The Offal Truth
Where: London, England
Fergus Henderson is the opposite of a molecular gastronomist -- he doesn't make food delicate and tiny, he makes it big and sloppy. Market-fresh produce? He'd rather serve you a slab of freshly slaughtered meat. Reducing foods to their essence? Well, certainly -- that is, if you consider internal organs the most essential part of an animal.
And yet cutting-edge food it is, or rather cleaver's-edge food. St. John's chef-owner Henderson is known for what he calls "nose-to-tail" cookery, which finds a way to use all of an animal -- neck, feet, tail, liver, heart, the works. His location is spot-on appropriate, in a long-abandoned smokehouse just north of the old meat market at Smithfield. Henderson and his partner Trevor Gulliver didn't do much to tart it up -- slap a coat of white paint onto the brick walls, punch a few skylights into the ceiling, install a bar and kitchen appliances, and cart in some square brown wood tables. But somehow, that baresbones decor is just right for the earthy simplicity of Henderson's cooking.
This nose-to-tail notion would never have caught on, of course, if Henderson wasn't so skilled. For starters, you might have a salad of brawn (boar's flesh) and chicory, of roast bone marrow and parsley, or of cold Middlewhite ham (a Yorkshire breed of swine) with celeriac rémoulade. (For the faint of heart, there are also plain oysters or a smoked mackerel and potato salad.) Then it's on to hearty main courses like roast beef with sea beet and mustard; ox hearts with beets and picked walnut; chitterlings and dandelions; a pheasant and trotter pie (dig the bone sticking out of the crust); or smoked eel, bacon, and clam stew. (Again, there are less daring choices like lemon sole or girolle mushrooms on toast.) With advance order, a private party can even have a roast suckling pig. With delicious simple bread baked in its own bakery, and desserts like Eccles cake, bread pudding, spotted dick, and plum jelly, it's one of the most deeply British menus in town -- and at the same time almost dangerously radical. Tasting menu? That's way too effete for St. John, although they do offer a "feasting menu" for larger groups.
There's also an excellent wine list, though it mostly features French wines -- you'd expect the bar here to have a substantial selection of real ales, but it's surprisingly limited. The bar is, however, a great place to get a quicker, cheaper sampling of Henderson's cooking, with a blackboard menu that offers several appetizers and side dishes (anchovy toast, Welsh rarebit) from the dining room menu.
Information: 26 St. John St. (tel. 44/20/7251-0848; www.stjohnrestaurant.co.uk).
Nearest Airports: Heathrow (24km/15 miles) or Gatwick (40km/25 miles).
Where to Stay: Covent Garden Hotel, 10 Monmouth St., Covent Garden (tel. 800/553-6674 in the U.S., or 44/20/7806-1000; www.firmdale.com). B + B Belgravia, 64-66 Ebury St., Belgravia (tel. 800/682-7808 in the U.S., or 44/20/7734-2353; www.bb-belgravia.com).