Discover more from dinner document by Rebecca May Johnson
In the bar
Eating in the bar at St John, recipes, and eating notes
Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my Substack. This week’s newsletter is an account of visiting the bar at St John in London, several recipes, and eating notes.
US readers! You can now pre-order my book Small Fires, An Epic in the Kitchen. It is being released on June 6 this year!
In the bar
Last week I went to the bar at St John because the event for French writer Constance Debré’s book Love Me Tender was cancelled. I had my hair bleached in the morning after five months of regrowth and then went to the library to write. When I get my hair done I want to go somewhere flirty in the evening and ride high on feeling fresh and the Debré event was what I was counting on that day. Describing Love Me Tender before I had read it a friend said, ‘it’s like “and then I fucked this girl and she had long hair and was young, and then the next day I fucked this girl and she was older and had shorter hair” etc.’ I read the book while the bleach did its work and discovered that Love Me Tender – translated by Holly James – is about more than fucking, but there is a lot of fucking. The cover of the Semiotexte edition that I have (from the bookshop in Paris from last week’s newsletter) has a photograph of Debré on the front: shaved head, neck, small tattoo, earring, shirt collar, eyes turned away from the camera: a very sexy cover. A portrait of what I wanted from the evening after getting my hair done. Then, mid-afternoon I received a text that Debré was unwell, and the event was cancelled. I hoped she was OK, and speculated about what a suitable alternative would be. I could message a friend? But what I wanted was the openness of an Event; possibility. I decided I would rather bump into someone by chance, riskier as that might be.
The entrance to both the bar and restaurant at St John is something of a viewing gallery with seats and tables either side of the walkway. The voyeurism encouraged by this arrangement is one aspect of why I decided it would be a strong second to a hot reading where everyone would have been looking at each other. Their no reservations policy, reliable availability of somewhere to sit or stand, and general informality give it the frisky quality of a space where social formations are not set in stone. You do not have to spend the whole time sitting on the table you booked and people move about, change places, join each other. Also, because St John is at the heart of a certain strand of London celebrity there is the chance of seeing someone exciting; for example, once when I came with my friend Ana, Gwendoline Christie walked past on her way into dinner.
The bar has a chalkboard menu with prices from under £10 to almost £20 and no pressure to eat at all or in any particular way. You could come for a beer, or only puddings, or share a basket of bread, or eat everything on the menu alone. It is not cheap, but your spot is not time-limited, you order at the bar, and waiting staff do not monitor your progress through the meal. You can be in this monastic-yet-glamorous place for hours and spend what you can afford without the disciplining effect and cost of a formal menu. I have never eaten in the main St John restaurant, but now and again I come for a glass of wine or a plate of food in the bar, often alone and sometimes with a friend. There is always somewhere to sit and read a book or write or drink wine and covertly check people out and unlike some places, I do not feel conspicuous or like I am outstaying my welcome by not spending a lot.
In October I came alone before a performance by the artist Tai Shani at nearby nightclub Fabric and had mutton soup, watercress salad, bread, and a glass of red wine. I saw several people I know a little from the internet and said hello to them; they were also going to see Shani’s performance. I came back afterwards with different people for a glass of wine before running for the train back to Essex. When I walked in a week ago two friends, Olivia and Richard, were sitting in the entrance having a dinner date. They invited me to join for fizzy wine so I went to the bar and bought a glass then pulled up a chair for a gossip. They were eating a mutton soup much like what I had had on my previous visit. Olivia said that the mussels and the beetroot looked good too. Then, wanting to eat alone and spread myself out with my food, I went and sat on a table in the main bar. I ordered beetroot salad, mussels in cider, bread, and a glass of red wine. When the waiter brought the food they said, a little hesitant, Fergus says you should mix up the beetroot, though I quite like it like that. I said, OK, I will try it both ways. On the plate in separate heaps were grated beetroot, a generous amount of crème fraiche, capers, and chervil. I tried first taking a little of each onto my fork, and then subsequently mixed it all up and ate it like that. The flavours were brighter when eaten in the first way; I might have added some salt and pepper if it been on my table to the mixed-up version. The mussels were sweet and soft and I used the bread to finish their broth.
While I was eating, I spotted someone else I knew: a man who had asked me out when I was reading Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn and eating breakfast alone almost ten years ago, and whose life I was still vaguely aware of via social media. A comment about Murdoch had been his opening gambit. Now he was on what appeared to be another date, and we chatted while they waited for their table in the main restaurant. He promised to buy my book. As I finished eating people came in for a birthday party with dogs and a cake they’d brought from outside. I was inspired and ordered 12 madeleines and re-joined my friends at their table in the entrance hall and when the hot little cakes arrived they exclaimed in delight and I decided to stay for an extra drink and the birthday people filed out of the main bar and stood in a circle nearby and sang happy birthday to their friend.
recipes and eating notes below
Gratinated Chicory, Lentils, and Sauerkraut
This meal was a surprise hit conceived and made at the last minute. There wasn’t much in the fridge apart from some chicory, the end of a piece of parmesan and milk. I finished a packet of lentils and the end of a jar of sauerkraut for the rest. We ate in front of the TV and it reminded me of a meal we had in Rome watching Columbo where my friend Rachel served grilled tardivo radicchio in white sauce with roast potatoes, beetroot and puntarelle – a plate of vegetables held together by a white sauce.
Chicory au gratin
3 heads of chicory, cut into quarters lengthways
1 tablespoon olive oil
500ml whole milk
1 small onion, halved
1 bay leaf
50g plain flour
50 unsalted butter
75g parmesan, finely grated
How to make:
Pre-heat oven to 180C. In a frying pan that can go in the oven, heat the olive oil and place the chicory cut side down in the pan. The pieces of chicory should all have contact with the heat of the pan, but be a snug fit. Turn the chicory as they colour so all sides are browned. Then cut the butter into small pieces and put them on top of the chicory, cover with a piece of greaseproof paper and put in the oven to cook through. Check with a knife to see if it’s tender all the way through. When it you longer feel resistance with the knife, remove from the oven.
While the chicory is in the oven, heat the milk with onion and a bay leaf and a grind of black pepper. Bring it almost to the boil then turn the heat off. Then make the white sauce. Melt the 50g butter and when it’s foaming add the flour. Stir the flour in the butter for a minute to allow it to cook out. Then add the milk gradually, whisking as you do so as it thickens until all of the milk is added. Cook on the heat while stirring until it thickens to the consistency of double cream. Stir in a teaspoon of mustard, and season to taste with salt and black pepper.
To finish, turn the oven onto grill. Pour the white sauce over the chicory. Put the halved onions from infusing your milk in with the chicory too if you like. Top with parmesan and grill until bubbling and bronzed.
250g very small green lentils
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 dried chilli
How to make:
Wash the lentils. Place in a saucepan and cover with cold water 2 inches above the lentils. Add the peeled garlic and dried chilli and bring to a simmer. After ten minutes season with salt. Cook until tender – around 25 minutes depending on your lentils, taste them to see.
I served these dishes with a side of sauerkraut from a jar warmed through in a pan with a little butter.
In the wake of terrible family news last week I rushed out and bought a chicken and cooked Sam a roast chicken with potatoes, steamed leek and carrots, and a green salad. I roasted the potatoes as my mother did the last time she made them and they were possibly the best I have made: I soaked them in water as prepared them, then I brought to the boil in new water with a teaspoon of salt and cooked for 8 ish minutes, tossed in the pan after draining to roughen the edges. In a roasting tin on the hob melt a knob of unsalted butter and several tablespoons of olive oil. Add the potatoes and toss in the butter-oil mixture. Roast in the oven until bronzed.
A breakfast I made channelling my friend Ayça, for some visiting friends: breakfast olives, mini cucumber, fresh mint, tomatoes, fried aubergine, sheep’s cheese, hard boiled eggs, walnuts, honey, olive oil, thick yogurt, flatbread.
Omelette filled with softened baby leeks, a little fresh goat’s cheese, served with oven chips, chicory salad and leftover tarragon aioli that Sam had made for another meal.
Solo dinner of crème fraiche, garlic, butter, tarragon and walnuts and pasta water with slices of celeriac cooked with the pasta, then all tossed together.
Valentine day’s lunch after Sam had been on the picket line as part of university strikes at Catalyst roasters on Grey’s Inn Road in London: daily special of halloumi katsu sandwich and an aubergine dish, both so good.