Staycations. All the rage, apparently.
Well, being car-less and anticipating the capricious nature of National Rail, we'd made up our minds to be footloose in the city over the Easter break. And, it was Jon's birthday. Having treated ourselves to a birthday stay at Hazlitt's hotel in Soho a couple of years ago, and loved the place, The Rookery (its sister hotel in Clerkenwell) was next on the list. Its close proximity to Michelin-starred St. John Restaurant - our favourite London restaurant since moving here 8 years ago - sealed the deal.
The urge to slob out in the room, and have a long soak in the gorgeous bath, was overwhelming, but the eager anticipation of a return visit to St. John got us on our feet.
Two minutes later, we were in Fergus Henderson's lair, for a gustatory study in nose to tail eating. Without fuss or frippery, the menu exhibits the best of British produce, and we would have been spoilt for choice, had I not been pregnant: native oysters, goat's curd, sprats, rabbit offal, all poetically paired with seasonal leaves that hold their own: mint, dandelion, and watercress. St. John doesn't do garnishes. The robust food bears a striking affinity to the dining space, a white-washed former smokehouse: sparse and pared down.
Tearing away at chunks of homemade sourdough bread, we went for their signature dish, a must if you're new to St. John, the roast bone marrow. And, beautiful cured beef.
Cured beef and celeriac £9.50. This was outstanding. The beef cut to perfect toothsome thickness, paired with a stunning creamy celeriac 'coleslaw', spiked generously with fresh horseradish. A rugged dish, but one created with a deft touch.
Roast bone marrow and parsley salad £7. As usual, a winner. Nothing gives me more carnivorous pleasure than scraping out the rich, warm, gelatinous marrow and spreading it on charred bread. Shame it wasn't my starter, but I was generously given a look-in by the birthday boy.
Pigeon and braised Savoy cabbage £16.60. The only disappointment of the evening. Our waitress told us it would be cooked medium-rare. The bone-in pigeon breasts had hardly seen the heat. The plate was already brimming with blood when it reached me, and the breasts were raw under the skin (cold, in fact). Do not be mistaken, I love bloody meat, even blood itself. One of the culinary highlights of my life was a pig-fest in Bali with a Balinese family, where the star dish alongside the whole spit-roast pig, was a magical raw 'salad' of coconut and spiced pig's blood. Game blood is an altogether different experience, however: bitter, funky, smelly, and all-pervasive. We might well be alone here, but it didn't thrill us.
Rabbit saddle and parsnips £16.40. Not a looker, granted, yet it delivered in every other way. Rabbit, devilish to cook, and so often tough, was tender and full of flavour. Silky subtle flesh, on the bone, with sweet and earthy roasted parsnips.
Greens £3.50, Potatoes £3.50. Star side dishes. The humble cabbage elevated to new heights with a light steam, smothered in warm butter and a generous grind of pepper. They take their potatoes seriously, too: this is the first time Jon's ever ooh-ed and aah-ed over the humble tuber.
Brown bread ice cream £6.80. A Victorian classic, apparently. Hokey-pokey for grown-ups, it was chewy, nutty, and a perfect end to the meal. I was sorely tempted to pour Jon's Lagavulin whisky over it, to make a hardcore affogato-style dessert.
Topped off with a refreshing fresh mint tea (my pregnant state seems to be stopping everyone I eat with getting madly drunk. Shame really, as I want be the one to witness and recall everyone's embarrassing moments, for once), the meal came to a very reasonable £86.
This was the first time I'd had an off-key dish here, and it preyed on my mind. Had I just chosen badly? Everything else was cooked beautifully, and the staff were delightful. The St. John experience - in all three establishments - epitomizes everything I love about food: big, butch flavours, superb seasonal ingredients, and no-fuss presentation.
Their new establishment, a hotel/restaurant due to open in Leicester Square this summer, is bound to be a rip-roaring success, if they pull off the trick of delivering great rooms and great food, as Dean Street Townhouse has.
Too much was right about our meal to put me off a return visit. I'll just give the funky pigeon a wide berth next time.
St. John Bar and Restaurant Smithfield
26 St John Street
020 7251 0848