Chef Fergus Henderson, best known for resurrecting Britain’s rural tradition of whole-hog (“nose-to-tail”) eating, isn’t one for embellishments. The seasonal menu at the ground-floor restaurant of his new St. John Hotel in London reads like a shopping list (if yours includes duck hearts and lamb tongues). I order the “Barley, carrots, and curd” to start, hoping it’s geared toward palates more modern than Miss Muffet’s. Indeed, the goat curd is mixed with crème fraîche, and the whole dish is dressed in lemon-watercress oil. The “Skate, bread, and brown shrimp” is a succulent second course, and my “Custard tart” finale is more like “Creamy sliver of nutmeg-perfumed perfection.” The dining room—with whitewashed walls, dark wood chairs, and a stainless steel open kitchen—was designed in the same minimalist yet tasteful vein as the menu. The food is the star here, and the rest of the hotel was built to spotlight it.
The St. John is one example of a growing number of hotels headed by prominent chefs. These modern auberges not only serve great food; they provide a creative outlet for chefs beyond the kitchen and afford visitors an easy commute from dining room to bed. Trained as an architect before becoming a chef, Henderson put his stamp all over the property: The Italian digestif Fernet Branca, his favorite hangover remedy, is stocked in the minibars; fresh-baked buns with surprise fillings are served in the afternoon; and the bare-bones aesthetic of the dining room continues in the bedrooms.
After my decadent dinner, I’m thrilled to be within crawling distance of my room. I enter the white sanctuary of paneled walls, plantation shutters, and shiny Caribbean Sea–colored floors, and immediately lie down to wait for my food coma to abate. I’m content until I discover the room service menu, which teases me with Welsh rarebit, strawberry sundaes, and other tempting treats that weren’t on the dinner menu. I ponder whether I should open the Fernet Branca to get my stomach in gear for dessert. Then I realize I should save room. One of London’s best restaurants will be downstairs come breakfast time.This appeared in the October 2012 issue.