One of the things I love about London is the way that most of the top restaurants have a shop attached, selling choice items from their menu for their regular customers to enjoy at home…or to allow those who watch closely from afar to try their famous offerings & enjoy a small slice of the place without requiring a booking or a serious & budget diminishing outlay.
Notable examples here include the Sally Clarke shop (of which more anon); Villandry (I tried the shop but it was a bit too meringue focused to be of use to me); the River Café sells their own olive oil; Carluccio’s, of course, if a bit less fancy than some of the rest of the restaurants here; the Ottolenghi cafés; Persepolis & finally, St John Bar & Restaurant, which sells wine & their own bread & bakes (including the famous seed cake, served at 11 in the restaurant with a fortifying glass of madeira), skillfully baked on the premises at St John Street in London’s meat market district, Smithfield.
I was passing through Smithfield recently on my way to visit a friend near the Barbican and decided to stop in St John en route to pick up some of their fantastic sourdough bread from the bakery, which is located inside the restaurant. The room itself is a lovely bright, white, compact & calm space that used to serve as a smokehouse. On the day that I stopped in, it was filled with a coterie of well-dressed, vaguely academic looking people who seemed comfortable enough in the room to be regulars; all enjoying the fabulous bread that was appearing from the back of the room, where the bread ovens are.
As Peter Prescott & Terence Conran say of St John Bar & Restaurant, ‘Laconic and to the point describes the menu writing style, but they also apply to what appears on the plate. Nobody cooks to this standard and uses the range of ingredients pioneered by Fergus. It should be said that his parents have a lot to answer for. Brian Henderson has always enjoyed the best food and wine in generous quantities. Elizabeth is a fine cook, very much in the Henderson tradition. Fergus learnt at her stove but originally trained as an architect. We thoroughly recommend a visit as many times as possible, whether you are calling in for a morning fillip, a long lunch or a simple supper. Or why not just collect a few Eccles cakes or a seed cake from the bakery. I recently celebrated my birthday there with a raucous party for eighteen. We shared a whole suckling pig, followed by a chocolate tart – it’s just a wonderful place to be.’
Home from my morning of exploring the area around St Paul’s Cathedral, Smithfield & the Barbican (note: there’s a very cool deli/grocer/plant shop near the entrance to the Barbican Estate flats which is worth a look), I decided to use my lovely sourdough to try Henderson’s recipe for Welsh rarebit, which is on the menu at St John & features in his Nose to Tail cookbook. I’ve always been a fan of Welsh rarebit – my parents used to occasionally make it for lunch on Saturdays when I was small, and although I always protested for some reason I inevitably ate and enjoyed it every time. Now that I’m older, I see Welsh rarebit for what it truly is: it’s that elusive rounded savouriness umami on toast. And I know how good it tastes with a cold drink alongside it – it’s the perfect snack for serving late on at a party; just watch those tired eyes light up when you bring a plateful of these to the table.
WELSH RAREBIT TOASTS
I’ve quartered Fergus Henderson’s recipe in this; the original, to serve 6 or more (fairly generously) can be found here
A knob of butter
3 large slices of sourdough bread
110 g mature cheddar cheese
Half a teaspoon of mustard powder
A quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper
Scant half tablespoon of plain flour
A ‘long splash’ of Worcestershire sauce
50ml ale or stout (Henderson recommends Guinness, but I used a deep amber ale and liked it like that)
Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat & stir in the flour. Cook until the mixture smells toasty but is not browning. Add the mustard powder & cayenne pepper, stir in the ale or stout & Worcestershire sauce, then gently melt in the cheese. When it’s all the same consistency, remove from the heat, pour out into a shallow container and allow to set. Toast the bread on one side under a hot grill. Once nicely browned, turn the slices over & spread the mixture on top of each to a thickness of around 1 cm. Grill until bubbling & golden brown, cut in half then serve immediately with pints.
I do plan to eat at St John at some point soon, as I’ve long been as intrigued by the way Fergus Henderson has elevated & championed very English eating experiences as the nose to tail premise that has made him & his restaurants so world-renowned. I’m also keen to eat at his wife Margot’s café, Rochelle Canteen, as I remember loving a book of hers called ‘You’re All Invited: Margot’s Recipes for Entertaining’ that was in my local library at home, featuring a stunning cover image of a pink-hued dining table & I’ve heard incredible things on the grapevine about her café in Bethnal Green. I’ll let you know what the verdict is when I get to each.
Those toasts look delicious. Enjoy St John.