The London Restaurant Festival arrives in October, celebrating the best of the capital’s culinary scene – most of which Tom Parker Bowles can link back to one restaurant: St John
St John restaurant, that bare-walled and beautiful altar to succour, bonhomie and serious eating, will be 20 this month. That’s two decades of feasting upon glistening, luscious marrow, gleaned from roast veal shinbones, and spread thick over sourdough toast. Chased, of course, by a tart, verdant and vinegary mouthful of parsley and caper salad. Along with lamb’s brain on toast. And crisp pigs’ tails. And fat lobes of lustily devilled kidneys. But although these woefully underappreciated squidgy, bouncy and buxom parts of the beast play a huge role in its menu, St John is not just about the offal.
No sir. In fact, great piles of fresh langoustines, raw radishes and cabbage and brown shrimp salad (not forgetting an exquisite chocolate ice-cream and fluffy Madeleines) are every bit as important as stewed tripe and endless ways with tongue. For me, it’s one of London’s great restaurants, a glorious temple of edible pleasure, and a place whose influence is immense.
Not that chef proprietor Fergus Henderson (along with his business partner Trevor Gulliver) subscribes to anything as crass as a ‘philosophy’. There are no dreaded ‘concepts’ either. There aren’t even any pictures on the wall. Never have been. No, St John is a great champion of simple, unembellished but consistently excellent food.
St John is also an iconic modern London restaurant. Not just for its quietly modest championing of modern British food, but also for the great diaspora of talent cooked up in its kitchens. Tom Pemberton at West London’s wonderful Hereford Road; Jonathan Jones, of Waterloo’s ever brilliant Anchor and Hope, a proper pub with food that continues to delight; James Lowe at much lauded Lyle’s in Shoreditch. And ex-pastry maestro, Justin Piers Gellatly, at Bread Ahead bakery in Borough.
It’s not just the pan shakers, but the front of house too. Original partner John Spiteri, one of the great modern maitre d’s, whose charm, skill and diplomacy have opened restaurants from Le Café Anglais to Quo Vadis. Plus Thomas Blythe, hirsute and heroic in his expert dealing with every kind of punter. The hero of the next generation. There are few modern restaurants with this sort of clout, and few that command this sort of devotion too.
Hammersmith’s The River Café is one. Not only have Ruthie Rogers and the late Rose Grey trained and inspired the likes of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Theo Randall, Stevie Parle and Sam and Sam Clark, but showed London what real regional Italian food was all about. Ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. Talking of Sam and Sam Clark, Moro is another modern London classic, a place that has stayed consistent for over 15 years, and was similarly revolutionary in showing us that Spanish food wasn’t just about rubbery squid and second rate chorizo.
Finally there’s Bibendum, that South Kensington institution that not only had Simon Hopkinson, as original head chef/partner at the peak of his powers, but trained the likes of Phil Howard (The Square), Bruce Poole (Chez Bruce) Jeremy Lee (Quo Vadis), Henry Harris (Racine) and his brother, Matthew, who is still head chef there now. That’s one hell of a line up. Proper cooks – just like Henderson and Rogers and Gray and the Clarks – who ignore the witless whims and vacillations of culinary fashion. And just get on with cooking real food, with the best ingredients, with a minimum of fuss and hysteria and red-faced abuse. For me, these are the true heroes of London’s 20 years.
3 THINGS I HAVE DONE THIS MONTH
I said I’d be back. And now I’ve fallen head over heels in love with the new outpost of Barrafina, deep in Covent Garden. Head chef Nieves Barragan Mohacho, along with proprietors the Hart brothers, have come up with a tapas menu of such beauty that I’ve been back three times in one week. Milk fed calf’s kidneys, fluffy crab croquetas, lettuce and anchovies, Josper-roasted brill … plus their own sherry and wonderful staff. Utterly brilliant.
Lunch at Bellamy’s with the gaffer, Gavin Rankin. Again, no pretence or faff or muzak, no annoying waiters asking if ‘Sir understands the concept.’ Just tip top Franglais food. In a proper old-fashioned restaurant, with perfect service and a menu you want to marry. Magnifique!
Lunch at The Ritz with Mark Hix and Mitch Tonks. We crammed ourselves into suits and ties, then left our appetites in the hands of Executive Chef John Williams. Poulet de bresse cooked in a pigs bladder with truffles, and carved at the table. Plus exquisite puddings too. John Williams is a master of old school French cooking (with a light, modern touch too), and this was a magnificent lunch that stretched long into the afternoon.