When I was Christmas shopping the weekend before I jetted off to London, I came across a tiny paperback book in Anthropologie of all places titled The Traditional Shops and Restaurants of London: A Guide to Century Old Establishments and New Classics. Its charming vintage cover and beautifully composed photographs drew me in, so I forked over the $18.95. As I paged through it on my flight, it turns out the book is 80% shops and 20% restaurants, bars and cafes. It is well written and informative, author Eugina Bell waxes poetic about purveyors of specialty goods - from booksellers and coffee roasters, umbrella makers and hatters, to tobaccoists, butchers, tea merchants and more. Of the few restaurants, one named St. John located in the meatpacking district stood out in my mind for its nose-to-tail concept and this excerpt: A favorite -- marrow and parsley salad -- is always on the menu, a dish that Anthony Bourdain calls, rather bluntly, his "death row meal." Well then! When Tricia and I were soliciting advice the previous day from our helpful concierge, he offered to make us a reservation for Saturday night. As it turned out, they were completely booked. However, they also have a location at the St. John Hotel which had opened this past spring in Leicester Square. This worked to our advantage, as Leicester Square was within walking distance of our hotel, easily much closer than the original location. We arrived around 7:50 for our 8pm reservation to a perplexed duo of hosts. They had our reservation, but seemed genuinely taken aback by how "early" we were (did they just laugh at us?!) It was odd. Tricia and I exchanged glances, and at once their faces softened and they offered us seats at the bar upstairs. Fine by us! We settled into plush rust-colored leather couches among starch white walls and glossy blue floors and ordered some cocktails. (Exterior and above photo were borrowed from the website, linked above.) At the bar I ordered an expertly crafted Sazerac (£11) , it warmed the lingering chill right out of me. Tricia got a French Pearl (£9) which was served in a fun dainty glass. Soon enough, our table was ready and we were ushered down the narrow winding stairwell, still with that striking laminated blue floor underfoot. It added to the nautical cruise ship theme, subtly stated by porthole windows on every door. The small dining room did not have much of a theme at all. Lacking decor, it was simple and understated with rustic wood floors and chairs to match, in contrast with a gleaming stainless steel open kitchen. The bright space with tables set in uniform close proximity grew increasingly more crowded and noisy as the night wore on. St. John felt trendy because it didn't try too hard, and the full house only affirmed its popularity. We were greeted by a jovial waiter, waters were filled promptly and a basket of addicting sourdough bread with a pat of creamy butter was delivered. Then we got to studying the menu, which by the way, did not have the infamous Anthony Bourdain death row marrow and parsley salad. (Perhaps it only stands on the menu at the original location?) What the menu did have was Devilled Pig Skin (£3.50), and our curiosity combined with a compelling description by our waitress (in London, it is not uncommon to have two servers - we noticed this consistently at every restaurant) prompted our order. This was...interesting. Certain pieces were extremely salty and abrasively crispy, tasting like a bacon infused chip, while others were ridiculously tough and chewy. I would assume the chef intended for these to be the former, as the latter were highly unappetizing. That's not to say I was totally enamored with the crispy crunchy skins either. While they might sound like a bacon lovers dream, their saltiness was overwhelming. I tried quite a few pieces, debating over them each time. In the end, we both decided they were not all that pleasing to our palates. At least our curiosity was appeased and we patted ourselves on the back for being adventurous.
Next up, we shared a starter of Razor Clams, White Beans & Artichoke (£9.20). Each component was well executed, the dish as a whole came together with appeasing textures and bright flavors.The razor clams were prepared a la plancha, slightly browned and delectably chewy, the artichoke soft and tender and the white beans in abundance nicely rounded out the dish. Everything bathed in a warm pool of lemony olive oil infused with fresh green herbs, notably dill and parsley. We finished our cocktails and ordered a glass of each of the St John Rouge (£5). I learned after perusing the website that the company (empire?) does in fact make their own wine. We were given a decent pour, and while I can't remember the main points, I know I really enjoyed it. Juicy and full bodied, it paired well with the food. Two mains (in England they are not called entrees) really spoke to both of us, so we decided to share. Tricia started with the Brill, Salt Lemon & Hazelnut (£18.60). We had to question our waiter prior to ordering as to what brill actually was. I had a hunch it was a fish, but had never tasted it before. It is indeed a type of fish, specifically a flatfish native to waters of the North Atlantic through the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas. And as you might gather, it is commonly found in Great Britain. The flaky white fish benefited from a simple preparation in butter, herbs, salt and lemon. And we both agreed, the toasted hazelnuts, and I think there were some golden raisins as well piled on there, were a thoughtful and delicious addition to the plate. The major detriment lied in the fact that the brill was cooked on the bone. While this might have lent additional flavors, it proved to be a major hassle for us. No one wants to be picking bones out of their fish during a nice meal, never mind out of your mouth mid chew. And there were a lot of tiny bones within that hearty piece. The Pot Roast Short Rib, Celeriac & Pickled Walnut (£22.50) was the favored main by default. Guinness braised and fall of the bone tender, it was supremely hearty set in a bowl of smooth whipped celeraic which mingled with its delicious braising juices and thick melted butter to create something special. The pickled walnut was incredibly innovative, I have never had anything quite like them. With a pronounced acidity they added depth and contrast to the richness of the short rib. However, only three of them topped the substantial serving, and I wished there were more.Dessert was just plain awesome. Apple Sorbet and....wait for it....Russian Vodka (£7). Pour the shot over the sorbet and you get a potent and refreshing digestif and dessert in one. We were big fans.Our meal came to (£102.15) with the service charge of (£11.35) included. Converted to dollars, that is $80 each, which is no walk in the park. London is definitely an expensive city all around, on top of that the dollar to pound conversion is the absolute worst. Put it this way, that Sazerac alone cost me $17! Overall, we enjoyed our supper of modern British cuisine at St John Hotel, even though elements of certain dishes left a little something to be desired. It is evident the chefs possess sound kitchen techniques and a clear passion for nose to tail cooking. The portions are substantial and the food itself is rich and hearty. Come hungry.