fly AA partners from my initial European landing spot to get to Deutschland, including British Airways, giving me a chance to rack up some miles and also get out and explore the chilly London streets for just the second time in my life.
And, as always, what's the Maestro's first move when visiting a (relatively) unfamiliar city? Find out where to eat and drink, of course!
London is, unsurprisingly, one of the most decorated food cities in the world. As a cosmopolitan paragon, it attracts chefs and cuisines of all types across a diverse, thriving culinary landscape. While my wont is generally to try to find an exciting place with a sprawling tasting menu when touring, the culinary landscape in London, much like many big cities, has shifted away from the hyper-fine dining scene that offers multi-hundred dollar menus in favor of things that are simpler, purer, and more approachable. One only need read the Eater Essential lists in cities like New York and London and view the population of these lists to notice this change.
Eater is so reliable for me that it has almost never steered me wrong, so it was the first place I looked when doing my customary comestible research. A standout claim when perusing the Eater 38 for London was that lunch at St. John Bread and Wine, a little sister restaurant to the revolutionary and earth-shattering St. John, is "one of the purest, most heavenly restaurant experiences in London." I couldn't possibly ignore the prospect of testing that out, nor the assertion that "[i]f food were a religion, then this would be its church." Take me to church.
Fergus Henderson opened St. John in an old bacon smokehouse in 1999 and rocked London's food world. British cuisine was hardly known to be elegant and refined, and the well-to-do sought staid haute French fare over the dishes of their more immediate environs. St. John sought to upend this by serving simple, historic British recipes with curated regional ingredients, focusing in particular on a "nose-to-tail" approach of whole animal butchery and prominently featuring dishes with offal, or the normally-discarded organ meat. It's still a staple, but nowhere near as revolutionary as it was twenty years hence, which is what makes this offshoot in the oh-so-hip Shoreditch neighborhood so exciting.
When the team at St. John bought this space across from Spitalfields Market in 2003, it was to find a separate home for their bakery operations for the restaurant. Eventually, they decided to sell some baked goods and curated wines to the public from the storefront. It became apparent that the public was interested in an expanded offering in the form of another restaurant from the St. John squad, so they acquiesced and started Bread and Wine, a restaurant, yes, but also a bakery and wine shop like the original.
I arrived on a surprisingly sunny London day right at noon to get my first taste of the magic of St. John. I was the only one in the cavernous, spare dining room for some time before a trio of unfriendly Americans arrived, but took my time perusing the menu with one of the chefs, an Irishman. The menu doesn't tell you much about the items on offer, so I asked him to give me the rundown and make suggestions while I gulped down a glass of their St. John-branded crémant and satiated my rumbling tummy with some of their magnificent house-made brown sourdough.
First up was something that frankly sounded rather unappealing but ended up being my favorite of the three savory courses that afternoon. Smoked cod roe, which was actually more like a creamy, smoky, slightly briny spread than I imagined, was topped with a softboiled egg and some sprouts of micro cress, alongside which were some of the most incredible potatoes I'd ever had. The potatoes were cross-cuts of what one might call a potato pave––very thinly mandoline-ed potatoes pressed together with cream and fat and baked, then cut into slices and fried in duck fat so that the outside is gloriously crispy, but the inside melty and tender. When spread with the roe, they were like toasts. Phenomenal.
The second course is quintessential St. John––offal, which refers to any of the normally discarded organs of animals––is the major focus of nose-to-tail butchery that St. John revolutionized, including hearts, livers, kidneys, etc. This course featured a sort of spreadable pâté of game offal atop their wonderful bread, which was in turn topped with some beautiful sautéed wild mushrooms in a lemony butter and parsley. A delicious course and the sort that is a "must have" at a St. John establishment, but it's hard to forget that you're eating the internal organs of a deer.
I had my chef-server pick some wine to pair with what was coming next, and he selected a lovely, silky and quaffable red from Côtes du Rhône. They do a wonderful job curating interesting, beautiful wines here, and though the wine was a shade too warm at room temp, the pairing was spot on with both the rest of the offal and the forthcoming dish.
A special for the day, and one that was influenced in particular by the current head chef at Bread and Wine, was a whole "deviled crab." When he served it to me, my server said "This is so good that I hate to give it to you." True to the nose-to-tail (or :"carapace-to-claw") vibe of this place, the entirety of the edible meat of the crab is used, including the brown meat and viscera in the head of the crab to create the base for a "deviling" sauce made with chilis, ginger, wine, onions, herbs, and other delicious things. The rest of the crab came pre-cracked, though some cracking was still necessary, and I got a real kick out of the crab cracking tool they provided, though the size of it caused me to spray crab and broth all over the place when I slipped at one point! The ugly American. The crab was delicious and the sauce served as an excellent dip for the rest of the sourdough!
Desserts make up nearly half the menu at Bread and Wine, true to their origins as a bake shop. The crown jewel of the dessert menu are their madeleines, cooked to order, which require a 15-minute wait time. A half dozen of those and some lemon curd ice cream formed my dessert. The best thing I ate here by far, and possibly the best thing I ate in London. The combination of the madeleines and the lemon was inspired, and made even better by the addition of a French 75 made with a touch of absinthe. Food nirvana.
I closed the meal with a cappuccino for my jet lagged brain, which let me sit for a while longer and contemplate the absolute glory of the meal that preceded. The simplicity, beauty of ingredients, and purity of the food was remarkable––one of the best lunches I'd ever had. And that dessert! My god. I'd return just for the maddies and lemon curd.
St. John is the most important British restaurant in a generation and the work that's being done at their Bread and Wine branch in Shoreditch is very good indeed. If you're in London and haven't yet sampled a St. John dish, make your way over here for a glorious, reasonably-priced meal. You won't be disappointed!