The other day I was listening to the radio and on came a track by Taking Back Sunday, which was one of my favourite bands as a teenager. As moody adolescents my little chums and I had re-appropriated their lyrics into MSN screen names and donned our identical black Converse high-tops to watch them play at the NIA. I hadn’t heard the song in years and years, but as the first chords rang out I was flooded with an unexpected rush of nostalgia.
And it was absolutely bloody awful.
Like, shagging foxes outside your window at 3am awful.
That’s how I feel about the American barbecue trend. I used to think it was the tits. Meat Liquor and friends really used to get my juices flowing, but now the novelty has worn off and I’d rather have food that doesn’t make me feel like a blimp.
But there are always exceptions. One is former street food fan favourite Smokestak, where I found myself on Friday night after Mike’s cousin Alice declared that she needed some serious stodge. In an incredible stroke of luck I managed to book the last slot on OpenTable – yes, they take reservations..! – and it was the best example of the otherwise done-to-death smoked meat trend I’ve tried. One prone to gushing might even call it a game-changer. Like a barbecue version of my beloved Gunpowder, it delivered a flurry of punchy small plates that pounded our palates with tender, velveteen meat and deep, complex, smoky flavours, cultivated in a Texan smoker that took founder David Carter about three years to source.
The restaurant is pretty loud in an industrial sort of way – a bottle of prosecco arrived in what looked like a disused metal chimney – so it’s not the place for exchanging sweet nothings or planning a murder. But it’s okay, because the food is loud too. Even the Jacket Potato with Smoked Rarebit (£5.00) – a description I scoffed at, initially, until it came out the size of a tank and told me to put up or shut up – was the tuberous manifestation of a 300lb drag queen. Good god, if you ever needed further evidence that potato and cheese is one of the greatest love stories the world has ever known, this is it.
But you’re not here for cheesy jacket potatoes, splendid though they are. Consider them a wonderful bonus item, like the little head massage you get at the basin when you’re at the hairdressers. What you’re really here for is the meat, and by gum there’s a lot of it. Do yourself a solid and start with the Crispy Ox Cheek (£4.50), which comes in lumps of gently smoked beef coaxed into curiously cubic croquettes of unimaginable succulence. You won’t regret it. You might even need an extra one because you get three to a portion, and you don’t want to be sat there trying to cut the last one into perfect halves using the ruler slash bookmark that came with your Filofax, like a twat.
And posh beef nuggets are only the beginning. Wild mushrooms on toast drenched with thick, silky beef dripping (£7.50) are the kind of dish that might inspire a smutty novel, and would be my breakfast of choice every day of the week if I only had months to live and thus no truck with anything as tedious as healthy eating. A coal-roasted aubergine with red miso and cashews (£8.00) was a gloriously smoky take on one of my all time favourite dishes, nasu dengaku, its flesh infused with bonfire and that mouth-puckering mwah-mwah-mwah of miso. The meat on the thick cut pork ribs (£9.00) sprang from its bones like a pair of lovers caught in the act, tender as anything but with more than enough bite and chew to satisfy even the most primal of Neanderthal cravings.
Brisket is big here and you can have it in a big bun (£8.50), a little bun (£5.50) or straight-up (£9.50). We chose the latter, and it came peppered with little red pickled peppers, which cut through the meat with their vinegary piquancy. Those same red peppers turned up with the beef ribs too (£15.50), which were a little on the fatty side and one of the only dishes we tried that weren’t perfect.
To avert scurvy we ordered the grilled baby gem with walnut gremolata and crispy bacon (£5.50) – underwhelming – and the far superior charred greens with tahini and glassy pomegranate seeds. The cured sea bream was the biggest disappointment but only because it was sold out. Otherwise, the menu read like a Greatest Hits album. (One that I reckon that’ll age better than Taking Back Sunday’s.)
Smokestak, 35 Sclater St, London, E1 6LB
Header photo credit: Just Opened London.
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.