Some restaurants have a “signature” dish. A great glittering erection from deep in the chef’s id that’s supposed to be a proclamation of everything they stand for. St John never had a signature dish. There is bone marrow on toast, served with a salad at the Smithfield mothership, but that’s not a signature, it’s a manifesto. It’s saying that the most glorious things are simple, often old-fashioned and, like a work of art, benefit from isolating, contextualising and contemplating.
They do an egg-mayonnaise sandwich that’s a physical argument for taking the simplest things and putting them together in a way that nobody else could. And then there’s the Welsh rarebit. Food lovers have always sworn their vilest dark oaths by St John’s rarebit. A smooth béchamel with beer, sharp cheese and mustard, spread thick on sourdough and an extra piece of tableside theatre with the Worcestershire sauce that makes it unforgettable to all who’ve eaten it.
I give you this backstory because of what happened next. If there was to be a new St John’s in Marylebone, it, too, would need a special dish. Something of its own, but something that expressed the ethos. What was chosen was rarebit — but deep-fried.
Fergus Henderson and his business partner Trevor Gulliver preside over something unique, somewhere between a benign personality cult and a monastic order of Hospitallers. Young acolytes work together with a shared faith, fondly idolising the Abbots. Henderson himself no longer cooks, but his presence is constant, both physically at any of his bars and, more importantly, in the minds of his team. He works with Jonathan Woolway, chef-director and kind of amanuensis who’s been with him for 15 years and is macerated in the spirit of the place. Could they create something as successful as the bone-marrow salad, but new? Is it even possible they could improve the rarebit?
It arrives, unadorned, on a plain white plate. A cylinder, maybe 5cm in diameter, exterior tanned dark. Absurd, really. It looks like an off-colour music-hall gag involving a sausage. Then you cut into it. You know the thing with the chocolate fondant? You make a kind of batter and when you cook it, the outside forms a cake and the inside stays as a sort of hot custard. Right. That. With rarebit.
The crisp coat is incredibly thin, but because there’s egg in the mix somewhere, it’s strongly caramelised. A bitter edge. Then the next layer is a cheese-soaked, brioche-like sponge. That goes on for a few millimetres and then seamlessly elides into a sauce that runs across the plate like a wild Vacherin Mont d’Or seeking freedom, but a thousand times more interesting. And now you’ve got it open, you can see that there’s a base of fried white bread in there and it’s all glued to the plate with a smear of strong mustard.
It’s the most incredible piece of cooking. The imagination. The calculation. The skill. It’s breathtaking. The same ingredients as the original rarebit, re-conceived with love and without pretension. Somewhere in the disputed territory between a custardy beignet and an as-yet-unimagined fried cheese trifle. It’s what you’d get if you asked Hannah Glasse to do molecular gastronomy.
It also, in a single dish, sums up the reason that St John’s remains one of the best loved and most respected restaurants in the world. A new branch opens, a new dish comes into being and, seemingly with no undignified effort, it’s an instant expression of the people, the history and the spirit of the place.
There was also devilled crab, lustily seasoned and dolloped on to leaves of Little Gem for transport past the lips. There was cold roast mallard with radicchio — the sometimes fishy undercurrents of the wild duck meat picked up and run with by a strong anchovy dressing. In a particularly Hendersonian fancy, there were “Lilliput” capers (the tiny ones with the mustardy zing) sprinkled over the top as a seasoning. These dishes are engineered like an expensive watch and, as a result, read as simple and effortless.
It is indisputably the most romantic moment in the history of film when Rick Blaine looks into Ilsa Lund’s eyes and reminds her, “We’ll always have Paris.” I know this because I feel exactly the same about St John’s Eccles cake and Lancashire cheese. It’s been on the menu from the very first moment I set eyes on the place and it will always, pray God, remain to console me, though war may rage and rain lash down on a beautifully shot moral crisis. They actually serve Madeleines fresh from the oven here, if you’re of a Proustian bent. But me? It’ll always be Ingrid Bergman, a plane warming up on the runway, a slab of sharp cheese and a mince packed tart.
I notice, as I begin the first course, two young people entering the kitchen in lab coats and carrying clipboards. To anyone in hospitality, this can only mean one thing: it’s a snap Environmental Health inspection. Unannounced, rigorous, unforgiving and inevitably occurring at the wrong time. Even by their standards, though, the second week of opening seems pretty cruel. Yet the tiny kitchen didn’t miss a beat. Crew, both front and back of house, carried on an impeccable uninterrupted service, as if they weren’t being given a comprehensive cavity search while they brought out lunch to a packed room. As a demonstration of sheer class, that’s hard to beat.
St John is not about flashness, show-offery or the glib slickness of too many others. It quietly presents the very best of our industry and our cuisine. I don’t really need to tell you that St John is brilliant. They don’t need to hear my breathless fanboy gabblings, but there is something wonderfully reassuring here. Fergus and Trevor have opened a beautiful new St John, and All is Well.
98 Marylebone Lane, London W1U 2QA; 020 7251 0848; stjohnrestaurant.com/a/restaurants/marylebone
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