November 26, 2013

St. John's Horde

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For years, St. John in London has been on top of my hit list for London.  The restaurant's famed roast bone marrow and parsley salad has inspired numerous copies worldwide, including some in Hong Kong.  Unfortunately, as I am a much bigger fan of Froggyland than Rosbifland, I haven't stepped foot in London for more than 7 years.  So the nose-to-tail dining experience remained firmly out of reach, despite having recommended a number of friends to visit the establishment.

So when my friend Susan announced nearly two months ago that she's booked a table at the Blue Butcher on the night that Fergus Henderson was gonna be there, it took me only a minute to respond.  I wouldn't have missed this dinner for the world.

A few days later, I received a very kind offer for an interview slot with Fergus.  I thanked the lovely PR for the kind invitation, but in realty as I had never been to St. John and not actually experienced it for myself - and I don't own one of his cookbooks - I didn't feel qualified to interview him.  It was good enough for me to be at the restaurant eating the food.

I don't think I've ever seen so many familiar faces at the same restaurant in Hong Kong…ever.  Lots of friends came to pay their respects to the chef.  As we greeted friends who were coming out from the first seating, the inevitable question of "How was it?" was posed to a number of them.  The cryptic responses - or worse, a complete lack of response - from every single one of those asked certainly had us worried.  No one seemed to be beaming with happiness.

Our big group sat down at our long table, and we were presented with the menu for the evening.  Thanks to the lack of adequate lighting, I could barely read the menu by candle light.  I was somewhat thankful for being close to the open kitchen, as the lighting level would be even worse otherwise.  I always wonder why restauranteurs insist that we eat without being able to see our food…

I swear the hospitality industry in Hong Kong is onto something here… Once again ILoveLubutin found herself without a fork (and also a knife this time) in front of her.  The restaurants in town must have come to the realization that she is No Fork Use!  Or maybe they all realized that she'll just eat with her hands anyway...

Baked quail egg / trotter - this was pretty good.  The combination of chopped pieces of trotter - with nice, soft collagen - and the tomato-based sauce kinda reminded of trippa alla Romana... with parsley on top.  Very familiar and comforting.

Next came three different starters for us to share.  I assumed that each "piece" was the right portion for one person...

Pressed pigs ear / chicory - us Chinese are no stranger to pig's ears, and in fact looked downright familiar!  I loooove the mix of textures from pig's ears, since it is at once soft and crunchy.  Only thing is that this was a little bland compared to what I'm used to.  The chicory was a little bitter.

Tomato / little gem / anchovy - this was pretty ho-hum and forgettable.

Ox tongue / green sauce - the ultra-thin slices of ox tongue were very, very tender and delicious.  I decided to be a good boy and just like half a slice, but in retrospect I should have had more... since I loooove ox tongue.

Then the two mains followed.

Crispy pigs jowl / dandelion - this was like a big pile of salad, and left me wondering if I'd be hungry at the end of the meal.  I've never had dandelion before, so this was an interesting experience.  The pieces of pigs jowl were heavenly.  The meat was incredibly soft and tender, sometimes rich to the point of almost being mushy and melt-in-your-mouth.  The crackling turned out one of two ways: either it was hard and kinda stuck to your teeth when you bit down on it, or it was somehow like layers of puff pastry from a millefeuille that had been soaked in sauce - soft and ethereal.  While this "salad" didn't look substantial enough, I kept spooning more of it onto my plate and eventually ate enough to be happy.

Deviled lamb kidneys / mash - not a fan.  At all.  I love gamey meats and go out of my way to find very gamey lamb.  I also eat kidneys and just about any type of offal - growing up eating pigs kidneys in Chinese cuisine and learning to appreciate veal kidneys at an older age.  This, however, was over the edge for me.  I honestly felt I had been transported to a zoo, and was standing in a pen amongst the droppings and urine of a herd of goats.

Ginger loaf / butterscotch sauce / vanilla ice cream - this was pretty tasty.  The loaf was pretty dense and had light ginger flavors, while the butterscotch sauce was sweet and yum.

I was always gonna bring wine for the gang, but a few people actually wanted to start drinking early... so we popped open a bottle of Guigal in my office before joining the rest of the group.

1999 Guigal Côte-Rôtie - big, ripe, fruity nose that was slightly alcoholic and sharp.  A little smoky, and later chocolate notes.  Clearly from a big and ripe vintage, and not yet mature.

2002 Pontet-Canet - my glass was the last pour from the bottle.  Reasonable concentration, so-so on palate.

2002 L'Evangile en magnum - riper, sweeter with black cherries and a little cedar.  Softer and rounder.

Unknown Prosecco - very peachy, flinty, oaky.  We each got a glass as part of the meal.  I don't normally drink Prosecco, but I can see why chicks dig this kinda stuff...

Surprisingly, I wasn't hungry at the end of the meal.  (OK, I had 2 small slices of bread but I doubt that was the deciding factor.)  I thought most of the dishes were fine and tasty enough, and all-in-all my first encounter with Fergus Henderson's nose-to-tail cooking worked out pretty well - although perhaps it wasn't the best value-for-money one could get.  However, there was no "Wow factor" tonight, and I think that sentiment was shared by most of us at the table.  The conspicuous absence of roast bone marrow was a very big disappointment.  Yes, we can have similar dishes at any number of restaurants in town, but I wanted it from Fergus.  It's like going to a Sarah Brightman concert and not hearing her sing The Phantom of the Opera, or Neil Diamond showing up at Fenway but refusing to sing Sweet Caroline - the crowd just isn't gonna be happy unless they get it.

The unhappy feeling was made worse by sightings of some bone marrow dishes coming from the kitchen - and going to different tables but not to ours.  While I didn't visually track the paths those dishes followed, it made us wonder whether the billionaire tycoons, politicians and veteran bankers in the private room next to us were treated to something a little special.  While we have chefs and food and wine journalists known to the restaurant among our group, there was no doubt that being a billionaire was much, much more special…  As there were also 4 bloggers amongst us, we did wonder whether shouting "I AM FOOD BLOGGER!" would have made any difference...

I didn't really get a chance to say much to a beaming Fergus Henderson as he made the rounds and came to our table, but I'll be sure to stop by St. John on my next visit to Rosbifland.

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