You are a restaurateur and are out of town doing research and development for new menu items and concepts. The restaurant is packed. The energy in the room is palpable. The place is abuzz with happy diners. You’ve had this establishment at the top of your restaurant to-do list for months. You have spent time on the website studying the menu and vacillating between items you plan to order. You have made a mental note of everything that you will eat during your visit. The server reels off a list of features— each one sounding better than the one before— and you start to reconsider what you planned to order. You drop a pre-determined item that you have been longing for over the course of several weeks for one of the server’s features. Minutes later you begin to doubt yourself for changing your mind mid stream, but it’s too late. The server has placed the order.
The appetizer arrives and it was even better than you expected. It’s possibly one of the best appetizers you’ve ever eaten. It’s so good that you call the server over to the table, scratch the next course, and re-order the same exact appetizer. That move is called, “The St. John” by members of my management team. It’s my move. I do it often.
The St. John occurs when you are eating a first-course item, soup, or salad that is so surprisingly good that you scratch the entire dining plan going forward, mid-meal, and build the entire meal around that one dish. When pulling a St. John, one always orders a second, but sometimes— if the dish is extraordinarily amazing— one can order a third. This is known as the double St. John.
I have done that often. A couple of years ago I was eating at my favorite Chicago restaurant, Longman & Eagle, and was served an appetizer that stopped the dining flow immediately. Actually it happened twice in the same meal, possibly a record for the St. John maneuver.
From my dining notes that evening:
“We ate roasted marrowbones, pastrami-spiced pig’s head, wild boar sloppy Joes, pork shank, and deconstructed rabbit pot pie. All of those dishes were excellent. But the two items I doubled up on were in another stratosphere. First a salad of compressed melon and fig with local greens, toasted pine nuts, artisanal goat cheese, and a honey-chili vinaigrette. Simple, delicate, excellent. Though the English pea agnolotti with roasted Trumpet Royal mushrooms, Grana Padano, and black truffle vinaigrette was the winner of the evening. After one bite I was flagging down the server to order another.”
“The second time we were made aware that we could add fresh morel mushrooms for $15.00. Note: The answer to ‘Would you like to add fresh morel mushrooms to that dish?’ is always, ‘yes!’”
“The compressed melon and agnolotti dishes represented the best items I ate during the entire trip. Actually they represent the best dishes I have eaten in 2012, and I spent the first two months of the year in Spain and France.”
That was the night I pulled the Double St. John.
The first time I ever remember doing this was years ago at Commander’s Palace. It was probably the late 1980s or the early 1990s and my wife and I were having dinner. I ordered a shrimp appetizer, some type of soup and a pompano entree. Two bites into my shrimp appetizer I was so happy with it, I couldn’t imaging any of the rest of the meal connecting with me in that moment the way the shrimp app did. I asked the server for another to be brought out ahead of my soup. My wife thought I was crazy. Halfway through the second app I cancelled my soup and went straight into the pompano, but not before considering ordering the shrimp app again for dessert.
The logic is simple. If you are like me, and you love food, you travel with the intent of dining in various restaurants, if restaurants and the restaurant business are your hobbies, then you are all about the food. I have dined out so often that I know that when a first-course dish is way up in the stratosphere, the odds of the rest of the meal not living up to that are high. There are exceptions. The French Laundry, Per Se, and the like, typically build intensity by starting off subtly and building as the meal progresses. Though I did double order at The French Laundry once, and they were happy to do it.
To me, the most interesting items on a menu are almost always first-course items and I can almost always make a meal just cherry-picking the appetizer/first-course section. When it’s really good, I don’t deny myself. I pull a “St. John” and order another.
Sicilian Tuna Salad
My friend David Trigiani ate a version of this on a trip to Sicily and prepared it for lunch one day in his home. I fell in love with it and adapted my version for use on a regional Italian menu at Tabella. It’s perfect for hot summer days. I use fresh, seared yellowfin tuna here (it can be grilled, too), but high quality imported Italian canned tuna works as well.
Many don’t’ mix cheese and seafood. If that offends you then just omit the cheese and carry on.
2 lbs. Red B-size potatoes, quartered
2 quarts Chicken stock, cold
¼ cup + ¾ tsp Kosher salt
1 lb. Yellowfin tuna steak, highest quality
1 tsp House seasoning blend
2 TB + 1 TB Extra virgin olive oil
½ cup Red onion, thinly sliced
1 pint Grape tomatoes, halved
3 TB Capers
¾ cup Green Castelvetrano olives, pitted and sliced
¾ tsp Fresh ground black pepper
½ cup White vinegar
2 each 5 oz. bags mixed greens
6 TB Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
½ cup House dressing
4 each Roma tomatoes, quartered (2 per person)
1 each Large lemon, quartered and each quarter halved (1 per person)
Bring the cold stock, ¼ cup salt and red potatoes to a boil in a large pot. As soon as it comes to a boil, drain immediately and spread out on a baking pan. Allow to cool completely in the refrigerator.
Heat 1 TB of oil in a 10” skillet over medium heat. Season the tuna with the house seasoning. Once oil is heated, sear the tuna for 2-3 minutes on each side, being careful not to burn. The tuna should still have a warm pink center. Do not cook past that point. If you prefer, you may cook the tuna less. Remove from the skillet and let rest at room temperature until cooled. Once cooled, shred the tuna into large pieces by hand and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, add the shredded tuna, remaining oil and salt, onion, chilled potatoes, tomatoes, capers, olives, pepper and vinegar and combine thoroughly.
In a separate large mixing bowl, toss the mixed greens, shredded cheese and house dressing thoroughly.
Divide the salad green mixture among 6-8 plates. Divide the composed tuna salad mixture on top of each plate of greens. Garnish each with 2 quartered tomatoes, lemon wedge and additional grated cheese if desired.
House Salad Dressing
3/4 cup Tarragon vinegar
6 TB Apple cider vinegar
6 TB Grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 TB Minced garlic
1 TB Fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp Kosher salt
1 1/2 cups Pure olive oil
Blend first 6 ingredients in a mixing bowl using a wire whip. Whisk in olive oil.
Stir well before each use.
It can also be divided into Mason jars and shaken before application.
Yield: 3 cups
House Herb Blend
2 TB Dried oregano
2 TB Dried basil
2 TB Dried thyme
1 TB Dried rosemary
1 TB Dried marjoram
Combine all ingredients.
Yield: ½ cup