I am heading back to London next week for the most silly visit possible. I’ll meet my friend Alan for lunch at Fergus Henderson’s restaurant, St. John Bread and Wine, while on an eight-hour layover. I fly from Boston on a red eye, arrive at 9:00 a.m., head into town for a quick bite, and head back to the airport for my late afternoon flight to Istanbul. Yes, a lot of travel for one lunch, but it will be so worth it; after visiting St. John last year, I have been plotting my return.
When you pass this restaurant, the smell of freshly baked bread envelopes you. Growing up, my grandfather (called Pépère in our French-Canadian family) owned Francoeur’s bakery, and was the local bread deliveryman. Even now, so many years later, just thinking of the smell of his rolls makes me drool. Knowing my affinity for carbohydrates and starches, a friend had directed me to make a pilgrimage to this restaurant. Even though I had just had breakfast half a mile away, I mustered up the appetite to accommodate some fresh bread and a glass of wine, since not doing so was not an option.
In a spare, white room with dark wood accents, I sat with a fresh brioche, a pat of a local farm’s butter, and a glass of chenin blanc. It all seems a bit gratuitous to me now, that I eat meal after meal while discovering a new place, especially given that I’m about to travel here in order just to eat again. I will have rabbit confit, fois gras and duck liver toast, or veal and ham pie this time, we’ll see what I’m in the mood for when I arrive. This is how one learns about a new place though; to see how people cook and eat is to most quickly get to the heart of a place. There are certain things in life that I will always have time and money for, fresh bread and famous restaurants are among the top of the list.
In addition to the bakery, St. John is known for its nose-to-tail mentality, something that I simultaneously respect and am terrified by. I get a bit squeamish when confronted by feet, noses and innards, but try to remain open-minded when at such an esteemed restaurant. A chef I worked with all year read Fergus Henderson’s books, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and Beyond Nose to Tail: Omnivorous Adventures, like they were the gospel and he was repenting. When I visited last year I had known that I was at a famous restaurant, but I hadn’t realized that I was at that famous restaurant. I realized then that a return trip was absolutely necessary, for my first visit had not done the establishment full justice. That, and I want to make my chef friend jealous. You will get the full story in a few weeks, when I recover from my paté and cured meat hangover.
After my glass or two of wine , I left the Spitalfield’s area and headed toward the River Thames. Intent on crossing as many bridges as possible on this trip, I would tackle the Tower Bridge today. A bit tipsy however, I left the restaurant and walked clear off my pocket-sized map. This was not the first time I found myself off the map in another country, and goodness knows I’ll do it many times again in the future. I walked along, slowly realizing that I was headed away from the tall buildings of the city center. I made it to Brick Lane and found myself, through no help of a map. I know this name from a movie, you may too, and knew it to be a famous Bangladeshi neighborhood. I was suddenly glad to have walked off the map. I grabbed a samosa (because again, I cannot pass up a good food opportunity) and enjoyed the curry smells wafting from the storefronts. I reoriented myself by searching the skyline for the Gherkin, the torpedo shaped glass building I knew to be on the way to the river.
Back on track, I veered left to cross the bridge. I pass the fortress, get herded in the crowds, am made to feel Lilliputian under the tower. I try to take it all in, knowing the history that surrounded me, wanting to know everything I saw. Had I known I’d one day write about the experience, there’d be more to say. All I can report is that the Thames sparkled, I spotted the Tate Modern Museum further up river, recognized the Millennium Footbridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the ever-visible London Eye ferris wheel. I made my way to Borough Market once I reached the other side, content to sip a cappuccino at Monmouth Coffee, watching Londoners relax and visit, feeling at home.