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Monday, September 22, 2003

at St.John with two picky eaters

I had a very interesting meal last week at St. John in Smithfield. It was interesting because I was doing St.John, my ultimate carnivorous Valhalla, famous for nose to tail eating (of pigs that is), and I was there with two absolutely picky eaters. What fun!

I agreed to take my esteemed director and his wife out to dinner one night while on our business trip in London. My boss is an engineer type who thinks a meal at the Olive Garden is gourmet, and his wife finds anything beyond plain chicken irksome. They insisted they wanted to try English food, so I asked Simon for a recommendation. Simon suggested the Sutton Arms, which sounded just perfect for what they were looking for.

We had a longer day at the office than we planned, by the time we made it out to Barbican it was almost 9.30pm. We got to the Sutton Arms and found it completely full, and were forced to go forage somewhere else for dinner. The choices we found in that neighborhood were between modish pubs full of young fleshy things on a night out and too-fancy-to-be-any-good Indian restaurants. I finally decided to take them to St.John, thinking that we would at least be able to find something on the bar menu to eat.

To my surprise there was a table available in the dining room. My boss (I will just call him John, as in Doe) thought we should sit down and eat properly. His wife Jane, yes as in Doe, who was not at all adventurous when it came to food or indeed anything else I gathered, found the menu exceedingly suspicious. I assured her there's bound to be something she could eat, though I wasn't entirely sure myself.

I grabbed a menu and looked through it quickly to find something Jane could eat. My eyes glanced quickly pass foie gras, marrow bones, and other curious items, and settled on a dish of something described as Slip Soles. At any other restaurant that would definitely be fish, at St.John I wasn't entirely sure. Searching for a better alternative I found a dish of rabbit, bacons and beans.

“Ah, rabbit”, I said, triumphant, “You eat rabbit, yes? They're just like chicken.”
“Oh, no, I'm not gonna eat those bunnies?” She whined.

This was going to be a curious meal, I thought to myself. Looking over at the next table, someone was happily tucking into a plate of soles. “You could eat that right?” I asked her to be sure. She agreed.

So it was time to order. John said I should just order for him too, as he really couldn't make out the menu. Despite it being clearly written in English, many things came with a pedigree rather than a descriptive name. Braised Saddleback with prunes and onions, for example, could have been pig's hide as far as he knew.

So I ordered for everyone. For starters we had langoustine, foie gras, and roasted marrow bones. I managed to convince the reluctant Jane that the pate de foie gras was the pa-tay stuff she could find at fancy parties. I wanted to try it because I was curious to see how Furgus Henderson did foie gras. For the main course, I ordered the Slip Soles for Jane, of course. For John I chose the braised hare, probably because it looked like something he could eat without much protest. The waitress informed me that they were out of many interesting items on the menu, but the chef just added another main course of Saddleback with prunes and onions. I loved pork belly so I decided to go with that one.

The langoustines were supremely sweet and were served with a hefty bowl of lemon mayonnaise. I knew the Brits loved their mayonnaise, from the countless variations on the theme of mayo sandwiches catered to my London meetings, but the sheer size of the bowl still astounded me. The langoustines themselves were in fact so sweet they needed little if any embellishment at all. Looking up from my plate after a few minutes of devouring the delicious little creatures, I was horrified to see my companions' plates littered with discarded shells full of delectable roes.

“You can't throw those out! They are the best part!” I cried.
Looking puzzled, they asked if they were supposed to eat those neon bright roes. I said either you eat them or surrender them to me. It would go against every ounce of my food snobbery to let them go to waste. Startled, they obediently began to eat the roes.

“These are good, they're just like caviar” exclaimed Jane.
“Yes, Jane, caviar, eat or send them to me”, I mumbled.

Then the foie gras and marrow bones arrived. They were both served with country bread toasts that were just this side of burnt. It's late, I gave them an excuse. The marrow bones looked delicious; I moved the plate over near me and dug in with delight. The first bite was a bit too greasy, and needed salt. I adjusted my strategy and sprinkled a few flakes of salt on each piece of bone and stirred them well with the knife. The next bite was just perfect, a healthy dose of that marrow spread on toast with a bit of the pungent salad. I loved it.

Meanwhile John and Jane were quite happy with the foie gras. Jane found it much more agreeable than the pate she was used to. Duh!, the meanie in me thought. Of course it was! I decided to try the foie gras myself and found it underwhelming. It was not a problem with the dish, I didn't think. The foie gras looked every bit a good terrine de foie gras should be, large, pristinely pink chunks of liver bind together nicely in aspic. The taste, on the other hand, was a little bland. I didn't know if this was the fault of the dish or merely an inadvertent result of eating it after many mouthfuls of the assertive tasting marrow and parsley salad.

The only way to know was to give up the marrow bones and clean out my palate with lots of water and bread. Looking down at the couple more pieces of bones on that plate I decided not to. I could get a good foie gras pretty much anywhere in Paris. Hearty and honest to goodness marrow bones like these were hard to come by. I happily returned to my bones.

Jane was intrigued by my unabashed enthusiasm over the bones. She asked to try a bit. Grudgingly I assembled a bit of bread, the marrow and the salad for her. “It looks nice like that”, she said, taking the bite. Surprisingly she liked it. This was turning out better than I thought.

The main course of braised hare, slip soles, and braised Saddleback were great too. Although I found my own plate the least interesting of all. I had expected a dish of long braised pork belly, what arrived were two long pieces of lightly smoked pork belly ham. They were delicious, if a tad underwhelming. The prune and caramelized onions enhanced the salty, slightly smoked meat. The contrast of flavor was lovely, the salt and slight smoky taste cut down the greasy effect of the fat. The sweet taste of the prune and onions was a nice foil for the meat. The problem was I found the portion far too large to sustain my interest all the way through. Just like Robuchon's gazpacho, I wished it had come in a smaller portion. John and Jane each took a bite, and pronounced it just like ham. I sighed and assembled them each a piece of pork with a bit of the prune and the onion on top. They tried again and their eyes lit up. “Wow! It's much better like that!” they proclaimed. Exasperated, I thought to myself, “precisely, that's why they CAME TOGETHER!.”

The hare was scrumptious, full of flavor and not at all gamy as John feared. Dark pieces of wine-braised, falling of the bone hare meat were served with mushroom and a dark gravy. The taste was complex, warm and every bit a perfect braised dish should be. It was definitely home-style, yet impeccably executed. Even Jane took a bite. It didn't look like a bunny on the plate, she exclaimed.

The tasty soles were served in a manner of Sole à la Meunierre. It was not the best I've tasted, but definitely a respectable one. The soles were pristinely fresh and quite well done, though I detected an unpleasant bit of greasiness to it. This to me was what differentiated a superb Sole à la Meunierre from a good one. Unfortunately the soles here fell only somewhere in between. Jane loved it. She found it a bit difficult to deal with the tiny bones, but didn't let that stop her from enjoying it.

On the side we had superb and buttery new potatoes sprinkled with chives and quite agreeable green beans. For wine we shared a bottle of 1998 St.Chinian, a nice, bold, peppery wine. The young-ish wine would probably benefit from a bit of breathing time, but we didn't quite let it.

We ended the meal with a wonderful plum crumble which were served with two generous pitcher of custard cream. I love the English.

To my surprise, my unadventurous dining companions loved the meal. They found it a tad odd, mind you, but loved it anyway. Who would've thunk it. John even picked up the tap, ok yeah we were both on expense so it wasn't a big deal. But you know what? I had a fun time myself, seeing them both opening up and trying new things were fun. It was like watching a tentative child taking a first step. This is sort of my volunteer work, my contribution to the great unwashed humanity. My snobbish and goodie two shoes side loved it I tell you. I'm taking it up as a new hobby!

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