Hearts for Valentine’s Day

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

For Valentine’s Day this year, we happened to be in London.  Hadn’t really consciously planned it that way, but once I had realized the situation, I set a goal to obtain lunch reservations at St. John Restaurant.  I had heard about this place, this Legend years ago.  It never struck me as a particularly spectacular food destination until I read Anthony Bourdain’s opinion that he would eat his last meal on earth here:  Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad.


The place is known for its offal.  I borrowed The Whole Beast: Nose-to-Tail Eating, one of the restaurant’s books written by chef Fergus Henderson, from the library to research in advance the kind of snout-filled, tail-topped, chopped-ear-garnished food we would be presented with the option of eating upon arrival.  Frankly, I’m not really perturbed by offal as I find most of it – barring the wretched tripe – pretty darn tasty.  I’ll never pass up an opportunity to eat sweetbreads or ham hocks and, thanks to Alembic, will always order duck hearts on a menu.  So the prospect of eating at a restaurant infamous for its delicate and respectable treatment of unrespected parts was intriguing.

After several attempts on OpenTable, I snagged us a spot and that became our only appointment in London.   It was also the only appointment to which we arrived late.  We had 3 days to get there, and we got there late.  (Stupid windy streets.)   Out of breath and hungry, we stepped into the simply outfitted dining room and were seated at a table almost precisely in the middle of the room with a fine view of the kitchen shenanigans.

And thus, we began the job of translating the menu into North American.   The signature dish, the one that Anthony Bourdain would die eating, was what we would have to start, no question.  But what is Middlewhite?  What is an Arbroath Smokie?  Uh…  Brawn?  There were actually several more things on the menu about which we had no clue so kept our waiter stuck at our table answering questions for a few minutes.  (Middlewhite is a type of fatty pork.  Arbroath Smokie is a smoked haddock produced only in Arbroath, Scotland.  Brawn is Formula One racing team and, in Britain, a seasoned jellied loaf made from the head and sometimes the feet of a pig or calf.)

Eventually we selected the following:  Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad, Duck Hearts with White Beans (it was á propos for Valentine’s Day), Marc had Braised Hare with Swedes and I had the Arbroath Smokie with Parsnips and side of Mash.   After all that business about nose-to-tail, we forgot to order anything pork.

The coveted bone marrow and salad arrived first accompanied by lobster-eating  implements meant to be used to scoop out the mushy, luscious marrow from inside the bone.   It’s eaten on toast, with a quick lash of grey sea salt and a pinch of parsley salad.  I admit, it was divine- though arguably the bone marrow at Alembic is just as good, if not better.  I couldn’t help the comparison!  It’s all I had known of bone marrow before this!   The duck hearts were lovely, but again, not as good as the jerk-spiced duck hearts with tangy pineapple at Alembic.  So far, a draw.

The main courses arrived and I was presented with a whole fish to eat.  With a rich, creamy sauce and a light smoky flavour, the fish permeated every taste bud and oral receptor, though not unpleasantly.  As I delicately peeled the flesh back from the bone, I informed Marc that I would be smelling of smoked fish for the rest of today, and likely into tomorrow morning.  For his part, Marc heroically finished his large portion of braised hare which tasted rather like lamb.  I suspect that was because the hare in the UK would be different from the tasty bunnies we eat here.  Intriguing, hearty, a proper filling lunch but an enlightenment, it was not.  Alas, I fear I had set the bar too high.