A Long Lunch at St. JOHN
As the clock strikes 12 noon across the capital, many Londoners start to consider lunch. Some might be rustling up a toastie on their Breville. Others will be wandering from offices toward a Pret or Itsu. Most of these lunches will be prudent, sober and quick. Some lunching will be missed entirely, or “replaced” with supplements. We live in a curious time some would argue, a chaste, timid time, when even in the City of London, the art of the long lunch is all-but lost.
Thankfully, over in Smithfield, at St. JOHN, betwixt the whitewashed walls of an old smokery, an altogether different ritual is starting to unfold. The aroma of baking sourdough is a pleasing first note, and as our group gathers at the bar, suggestions of conviviality are everywhere: champagne is being poured, while a barman expertly spins ice in glass to prepare what looks like a Hanky Panky cocktail for man in a fedora, and rarebits are everywhere.
We’re here for a rather special lunch. The gastronomic gods have conspired to find a perfect occasion where an assorted cabal of food and wine lovers, with a penchant for beautiful jackets, could descend upon St. JOHN and indulge in something memorable.
As couples and small groups start drifting through to the dining room, our crew huddle together at the bar drinking Blanc de Blancs Champagne, while Trevor recounts tales of getting around French bureaucracy with aplomb. Fergus cuts a dash at the bar, in a bespoke moleskin Drake’s suit and superb pastel pink braces. Michael Drake arrives late in a Solito linen jacket, a re-styled 1980s Drake’s tie, and deep tan, looking like he’s arrived straight off a sea plane from Havana. The inimitable Michael Hill, has indeed just stepped off a plane from Sicily, and helps my colleague, Charlotte Sère, accessorize beautifully with a Drake’s bandana.
We are a motley, well dressed, well-refreshed crew, as we slide through to the private dining room. The pristine white walls, and Ercol chairs work as a perfect backdrop to the warm and colourful palette of wines and spirits we are to enjoy.
Conversation ebbs and flows around the room, as glasses of salmon pink Laurent Perrier, Grande Siècle Cuvée Alexandra 1998 are poured. This is a wine that could reasonably argue for the title of rarest vintage rose champagne in the world. It was only produced from 1987 to 1998, and in tiny quantities. The wine is sublime; redolent of ripe, wild strawberries, but meaty too, savoury and nuanced at twenty five. I catch Fergus’ eye. He nods in approval, and, master of the understatement as he is, whispers “good!”. The wine is the perfect foil to groaning platters of bone marrow, parsley and sel gris - that St. JOHN trifecta of pure joy. Then arrives equally weighty, deliciously overflowing platters of mussels, dill and fennel.
As the guests go long on the veal bones, and devour mussels, more wine is served. Old white Burgundy sometimes gets a bad rap - premox horrors and all, but when these wines are good, they can move you like few things on earth. This one is great. Bouchard Père et Fils, Chevalier Montrachet 1992. It pours light golden, with green flecks, and deep, resonant flavour, which speaks of another era of winemaking. The food and wine dance together so seamlessly, that we lucky diners sit back and take it all in, overwhelmed by how convincingly they waltz.
Next up, there’s a pie, braised lamb and claret, which sort of sounds like it could be lunch at a provincial golf club, but in reality couldn’t be further from it. The assembly of the pie began weeks ago, and it’s filling consists of slow-braised, gelatinous porcine matter interwoven with the finest mandolin-thin slices of potato, encased in a burnished, suet crust. The lamb is anchovy scented, and collapses away from bone without much fight. This food is simple, robust British cooking elevated to absurd heights through deep understanding and keen attention to detail. The wines follow suit. Classic claret in middle-age, but both still full of the vitality which accompanies a great wine in top vintages. Latour 1988 is pristine and youthful, its colour belies its age. La Lagune 1982 is regal in its four decades of maturity – a wine which truly punches above its weight.
What follows could only really be described as a bacchanal. There’s a flurry of puddings, followed by an embarrassment of booze. Eccles cakes, Armagnac parfait and warm madeleines, provide the necessary ballast for d’Yquem 1955, Bual 1845, and that’s before we open the hard stuff. The Yquem is a muddle of saffron, marmalade and wild honey – delicate, slightly waning, but deeply evocative. The 1845 Bual works a treat with Eccles Cakes and ice-cream, its searing acidity bringing everything into focus, at the exact moment it’s required.
Late afternoon is settling in around us, the once pristine table is awash with glasses, scraps of pie - the remnants of a lunch like no other. The room is luminous. Being something of a pro at iPhone photography, I sagely suggest that our photographer make use of the light. This elicits a wry smile from Drake’s Isaac – it’s like a paunchy Sunday League striker telling Messi when to shoot.
We’re into the digestifs. Armagnac from the 1940s, then on to an older sibling, Marquis de Montesquiou 1904 – grapes picked the year Chekov wrote The Cherry Orchard. An extraordinary spirit, magnificently ripe and mouth filling, but with great length and elegance.
To finish, there’s something one doesn’t taste every day – Cognac 1811 Napoléon, Grande Réserve. This was a legendary year, the year of the great comet, one which was said to be visible to the naked eye for two hundred and sixty days. Legend has it that Emperor Napoleon visited the village of Cognac in 1811 and selected countless barrels of Cognac for the royal palaces. We pour small glasses of this ancient spirit, which may or may not, have once charmed the palate of the Emperor and sit back in a state of cheerful delirium. Michael Drake is talking of cigars on a south facing balcony around the corner, Fergus has gone off to a second lunch, the Christie’s team start preparing to leave, albeit reluctantly. The world often seems an unusual place in 2023, but for these fleeting, light and pie-filled moments, all appeared to be a little better than okay.
The Two Continents Collection - The Private Cellar of Irwin Kotovsky Online: Part II will feature wines and spirits tasted at this lunch, please find full details here.