One of the great things about this job is that I get to ask anyone I like out to lunch, and every now and again somebody accepts. And so I find myself sitting in the dining room at that temple to offal, St JohnÕs in Smithfield Market, waiting with a delicious mixture of first-date dread and bubbling, is-this-the-one, anticipation for the arrival of psychoanalyst Darian Leader. I love shrinks, particularly when I donÕt have to pay to see them - but nevertheless, IÕm worried. For a start, I suppose IÕll have to talk intelligently about his latest book ŌStealing the Mona LisaÕ, which was fascinating to read, but would be something of a stretch to discuss with a glass of wine sloshing around where my brain should be. After months of overdosing on Pop Idols itÕs going to be hard enough remembering not to call him Darius. And then thereÕs the whole shrinkie-dink thing Š will he be watching how I cut my meat and raising his bushy psychoanalytical eyebrows over my castration fantasies? Oh heck, my neuroses are showing.
Now, St JohnÕs, though a truly great eatery and my guestÕs restaurant of choice, is not the most relaxing place to bare your psyche. The dining room with its rough, naked floorboards, cream painted wood panelling around the unadorned walls, and rows of utilitarian tables and chairs looks like the canteen in mental hospital. Even the white coated-chefs start to take on distinctly sinister Jack Nicholson overtones, but, I neednÕt have worked myself into a paranoid tizzie Š when the man comes, heÕs sweet, heÕs smiling, somewhat tweedy, younger than I had imagined and his eyebrows are not especially hirsute. He chats like a rapid-fire machine gun and/italics/ he smokes - so he doesnÕt even comment on my thumb sucking. Even better, he possesses a similar shuddering aversion to dishes such as rolled pigÕs spleen and pigÕs tongue with bread and green sauce, for which Ōnose to tail eatingÕ St JohnÕs is famed. He insists the place is very good for fish. Well, itÕs a bit like going to New York for the air quality, but IÕll take his word for it. Grilled plaice and skate with sea kale are the only fishy things on the menu apart from mussel and cabbage salad which I order and discover to be just exactly that Š a spare serving of shredded, crunchy raw cabbage with a scattering of fat mussels lolling on top - as quirkily wholesome as naked volleyball, but without any of the bounce. Darian had roast bone marrow arranged on his plate like the cooling towers at Didcot power station, festooned with piles of chopped parsley and gargantuan slabs of toast. I had quite a bad case of marrow envy, but he did offer to share, breaking off a bit of toast and smearing it with deliciously runny jelly. What can I say, it looks like snot. ThereÕs no getting away from it, your just one hankiless sleeve away from being eight with a bad cold.
You know, itÕs one thing meeting someone youÕve previously known only as a truncated picture on the dust jacket of a book, but itÕs quite another thing to get parsley stuck between your teeth while youÕre stuffing yourself with his lunch. IÕve married men without ever sharing the same fork, never mind the intimacies of their bone marrow.
Main courses included yet more extremities of various cloven hoofed animals, namely ox tongue with lentils, as well as other retro country classics like tripe, rabbit with mustard and bacon and port roast breast of veal with turnips. Daniel, Darius, I mean Darien, chose a vast slab of roast lamb with several whole, peeled, scrubbed carrots Š plain, uncompromising and delicious. In fact everything served here is proper, old-fashioned food, properly done, with taste, flavour and absolutely no frills or unnecessary sauces. My roast guinea fowl with mashed parsnips was as perfect as you could hope for and the accompanying order of new potatoes and spring greens bearing just a breath of butter were the kind of thing you used to get at home when mothers still wore cross over pinnies and dads spent Saturday afternoon waxing the Hillman Imp.
ŌSo whatÕs your favourite restaurant?Õ asked Darian, draining the last of our meagre half-bottle of wine and flagging the waitress down for another Ō. And whatÕs your least favourite part of the job?Õ Being asked what my favourite restaurant is,Õ I replied before lobbing the question right back at himÕ ŅOh whenever people discover IÕm a shrink they insist on telling me their dreams,Õ he said. Darn it, there went my chance of discovering the deeper significance of those DIY dreams where I spend my sleeping hours re decorating the drawing room.
He got the choice of pudding - supremely sticky ginger loaf with cr¸me fraiche ice cream that he picked at with the air of a man who knows puddingÕs proper place is not spread across the hips. Sadly, I donÕt think thereÕs enough therapy in the world to convince me of that one.