I hardly know where to start with this one. The dinner Nick and I shared at Fergus Henderson’s St. John Bread and Wine was, quite simply, excellent in every way. The food was delicious, the atmosphere was convivial, the service was friendly, and we walked out of the place with a couple of free doughnuts!
Many of the places we ate in London were suggested by Shuna Fish Lydon, former pastry chef of The French Laundry and author of the fascinating blog, Eggbeater. The Harwood Arms was the only one I booked in advance, deciding to play the rest by ear. Upon arrival in London, after fortifying ourselves with fish and chips, Nick and I met up with my cousin, who is an enthusiastic foodie. She was excited to see my list of possible restaurants, and was particularly delighted to see St. John and The Modern Pantry on the list, which certainly played a role in my decision-making. St. John, the main restaurant (which was ranked #14 on this year’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World list) was booked solid, but fortunately its little sibling, the more casual St. John Bread and Wine, had room for us.
We started with a bowl of buttery Lucques olives and a salad of slow-cooked ham, pea shoots, and radish. This is my kind of salad. The richness of the ham was perfectly balanced by the fresh pea shoots and the peppery bite of the radish. And seasonal to boot! I love food like this: great ingredients at their peak, prepared simply and lovingly.
When we entered the restaurant, a sparely decorated open cube with white walls and black and white checkered floors, we noticed a pie on one of the tables. It looked and smelled so good that there was no question we would be ordering chicken and bacon pie for two. Our choice made, the smile of the chef jacket-clad waitress confirmed that we had made the right decision. And how! The crust was flaky and deeply browned, and underneath was a steaming hot stew of, well, chicken and bacon. The flavor was spot-on: smoky, salty (but not too much), and very satisfying. My only reservation was that some of the bits of chicken were on the dry side, but I know of no way to avoid this when cooking a whole chicken – the breast pieces are always going to be drier. Still, it was overall a very enjoyable dish.
The pie was served with a side of crisp-tender broccoli rabe in a mustardy dressing that stood up well to the strong flavor of the vegetable. While we were eating, we kept sneaking peeks into the semi-open kitchen. The pastry station was in our direct line of sight, and we watched as the chef spooned up perfect quenelles of hand-whipped something with what looked suspiciously like a bloody mary on the counter next to him. He appeared to be working out a new recipe, and I was so curious I had to ask when he walked past our table to talk to some friends of his that had come in for dinner. It turns out he was experimenting for an upcoming competition, and when I told him I was a pastry chef, too, he offered to send us a taste of his new dessert. Obviously, we accepted. I took no picture, though, because since it was new and destined for competition, I didn’t want to steal anyone’s thunder. I will say that it was intensely chocolatey, which is never a bad thing in my book.
Speaking of books…
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