St John’s Bread & Market @ Spitalfields – London
We almost didn’t make it here.
Our original plan was to dine at Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant/culinary school for underpriviledged kids; however, our long-time friends in London made such a strong case for St. John’s that we decided to go for it. Plus, we already visited Oliver’s alma mater, the River Cafe, at lunch.
So at 6pm, one hour after the tube strike started, we’re on a cab from Grosvenor Square heading to the other end of town in Spitalfields. Our cab driver valiantly tries to squeeze through rush-hour traffic; forty five minutes later, he drops us off on the busy and bustling Commercial Street. The restaurant is across the street from the Spitalfields Market, a cavernous food court that began its life in the 1700’s as a place to hawk livestock, poultry and vegetables.
Inside, it’s simple and no frills, almost industrial. Baking equipment peeks through a high half wall that also lets diners see the chefs at work. A blackboard hangs prominently on the center wall and displays the specials. St John’s has been open since lunch time and so most of the items are crossed out. The menu itself is split into smaller dishes meant to be eaten tapas style and larger ones meant to be entrees. Those unfamiliar with British cuisine will certainly do a double-take at some of the unusual (and outrageous) sounding names.
Ox Heart, Watercress & Pickled Walnut
It may not seem all that appetizing, but, according to our waitress, this is one of the more popular items on the menu. When describing the dish, she starts by making a gesture with her hands like she’s holding a watermelon. Apparently, that’s how massive an ox heart is. It’s sliced thinly, marinated in a sweet and piquant vinaigrette before being grilled. Paired with the slightly bitter watercress, this dish is downright delicious. The ox heart texture is quite a surprise. It’s chewy rather than spongy, more similar to top round than innards.
The first time I tried blood pudding was at a traditional English pub in the Mayfair area of London. If you had asked me then how it was, I would have said it’s like eating a black cake of Dead Sea salt. Even one spoonful was too much. So, ten years later, upon our waitress’ recommendation, I’m staring down at this rectangular slice looking like burnt toast and topped with a slow cooked duck egg. Will it trigger an attack of high blood pressure, I wonder. Thankfully, St. John’s version of this traditional English staple is much better balanced seasoning-wise. Its taste and texture remind me of liverwurst that’s been liberally doused with fragrant nutmeg and allspice. The saltiness is not completely gone but just relegated to the background. The slice is fried so the edges are a little crispy and it’s a nice contrast to the rich runny duck egg.
Sea Beet, Purslane & Brown Shrimp
Sea beet is a wild spinach that grows along the coastlines of Britain. In this dish, it’s sauteed along with purslane, a crunchy succulent that’s a weed moonlighting as a vegetable. Small brown shrimp is fried to a crisp so it can be eaten shell and all. The thin runny sauce is sweet and sharp. I’m told it’s made with freshly pressed apple juice.
Middle White Faggot & Swede
No need to be up in arms. Gender and racial insults are not being traded here. Middle White is a breed of an English pig that’s not seen much commercialization; faggot is an offal meatball popular in the Midlands area, and swede refers to a root crop more commonly known as rutabaga.
Heart, lungs, liver and kidney from a Middle White pig are chopped beyond recognition, mixed with minced pork, seasoned and shaped into a hockey puck that’s wrapped in caul fat and baked. It sits on a pool of its own somewhat sticky jus and served with a puree of “swede”. All in all, it’s quite delicious and even those squeamish about eating innards won’t be put off by the mild taste.
With the small plates averaging about GBP 6 each, the food is a steal considering the quality and robustness of the portions.