Last week my friend John, who is an American attorney, was passing through London on his way from Malawi to Dallas. As we always do when he is in London, we dined together at St John restaurant in Smithfield. He knew well in advance that he would be coming from Malawi to Dallas last week, so it was possible for me to book the table and for him to discover that the only possible flight was through London.
He also very much likes to stay at the Rookery hotel, which is just round the corner from St John. John says that the Rookery is his favourite hotel and that St John is his favourite restaurant in the world, and since his experience is not limited to Malawi and Texas but also includes the great capitals and fashionable centres of the world as well as Moscow and obscure but delightful spots in rural China, his views, even if coloured by the afterglow of a St John pudding, are to be treated with respect.
When John tottered off to the Rookery at the end of our evening I realised that what St John needed was a love song; and here it is.
I have been visiting St John since it opened in 1994. I remember the very first occasion. Bowled over by the excellence of the food, I ordered a large and creamy pudding, involving raspberries. Half way through I was at that point where you regret starting, since there is actually no room for it, but you know that you will undoubtedly finish it. As I struggled on, already feeling slightly glassy-eyed, a waiter walked past me with a bucket, which he took through to the open-plan kitchen and presented to the chef, who taking a cleaver in his right hand withdrew live eels from it, and decapitated them one by one. Sometimes the vivacity of the eels meant that more than one blow each was required. I glanced at the blood red of my pudding and the stains on the cleaver. (Do eels bleed? I remember them as red.) I knew that this was the place for me.
I formed a principle that I would never overlook the chance of eating at St John. I took business contacts there and charged it to expenses. Some of them stared at the menu with undisguised horror but others, like John, became fans. When I turned a certain age and work colleagues generously offered to host a dinner for me I asked if it could be in the private room at Smithfield, where some twenty of us ate a very large skate and an enormous pie and at the end I murmured platitudes while we all drank the Languedocian house red.
People who are not fans talk about the outlandish dishes which you can eat there. I have had squirrel (not in peanut butter as Elvis had it, but in red wine, like rabbit), and almost uncooked pigeon, and pig’s spleen with bacon (very delicious). What is best, though, is the simple food. Their bread is the best that I have ever tasted – and I, like John, have been abroad. Their long-time baker Justin Piers Gellatly has recently gone independent, so that may no longer be the case, but the principle holds. Their eel, when smoked, has a depth of taste missing with other smoked eel, and the horse radish that accompanies it is so creamy that you could eat it by the spoonful. The madeleines are little parcels of joy. The only problem with the madeleines is that you have to order them specially and wait fifteen minutes and so they come absolutely fresh and almost wholly devoid of Proustian nostalgia.
Once I had marmalade ice cream. Sidney Smith said that he imagined heaven as being like eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets. My hope for eternity is St John marmalade ice cream. The cloud to eat it on I can take or leave.
Apropos of bread, and indeed of very large pies, I had a business meeting once with the trustees of the estate of a great painter, for whom I acted. The meeting ended at about twelve thirty. A couple of hours were required for some documents to be typed. I suggested that we have lunch at St John. This was in the days when that was still possible at such short notice. The waitress said, when she presented the menu, ‘There is also a very large pie. Just one. Fergus thought this morning that he’d like to make a very large pie. It would do nicely for the five of you.’
So we had it and years later I asked them to duplicate it for my party. When we set out back to the office, we all bought a loaf of bread to take home. The trustees signed the document, now typed, and I asked a colleague to witness their signatures. She was so beautiful that Jeff, one of the trustees and sentimental as a result of the very large pie, presented her with his loaf. When they’d gone, she told me that gentlemen often gave her things, but never before a loaf.
“And what a loaf,” I said.
They’re also very nice there, particularly if you enter into the spirit. Once I was dining with the better half. She asked the waitress, having just finished something especially wonderful, ‘How on earth do you do that? I’m trying to work out the process but I can’t.’
“Hang on,” said the waitress.
She returned some five or ten minutes later. “Fergus says,” she said, “that he hasn’t put it in the cookbook so he’s written the recipe out for you.”
That doesn’t happen at Nobu.
These days, as I say, it’s harder to get a table, but you don’t need to book at the bar and most of the starters and the puddings can be bought there, and rather cheaper. And so we do.
But the other day, walking into the main dining room with my friend and fellow enthusiast John, for the first time in some months, there was that familiar feeling: a combination of adventure and coming home. It’s like nothing so much (since this is a love song) as emerging from the arrivals tunnel at some airport, tired and desiccated, still smelling of Malawi perhaps, and there unexpectedly to greet you is your better half. “How very nice,” you say, and, after a pause, “What’s new?”