On Culinary Fashion: a Tale of Two St John’s: St John’s in Clerkenwell and the Oslo Court in St John’s Wood
Posted: 5th November 2018
I don’t eat out much anymore; frankly, I can’t afford to. To some extent I have lost the thrill I used to feel about picking up a menu and deciding what I’d like to eat. Other considerations tend to weigh in: such as the fact that I am invariably someone else’s guest, and if I am actually paying I need to be aware of just how much we can afford to spend. We eat pretty well at home and on the rare occasions we go out many things have changed, not least in the sparse presentation of food, the peculiar syntax of the menu, the nature and degree of seasoning and the surroundings: luxury is out, restaurants are often just bare boards and blank walls. There is a hell of a lot less ‘comfort’ than there was back in the old days.
I remember visiting Paul Bocuse in Lyon a few years back, probably around the time of the millennium. His restaurant was ‘plush’ to the degree of vulgarity. To get three stars then you needed pictures on the walls, carpets, good silver and tableware. Marco Pierre White was a case in point. When he was looking for his third Michelin Star he used to show me all the paintings he’d acquired that week: ‘Nicholas, show Giles my paintings!’ They were frightful things, but he thought they’d help.
To be honest, I wasn’t very concerned about Marco’s pictures or Bocuse’s ringard interiors, I had come to eat. Bocuse’s waiters laid out various things that had justifiably brought him fame since the sixties and I ate, with gusto. I had truffle soup and sea bass with potato scales, and lots, lots more, and my host sat before me with his arms folded across his chest and his big chef’s hat on the top of his head. When he took it off, he was about a foot shorter. It was one of the most delicious meals I’d ever had. And yet, in culinary terms it was all well out of fashion, even then.
I remembered Bocuse, as I always do, when I had lunch last month in Fergus Henderson’s London restaurant St. John’s. Not because either decoration or food reminded me of Bocuse, rather it was because both were really the complete antithesis of Bocuse: the stark white walls, the uncomfortable chairs and the food that simply juxtaposes bold, but unusual ingredients without uniting them under a sauce. I had a good meal: smoked eel with a little mound of wonderfully piquant creamed horseradish (the star of the show) and a pickled prune, a fat cake of pigs’ blood topped with a couple of fried eggs, and finished off with an Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese. What could go wrong there, I asked? And nothing did.
Only a week or two before I had been to another restaurant for lunch that was distinctly UN-fashionable: the Oslo Court in St John’s Wood. In fact it might just win the prize for being the most unfashionable restaurant in London. I had come across it by chance when a wine merchant asked if I might consent to pick up some samples from there as he was not prepared to come all the way to me in Kentish Town. I arrived before the lunchtime service. A waiter or possibly the maître d’hôtel brought me a coffee while I waited for my bottles and soaked up the vision in pink. The dining room seemed to have been inspired by the late Barbara Cartland. The waiter took a telephone call, looking at me and talking in a tone worthy of the great Frankie Howerd: ‘He has such a nice face. I do hope he comes here again!’ I took a peek at the menu. It was then I realised that I had somehow contrived to travel there by Tardis: steak diane! Steak au poivre? Sole meunière? Duck in Cherry Sauce? – dishes as out of date now as top hats at funerals.
I did intend to come again, but the years rolled by. I learned the Oslo Court was popular with people who watch the cricket at Lords. I heard that David Cameron had been seen there, which put me off. This summer I told some kind American friends who spend their summers in St John’s Wood about it and they invited me to go along with them; then I forgot all about the booking and to my horror received an e.mail from them at about two, asking where I was? When they asked me a second time I made sure I put the date firmly in my diary.
This time I arrived on the bus. The place was heaving. I am not young, but I was certainly one of the youngest there. With its soft carpets and genteel atmosphere and art deco allure it might have been an up-market old people’s home on the South Coast. The ladies wore pearls and the men were in suits and ties. I felt hugely underdressed. There was a big bowl of crudités on the table and a great profusion of waiters in dinner jackets bringing hot rolls and Melba toast, each one clearly famed for his comic routine. I great list of specials was recited as a prologue to each course, but I wanted to stick to a menu marinated in nostalgia and opted for a scallops in a shell, fillets of sole with a lobster sauce and sherry trifle.
It was not Bocuse, to be sure, but it was purest Escoffier. The scallops were just the ticket: there seemed to be several in there with prawns in a creamy sauce hemmed in by mashed potato piping. The last time I had eaten one of these was when I dined with a schoolmaster at Eton who had called me in to give a talk to the boys. Then there was the sole. It came on a massive plate with lots of cream. The lobster sauce could have been a bit more concentrated, and there might have been a bit more cognac in it, but these are quibbles. There were more vegetables than anyone could cope with and pommes dauphinoises popped down in some distant part of the plate. Then the trifle (I scarcely had room for the trifle), but it was a serious blast from the past. It took me back to the George at Dorchester, and the Bear at Woodstock, and all the gorgeous trifles I had eaten, and not eaten in the past forty years. It was a massive comfort to know such things were still being made.