Here I am in England for a few days to see family and friends – and to join one of Charlie Burger’s mysterious dinners. This is the first one he has organized in Europe and he could scarcely have chosen a more interesting location – St. John, the restaurant opened close to Smithfield meat market by English chef Fergus Henderson in 1995.
I’m intrigued to find out who Burger really is. I’m even more excited to eat at St. John. This is the food that changed the way the world thought about English food – changed the way the English thought about English food, come to that. Scrupulously honest cooking, using up every part of the animal, not at all fancy, substantial and satisfying, deeply unpretentious. As is the building where the restaurant is located, right across the road from the meat market, along a short passageway. Famously, it was an old smokehouse and equally famously Fergus Henderson and his partner did very little to it. One enters the bar – like a covered alleyway with a big zinc bar and some tables and chairs. Lots of people in shirtsleeves and jeans having a pint or glass of wine. I realize that I am, as so often, overdressed and quietly slip off my pencil-thin tangerine-and-cream-striped Jaeger tie, quickly rolling it and concealing it in the pocket of my off-white Brunello Cucinelli trousers.
I’m very early (London traffic is not what it was in my day). I climb the iron steps and into the odd-shaped room – the dining room. The greeting is pleasant, humane, not remotely fawning. The servers – and there are many of them – have the discreet self-confidence you would expect at one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. Even if the room looks a bit like a works canteen with its high ceiling, white walls, painted but scuffed wooden floorboards. A line of coat pegs runs all round the room about seven feet off the ground (the right height given the height of the ceiling, but oddly high). They remind me of my prep school – as does the lack of any art on the walls and the reinforced glass in the windows. On the tables, white paper covers white linen; glassware and cutlery are very ordinary, the hard wooden bentwood chairs as plain as can be. The whole place, indeed, is very plain and under-decorated – aggressively so, or passively so?
That question is very much at the heart of Fergus Henderson’s position in gastronomy these days. Anthony Bourdain addresses it in the introduction to the 2004 reprint of Henderson’s seminal 1999 cookbook, Nose to Tail Eating. When he first ate at St. John, Bourdain was so overwhelmed and impressed by the simple integrity of the food that he read all sorts of political motivation into it. “I saw his simple, honest, traditional English country fare as a thumb in the eye to the establishment,” says Bourdain, “an outrageously timed head butt to the growing hordes of politically correct, the PETA people, the European Union, practitioners of arch, ironic Fusion Cuisine and all those chefs who were fussing about with tall, overly sculpted entrées of little substance and less soul.” Having come to know Henderson, he now sees there is no hidden manifesto, just a respectful homage to good food. I’m sure he’s right about the place Henderson is coming from. But that doesn’t make his first reaction wrong. This food, and the cookbooks Henderson has written about it, have been incredibly influential, the influence felt in New York, Toronto, even Paris and Sydney.
The answer perhaps is in the mood of the restaurant-goers tonight. They are merry, casual, unpretentious – just people having dinner, not people making a socio-gastronomic statement. It is all very democratic but not archly so, not cocky or defiant.
Charlie Burger and the other guests arrive. Our table is positioned right in front of the open kitchen. Burger and Henderson have devised the menu between them – six courses featuring some of the chef’s most iconic dishes.
The bread comes – thick slices of the crunchy-crusted, fragrant brown and white sourdough loaves that are baked at Henderson’s other place, St. John Bread & Wine. A square of ordinary salted butter on a saucer.
The first course is devilled crab, served cold – huge bowls of Portland (Dorset) crab broken into large pieces, the shells partially cracked but not removed, cooked in a sauce of olive oil, garlic, ginger, chopped spring onions, fresh coriander leaves, lemon and lime juice and very finely julienned red chilies. We are all given hooks and pliers and a spare napkin. I decide discretion is the better part of fashion and remove my beige Bugatti blazer. Charlie Burger and I consider the snowy expanses of each other’s white shirts and weigh up the merits of tucking a napkin into the collar. Neither of us do it. Let the sauce fall where it may.
It’s a delicious dish. The chilies are a subtle warmth behind the more obvious citrus and ginger tang. The crab meat is juicy but not watery (because they were boiled in water as salty as the sea). The wine, Domaine Francois Crochet 2009 Sancerre, is an elegant match, undaunted by the sauce. It takes us almost an hour to do justice to the generous helping and there is no possibility of daintiness as we crack claws, lick fingers and pry the treasured flesh from the chitinous chambers of the crabs’ bodies. Several fingerbowls and napkins later, the social ice has been broken and melted away. My shirt and Charlie’s are pristine.
The second course is another Henderson trademark – trotter gear and quail’s egg. Trotter gear is awesome stuff. To make it, you must blanche pig’s trotters then braise them for at least three hours with onions, carrots, celery, leeks, garlic, thyme, peppercorns, chicken stock and half a bottle of Madeira until they are, in Henderson’s words, “totally giving.” Drain off the liquid and reserve it. Then pick and shred all the flesh, fat and skin off the trotters, add it to the reserved liquid and keep it in a jar until you need it. “You now have Trotter Gear,” writes Henderson in his second book, Beyond Nose to Tail, “nuduals of giving, wobbly trotter captured in a splendid jelly.”
Tonight we each receive a ramekin of warm trotter gear with a couple of quail’s eggs cooked in it. It’s rich, unctuous, the many subtle textures of the semi-solid gear slipping about in the looser melted-jelly cooking liquid. The eggs are cooked through and provide an island of substance. We all use chunks of bread to mop our ramekins clean. The wine takes a friendly back seat to the experience – a Domaine Jean-Claude Lapalu 2008 Brouilly Vielles Vignes.
Onto the main course – tripe and onions slow-cooked in milk with mashed potatoes. I have a checkered past where this dish is concerned. My grandmother used to cook the identical recipe for my dad. She was brought up on a farm in North Devon and this was something of a staple in those parts. It was my father’s favourite dish but to me, as a child, it always looked terrifying – the yellowish sponge-like flubber trembling in the gently moving milk. The thought of eating it nauseated me. It was only as an adult that I learned to love the stuff.
Henderson’s recipe couldn’t be simpler. He thickens the milk with a roux of butter and flour, adds chicken stock and a little mace then poaches the tripe and thinly sliced onions. Where his mastery is apparent is the timing. The beige tripe (from Irish cattle) is incredibly tender – I cut it with a fork – but still has that faint soft crunch that you also find in Cantonese jellyfish dishes. Here it is more like eating a giant morel than a sea creature, a morel bathing in chicken stock and bechamel. The firm mashed potatoes are more of a sop for the sauce than anything else.
And the wine? My ideal match for this dish is a dry cider from Somerset or Brittany. We receive Domaine JP Matrot 2007 Meursault Rouge.
The fourth course is intended to keep scurvy at bay, according to Charlie Burger – a salad of watercress and soft roasted purple shallots, heaped on a platter and wet with a vinaigrette dressing spiked with crushed capers. It’s tangy, rich, moist, delicious – and just refreshing enough to be welcome.
Onto the savoury – a classic buck rarebit. Melt strong Cheddar into a bubbling pan of butter, flour, mustard powder, cayenne pepper, Guinness and Worcestershire sauce. Let it cool into a paste then spread the paste as needed onto a slice of toast and put under the grill until bubbly. That’s a Welsh rarebit of course. Turn it into a buck rabbit by putting a poached egg on top. Tonight, it makes an ideal contribution – spicy, rich, the crunchy toast beneath the piquant molten cheese a substantial presence. This time the wine pairing is brilliant – Fonseca 1977 vintage port, as rich and spicy in its own way as the rarebit.
The finale is Dr Henderson ice cream and it splits the party neatly into lovers and haters. This is an ice cream made from two parts Fernet Branca and one part crème de menthe, a drink that the chef’s father enjoyed as a hangover cure. It is certainly a peculiar ice cream – bitter, herbal, minty, sweet, medicinal… Most of our group agrees that crème de menthe is one of the very few alcoholic beverages we hate. Burger points out that the other mass-market French mint liqueurs Jet 27 (clear) and Jet 31 (green – or is it the other way around?) are even more vile and toothpaste-like. As an ice cream, however, the combination works for me, the bitters ruling the roost. A shot of Vieille Prune cuts through it nicely.
With the bill (an extremely reasonable 145 pounds (Charlie Burger’s events are not-for-profit)) come some freshly made, hot-from-the-oven madeleines. In the kitchen, head chef Chris Gillaud, who cooked for us tonight, is busy shaving a piglet for tomorrow’s service.
We conclude at midnight – four and a half hours after we began. The tireless Burger leads a group to a drinking establishment he favours in Covent Garden. I head home, extremely pleased with the evening, clutching my copy of Beyond Nose to Tail, signed by Fergus Henderson with a handwritten promise that he will come to Toronto “some day” and cook a Charlie Burger event. That will be a home-and-home I won’t want to miss.