Monday, July 18, 2011

Trendy Eating Doesn't Have to be Offal: Head-to-Tail Eating (St. John)

Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad

Trends come and go. Like the changing of the seasons, trends arrive on the scene, linger for a while, and then slowly fade away, giving way to a new trend. Just like a child with ADD who is preoccupied with a shiny new toy only until a different and even shinier toy catches their eye, Americans are always on the look-out for the next trend to take the country by storm. Hipster-dom, social media, and reality television are just some of the latest cultural trends to sweep our nation. Similarly, trends and fads can be seen in the domain of food. For a while, you couldn't go a month without hearing about a new cupcake shop opening up, and gourmet burgers made with "custom blends" of meat, a la Pat LaFrieda or any other specialty butcher, have also become quite popular. A culinary fad that has developed, albeit with less widespread fanfare but with perhaps just as much strength, is the consumption of offal and other organ meat, a.k.a. "head-to-tail" eating. These days, it seems like more and more restaurants are serving up sweetbreads, bone marrow, or kidneys to increasingly discriminating and sophisticated customers. Personally, I think people are trying out these new foods simply because it is fashionable and a sign of sophistication and social status if one can say that they have eaten veal sweetbreads or tripe, but that's just me being cynical, and the fact of the matter is that offal dishes are becoming increasingly more mainstream and evoking less disgust-tinged reactions (ewww you ate calf brains?!) from the general public. And among restaurants focusing on this area of cuisine, St. John is one of the preeminent restaurants in the world leading this culinary trend.

Ranked 41st in the 2011 edition of S. Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurants List, St. John is a London restaurant specializing in game and offal dishes prepared in a no-fuss manner and environment. With a rotating menu that features dishes such as Chitterlings and Radishes, Pigeon and Carrots, and Deviled Lamb Kidneys on Toast, the menu is not for the unadventurous or faint-of-heart, but it's just the place if you are looking for simple, well-executed meat and game. 

Bone marrow looks like jelly-like blobs of fat...because that's pretty much what it is

As an Anthony Bourdain-approved restaurant, St. John was high up on my list of potential restaurants to dine at while in London, and I managed to snag a 10:00 pm seating for Saturday night. Unfortunately, the late hour meant that some of the menu items were already sold out, but luckily, the much-acclaimed Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad was still available. As this was my first time eating bone marrow, I was not quite sure what to expect. Let me first say that procuring bone marrow from the bones is a ridiculously messy process, and it really does get quite oily. Maybe that's just because I'm a novice at the art of extracting fatty, jelly-like substances from bones, though. Anyway, my hands were sufficiently coated in a thick layer of fat and grease by the time I finished the dish. The bone marrow, which is the consistency of jelly or congealed animal fat, is actually fairly mild in flavor, and it leaves a thick coating of grease all over your lips (and hands) when you've finished eating. Essentially, bone marrow is like mildly-flavored meat fat, so I can't say I was wowed by the flavors of the dish. The rock salt was key in adding some flavor, but I thought that the parsley salad was way too overpowering to complement the bone marrow, so I just ate it between bites of bone marrow to help cut through some of the richness and heaviness of the fat.

Braised Rabbit, Bacon, & White Beans

With the menu that night seeming to be a bit tame with the offal dishes, I went with the Braised Rabbit, Bacon, and White Beans. Definitely not the most adventurous of dishes, the dish was comprised of extremely tender rabbit meat that literally fell right off of the bone. Mixed in with some chunks of bacon and beans in a stew-like dish, it was a hearty and tasty bowl of food, though I'm a bit disappointed that I didn't get a chance to try something like Ox Hearts, which were on the menu the previous night.

Treacle Tart

For dessert, the baked-to-order Madelines were very tempting, but I couldn't see myself finishing a half-dozen of them, so I opted for Harry Potter's favorite dessert - Treacle Tart. Despite being described by the waitress as "very sweet syrup poured into a pastry crust," I was a bit unprepared for just how sweet the tart really was. Although I've never had pecan pie, I'm guessing that Treacle Tart is very similar but just without the pecans to cut through the sweetness. There were hints of fruitiness as well, but the syrupy tart filling is hyperglycemia-inducingly sweet. The crust lacked the flakiness that I prefer from pastry crusts, but it had a nice, almost-burnt taste that I am personally a fan of. An okay dessert, but not something that I'd order again.

In summary, my meal at St. John was fine, but I think I probably ordered the wrong dishes and didn't get the dishes that would have left me with the best impression and representation of St. John's cuisine. I'm a bit disappointed, but that's more due to the fact that I had such great expectations coming into the meal. Was it the 41st-best restaurant in the world? I think that's impossible for me to affirm or disagree with, especially after only dining there once. It's safe to say, though, that the food is well-executed and the menu features plenty of interesting choices. How long the fad of head-to-tail eating lasts is anyone's guess, but I'm pretty sure it's safe to say that St. John will stick around long after the trend dissipates.

26 St. John Street
London EC1M 4AY
United Kingdom


  1. It's easy enough to discern between those eating offal because they like it, and those eating offal because it's trendy.

    They're usually identified by fixed gear bicycles and cigarettes.

    I'm glad you tried this place. It definitely would have been on my list as well. I found marrow pretty boring myself, I can appreciate it as support to a dish, but not the main flavor.

    Rabbit would have been my choice as well. I saw tongue on the on-line menu though - that's a must try if you haven't.

    Were you dining solo?

  2. Yeah, people who eat foods or do stuff just because it's trendy make up one of my pet peeves.

    Tongue is something I actually haven't gotten around to trying yet, but I've been meaning to try cow tongue tacos for a while now. There was no tongue on the menu the night I was there, though.

    And yeah, I was dining solo. I've been traveling on my own this summer, and unfortunately, dining solo means that I can't sample as much off of restaurants' menus as I would like. Too bad, because those madelines looked really good, too.

  3. That's exactly why I asked. Find a dainty wealthy chick - they never finish their dishes, and pay their way :D

  4. haha now that's a win-win situation

  5. we are jealous. we keep meeting to get to st. john but somehow have not gotten it done. we do cook his recipes. he has not gotten into vegetables.

  6. forgive my typos. keep meaning to eat there. and he has gotten into vegetables. gps