As a kid one of my favourite stories was The Emperor’s New Clothes. It was such a funny depiction of snobbery: a pretentious, chubby little emperor believes his lowly tailor when he tells him his new clothes are so fine, so delicate that they are invisible, and promptly goes riding through town stark naked. Along with Bluebeard and Demeter & the Underworld, and The Enchanted Wood, oh and who could forget Where the Wild Things Are (can’t wait to see the movie), What Katy Did and so many other books (which I’m currently being reminded of by Lucy Mangan’s guide to building a children’s library, it really is a gem.
Anyway, the Roasted bone & parsley salad at St John restaurant in Smithfield reminds me a little of that story. I remember going there – I’ve only been once, and found it a little sterile and humourless – and being presented with a plate of hollow bones, brimming with a fatty grey liquid the texture of porridge. And to add insult to disapppointment, the waitress then saw fit to instruct me on how to eat it – ‘Scoop the marrow out with this little silver tool and then smear it onto the toast, adding salt if you wish’ – I mean, no, really???
The following night I described the dish to an Italian friend, who said it sounded a little like osso bucco, ‘where you get the meat with the bone in the middle.’
‘This was just the bone,’ I explained to him.
‘Just the bone?’ he repeated.
‘Just the bone.’
He didn’t get it and neither do I.
And yet this dish has made the restaurant famous. I applaud the idea of ‘nose to tail eating’ in theory… but I think this is taking it several stages too far. Having said all that, the restaurant serves much more than just roasted bones (which don’t seem the be on the menu right now anyway). If I’m in Spitalfields, where the other branch is located, I’ll often stop in to the bakery to buy some bread. And not everyone agrees with me. Chef Fergus Herderson was just given an Outstanding Achievement award by the Observer, and Gourmet Chick gives a glowing review here (she also let me use the above photo, thank you Gourmet Chick!).
Fair play, if people want to pay for the privilege of scraping out a few dead old bones then there are worst crimes. But I still don’t get it. And Henderson almost admits it himself in the Observer interview: “It’s a bit cheeky, just roasting bones as a signature dish. But then the whole of St John had a perverse self-confidence to it.” A little like the Emperor’s new clothes.