“New year, new me!” is what I would say, if I completely lacked self-awareness. Alas, I am well aware of who I am, and whilst the clock of time may have ticked along another year, I remain the same me whose Spotify Wrapped cheerfully flagged ‘Angst’ as something they enjoyed in 2022.
When you’re younger, your resolutions for a new year are often less ambitious. You might resolve to watch a different classic film every month, or learn to cook five new meals, one of which turns out to be a regular pasta bake, and another of which is a pasta bake with mozzarella instead of cheddar. As you get older though, and you see the dreams you had get further away, suddenly your resolutions take on a more desperate delusion requiring you to cram in as much as you can as quickly as possible. Before you know it, you’re thinking ‘well if I just commit five hours to Duolingo a day, write six new novels a month and run two marathons a week maybe I’ll be Prime Minister by next year’. Inevitably this only leads to failure and disappointment, and as such over time I’ve increasingly given up. After all, you can’t fail if you don’t try.
Whilst I will be abstaining from any resolutions myself, this is still a new year, and many people are hoping that it brings a fresh start full of opportunity. With that in mind, today I’ll be dining with a woman who knows all about transformation and reinvention. A renaissance woman in the truest sense of the word, it’s Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
Today we’ll be dining at the restaurant St John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields. One of three restaurants in the St John group, whilst its name might allude to it being a place of simple, basic dishes, St John has actually got a reputation for being a pioneer of the restaurant industry, specialising in what they describe as a ‘nose to tail’ approach to food that avoids waste and ensures every part of the body is utilised. It should be perfect for Shelley.
We arrive and are presented with a selection of menus. St John changes its food menu every day so can be a bit of a lottery, but today there are some of the classics on the menu that I’d hoped to see. Drinks-wise, as you’d expect for a restaurant with wine in the title, there’s a wide selection of wines available (all from France), but their cocktail list is also very impressive, featuring a mixture of classic cocktails alongside interesting in-house inventions. Today we opt for a couple of French 75s, and order the chicken liver toast with brandied prunes, crumbed hogget, devilled moules and the beef mince on beef dripping toast.
“So, happy new year,” I say to Shelley when our cocktails arrive. We clink our glasses and have a sip. First things first, it’s a fantastic French 75. One thing I’ve learned recently is that apparently there is no one standard recipe for a French 75, with different ratios of gin, sugar syrup, lemon juice and champagne used wherever you look. Whatever they’re doing here works really well though, and is one of the best variations of it I’ve had. “I guess this is what you’d call a real Frankenstein of a cocktail!”
“What do you mean?” says Shelley.
“I mean it’s thrown together all sorts of elements to make something greater than the sum of its parts.”
“You know that Frankenstein was the doctor, right?”
“Yes, sorry, of course, I’m aware that Frankenstein was the name of the doctor. I guess perhaps I mean that actually it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a cocktail!”
Shelley stares at me silently for a while, then finally relaxes and exhales. “Sorry, I’m just very tense this evening,” she says.
Shelley looks around warily, then leans in and whispers to me. “Because tonight, we create life.”
“Sorry if I’ve given you the wrong impression, Mary, but I’m a married man.”
“No, you imbecile! Tonight we put my theory into practice,” she says with a smile.
“What does that mean?” I say. She smiles and taps her nose. This kind of thing never bodes well, so I dare say this doesn’t fill me with confidence. My heart is mid-sink as our first small plates, the chicken liver on toast and the crumbed hogget arrive. I take my usual pictures, the quality of which has historically been reserved for children venturing into MS Paint for the first time, and move to take one of the two slices of toast.
“No, not yet!” says Shelley batting my hand away.
“Oh, sorry, did you want to take photos too?” I say. Alas, I am way off the mark, and instead of removing a phone from her pocket I watch in horror as she instead withdraws a taser that crackles with electricity.
“Let there be life!” she says, as she raises the taser high and then plunges it into the chicken liver toast. There are sparks and manic laughter, as the electricity surges through the dish. A good thirty seconds of this passes, with Shelley repeatedly zapping the plate, before eventually she lets it settle. This draws unwanted attention to our table, as the rest of the restaurant is now staring at us.
More than that though, I’m concerned that this may impact on some of the flavours, as I do not believe that this is how the kitchen intended for it to be prepared.
“Everything is fine, please enjoy your evenings,” I say. “I should have known you’d do this!” I add, turning to Shelley. “I can’t trust any of you dead historical figures to just enjoy an evening, can I?”
“Hmm… ok, so that didn’t work, so something must be wrong,” says Shelley, ignoring me.
“Could it be that you’re tasering chicken liver on toast?”
“No, it’s not that… No matter, I will figure it out,” says Shelley. I take a slice of the chicken liver toast, and half of the brandy-soaked prune. As expected, it’s delicious. It’s nothing revolutionary, it’s just a classic dish fantastically executed and then thankfully not spoiled by electrocution. The crumbed hogget too is just as good. Really flavourful nuggets of lamb, breaded and then served with a little pot of brown sauce.
“So anyway, it’s a new year, and as somebody who literally wrote the book on reinvention do you have any tips for people who are looking to make a change?”
“Maybe the electricity is the problem,” says Shelley.
“Oh, so you mean we should all take some time to disconnect from our devices? I definitely have a problem with that. I think when you find yourself refreshing LinkedIn then you probably do have to take a serious look at what the hell is wrong with you and-“
“Yes, that’s it! There’s not enough electricity!”
“Wait, so now you’re saying I should refresh LinkedIn more? Oh god…”
“No! We need to apply more electricity to the food!”
“Ok, well firstly, thank goodness, because I cannot deal with any more LinkedIn influencers telling me that if I’m not up at 6 am reading books as I work out and hustle my side hustle then I might as well be dead. And secondly, absolutely not.”
“We’re on the brink of a breakthrough, Andy! I can feel it!”
“Let me just start by saying, I am no scientist, but I am telling you, if you electrocute that beef mince there is only going to be disappointment.”
Shelley sighs. “Of course I know that,” she says.
“Then why are you doing this?”
“Have you ever read Frankenstein?”
“Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster,” I say, nodding as if I am an intellectual who has of course read Frankenstein and not somebody who is currently reading a book about croissants.
“I’ll take that as a no. A lot of people think that Frankenstein is just about a mad scientist and his monster, but actually it’s a story about the dangers of ambition. As Victor dies-”
“Of course, Victor, the monster,” I say, as I take a sip of my French 75.
“The doctor. You had a 50/50 chance and you got it wrong. Anyway, as Victor dies, he cautions against reaching for the stars, saying that instead you need to find happiness in tranquillity and avoiding ambition.”
“Ok, so where do we stand on LinkedIn, because I’m a bit confused-“
“Certainly, tranquillity is a blessing, and there’s plenty of happiness to be found in a peaceful life with no ambition beyond just being content. But I also believe that in striving to be better we can find happiness, even should we not succeed. It’s about that moment of thinking ‘what if I do succeed?’ that can keep us going sometimes.”
“So what you’re saying is…”
“I’m saying we need to electrocute the beef mince.”
I can see the logic. If I look at all the things I’ve been failing to achieve for the last few years, be that learning a language, getting fit or writing, do I genuinely believe that any of them are going to lead to life-changing opportunities? Probably not. But is this blog a failure just because it’s never been picked up by a major publisher? No, of course not. It’s a failure for thousands of other reasons, but it’s that slim chance that this blog could lead to me sitting alongside all the other food critics on MasterChef and regaling Jay Rayner with the story about the time I took Thomas Jefferson to Five Guys that makes it a success, because it gives me something to dream about, even if it never happens. I guess the message is that happiness doesn’t just come from success, happiness can come from repeated failure too, and the only real failure is not trying. Oh god, I’ve overdosed on LinkedIn. If I’m not careful then soon I’ll be posting a black and white picture of Harvey Spectre from Suits overlaid with some meaningless quote about being a lion which I’ve somehow shoehorned into a humblebrag about my cold-calling abilities.
“You’re right, we need to electrocute the beef,” I say.
Our next dishes are served shortly afterwards, the beef mince on beef dripping toast, and the devilled moules. I take a bite of the beef mince before we potentially blow it to smithereens. It’s incredibly rich as you would expect beef served on bread soaked in beef fat to be, but it’s also just as delicious as I’d hoped. I take a rogue moule too, which is much lighter but just as flavoursome. What an excellent feast we have had.
“How do you want to do this?” I ask. Shelley smiles, and withdraws an extension lead from her jacket pocket.
“You plug this in, and I’ll do the rest.”
It’s not as easy to find a plug socket in a restaurant as you might imagine, but thankfully the extension lead is very long, and we’re seated just by the stairs that lead down to the toilet. I venture down there and find a plug socket in this more industrious area, before returning to our table.
“Before we do this, can I just ask one thing?” I say. “Can we please get dessert first? I’ve been absolutely dying to try the ginger loaf, and who knows, maybe that’ll be the thing that gives me my big break.”
Shelley accepts, and we order a piece of the ginger loaf with butterscotch sauce, which we ask to be served alongside our mains. It comes with crème fraiche, and is really nice (my contact details are on the website if this description has really caught your attention). We quickly polish that off and sit back, satisfied.
“Now what?” I ask. Shelley winks at me, before stabbing some wire cable into the toast, then tying them to a fork.
“Are you ready?” she asks. I nod, somewhat apprehensively, but we’ve come this far now. “THEN LIVE!” she shouts, as she stabs the fork into the plug socket of the extension lead. There’s a bright explosion of light, and then the lights of the whole restaurant go off. I pick myself back up from the floor and examine the smoking dish.
“Did it work?” I say, as we both hover over the plate.
“Moo! I’m alive!” says a voice.
“Oh my god, it worked! I can’t believe it worked! We did it!” I say, excitedly.
“That was me,” says an annoyed diner sitting at a table behind us. “Of course it didn’t work you f**king morons. Get the hell out of here and stop ruining our dinners!”
Even though we’ve failed, for a brief moment there life was a little brighter. Overall…
9/10 – Simply delicious.