Ramblings..., Reviews

Archive Reviews pt 1

Apologies for my absence of late – I’ve been a tad distracted as I have started the final module for my Masters Degree (sadly not food related).

As I’ve got a couple of reviews coming up in the next couple of weeks I thought I’d start to share my first few pieces for the excellent Brixton Blog – starting with a personal favourite of ours, Mama Lan, which is an awesome Beijing-inspired eaterie which started in the hustle of Brixton Village and now has a second branch in Clapham.

You can read my review of that second branch here.

Here are some extra pictures too – it is seriously awesome on every level.Perfect pork dumplings A true feast


Chicago Rib Shack, Clapham – review

When somewhere opens that specialises in the kind of food you find yourself craving most of the time, has a decent looking menu, and does generous discounts at certain times of day, it seems silly not to give it a go. Especially when that new opening is roughly ten minutes from your front door. The food craving in question is American BBQ – slow smoked meats, hot sauce, crispy wings, sharp pickles – and the new opening is the latest outpost of Chicago Rib Shack in Clapham. And is indeed, about ten minutes from my flat. Potentially a dangerous threat to my waistline… I have to admit, the research on the background of the company didn’t fill me with confidence (especially a rather scathing review of the re-launched branch back in 2008) but I’m willing to give something a chance if it looks like it might be worth it. And the fact that between 5 and 7pm on a Monday the food has a 50% discount meant that if I didn’t like it, at least it wasn’t going to too expensive a mistake. Chicago Rib Shack do not specialise in one type of BBQ – most places will say they do perhaps Kansas or Texas styles (or in the case of the excellent Miss P’s BBQ – Atlanta) – but that didn’t initially worry me as the selection of smoked meats was quite small and that is usually a good sign, after all, far better to do a few things well than a load of things very badly indeed as is often the case. Baby back, thick cut belly, and chunky beef ribs were on offer and I was very hopeful for something special – despite the odd serving error at the Big Easy last month, their St Louis ribs were utterly spectacular so if I could get something that good much closer to home I would have a new favourite local pig (ha!) out spot. We arrived at about 5.30pm and were very warmly greeted, swiftly seated, and feeling good. The Clapham branch is in one of the railway arches near Clapham North and Clapham High Street stations and is certainly smart, relaxed, and inviting – big, red letters over the door and soft green leather seating inside. All fine. ‘What do you think of it?’ one of the many servers who was looking after us asked. ‘Er, yeah, it’s really nice. Very, er, jolly’ was my reply. ‘Great! We’re really proud of it.’ Awkward silence ensues. ‘Well, hope you enjoy your meal!’ Well that’s nice isn’t it? We hoped so too. A smooth Italian red went down alarmingly quickly and helped us to get in the mood for our meaty treats ahead – I wasn’t too excited by the beer options if I’m honest. A starter of hot wings was a big hit – crispy skin and meat that was succulent and tender. Hot-sauce was pleasingly sharp and vinegary and worked very nicely alongside the mild but well-made blue cheese dressing. They were pretty big too but if you have a largish appetite I’d advise you to order one for yourself rather than share with a friend –  there are only 3 big wings per serving. When I ordered my thick-cut pork belly ribs (mmmm, ribs) I was advised that they would be fattier than the baby backs (surely if you advertise them as ‘for the rib connoisseur’ you would expect them to know that already? I did) as they are the thicker end of the belly, all of which was fine by me as long as it was rendered down into the meat, keeping it moist and succulent. Which slow-smoking processes should create. So why the warning? As we were both going some kind of rib (my companion opted for her favourite beef ribs) we also both decided to go for pickles as our side, some deep-fried and others as they were. If I were being a true pedant I’d make a point of saying that pickles should come as complimentary to any BBQ plate but as I’m only being a sort of pedant I’ll make do with just pointing out we had to order them. Ahem. Our plates (well, big wooden boards) arrived and at first glance I was quite pleased – the thick-cut ribs certainly were thick and they looked like they had a good bark of smoky goodness on the outside. The beef ribs had a similar, gloriously gluttonous looks about them too. On closer inspection however, I was bemused to find that I had what appeared to be two big ribs (or even top ends of ribs) cut in half to produce a bigger plate of food. And the menu said they would be ‘glazed’ in BBQ sauce – all I could see was a small pot on the side next a rather random collection of shredded cabbage and carrot (was this some kind of low-fi coleslaw or maybe my expected complimentary pickles? Who knows – they didn’t add much to the dish flavour-wise) – but the meat smelt amazing so I grabbed the nearest piece of pig and took a bite. image Then had to grab my knife and fork (!?!) because it was not only very hot but rather unwieldy – the bones were very small despite the hunks of hog that clung to them and I noticed that, as well as the promised/forewarned fat, the meat wasn’t especially tender (almost dry in places) and that the smoky bark did not penetrate very far into the ribs themselves and slid away from the fat underneath. No sign of the pink tinge that is clear evidence of the smoke working its way into the meat which was a real shame but, despite globdules of unappetising fat splattering the board, the overall flavour was quite good. I ate the fat all the same I hasten to add – yes, I am that kind of guy. And the BBQ sauce? Well, it tasted a bit of BBQ and was a sauce. That is all I can say about it. Not a glaze at all. Looking over at my companion I could see issues with her beef ribs too. They also were chopped up to add more volume to the plate but I was alarmed to notice that she had had to resort to sawing through the meat with a knife and fork to get it off the bone – a sign that they were not slow-cooked for anywhere near long enough. Flavour was good – as with the pork – but texture-wise these were a real let-down. Although she still managed to cover herself in BBQ sauce despite the resort to cutlery so something must have been right! image Oh? The pickles? Instead of slices the Chicago Rib Shack has opted for big chunks of cauliflower, huge discs of carrot, and vast quarters of cucumber, all of which certainly packed a big crunch. They didn’t seem particularly pickled though which surely defies the point – where was the sharp hit of vinegar and the soothing spices that go so well with BBQ meat? And deep-frying such large pieces of vegetable requires skill and precision and I’m sorry to say that the ones I tried were rather short of the mark even though a pleasingly savoury batter was doing its best to keep the whole thing together. Overall they were too al dente for my liking and slightly greasy on the inside. Oh dear. The wine was nice. The staff were nice. It’s a nice place to be. But sadly, not a GREAT place to eat. I’m going to be honest and say that if we hadn’t had the ‘Shack Attack’ 50% discount I would have been seriously disappointed and slightly annoyed. The beef ribs normally cost £18 and given how it took some dedicated knife-action to separate the meat from the bone that really isn’t good enough. They also do brunch and a selection of burgers but I’m not sure if I’ll be joining them –I saw one burger going past and it didn’t look particularly special –  maybe I’ll give the baby back ribs a go one day but for now, I’ll give it a miss. Sorry about that.


Big Easy, Covent Garden – review

Big Easy has been operating in Chelsea since the early nineties. I’d never really been that interested to be honest as it seemed to be a bit TGI Fridays in style and after all, Chelsea is hardly a likely place to hunt out the finer points of BBQ cooking and when a second venue opened in Covent Garden this summer I thought very little of it. I was, therefore, intrigued to find this newer offering receiving some glowing praise from a range of well-known and highly respected carnivores and so, as a keen meat-fiend and sampler of American-style BBQ all over the capital (and indeed beyond – mmmm, Grillstock), I decided to give it a go. I had been warned you needed a map and compass to find the toilets but I brushed such notions aside – it couldn’t be that big a place.

The restaurant is housed in an old power station and the décor is certainly of the MeatLiquor school – bare walls sprayed with meat-inspired phrases, neon icons of pigs and lobsters, and a deliberately grungy and ‘stripped down’ feel. Unlike MeatLiquor however, the music was not so loud that we had to spend the evening shouting at each other over the table which was certainly a plus. The bar is vast, featuring a beautiful (an odd word to turn to when describing a bar) display of hundreds of bottles of bourbon, single malts, and other amber coloured liquids which bathed the serving area in a gentle, alluring glow. The wine list is extensive and so, it seems, are the locations of the bottles  – it took several minutes for the barman to find the one we’d ordered which was worrying given it was the House wine. It also took two requests to get him to actually open the thing but there you go.

It is important to tell you that the food at Big Easy is very, very good. Some of the best American-style meats I have tried in fact – no joke. We sampled a starter of BBQ wings which arrived in a tangy, slightly spicy sauce and with a bit of extra on the side. The wings were soft and tender – perfectly cooked and the sauce was sticky and satisfying. Pit-smoked, thick cut bacon was almost ridiculously deep in flavour – smokey, moist, and rich but the portion was, I have to say, something of a let-down. We had been warned that it was ‘small’ but to charge £6.95 for four pieces of meat the size of a strip of chewing gum is pushing it to say the least. Wet wipes are cunningly provided between courses and if you go on a Monday and choose the ‘Big Pig Gig’, a steel plate stand is set before you and soon topped with a vast platter featuring a tantalizing selection of meaty treats. St Louis ribs (surely one of the finest examples of BBQ cooking) nestle alongside half a glistening chicken and a big pot of chopped (not pulled) pork. Such was the size of the thing, on our visit the hushpuppies -deep-fried corn balls- and properly crispy and chunky chips struggled for position on the table and the dishes containing beans and slaw had to be stashed underneath the main platter. The smell is incredible – properly smoked food has a distinct aroma and the spices from the meat rub mingle with the zingy BBQ sauce to create a mouth-watering temptation to dive in headfirst and not stop until everything is stripped to the bone.


The Big Pig Gig

The Big Pig Gig

I cannot sing the praises of the Big Easy pitmasters enough. The meat was juicy and well-flavoured – the chopped pork consisted of big hunks of smokey pig with a similar rub that the ribs had been covered in, the chicken was rich and moist, and the hushpuppies were alarmingly addictive. Beans were hot and tasty and the chips were fantastic. The ribs were amazing – exactly as I had been hoping for, they delivered big on flavour and perfectly on texture – and on a return visit they were possibly even better with meat flaking temptingly away underneath a crust of charred rub. Delicious. Also worth mentioning is the Lobster Fest – a decent sized crustacean that had been steamed and grilled, served with salad, chips, and butter – which is a bargain at £20 including a well-made cocktail and advice on how to tackle the monster before you.

There are a couple of things worth mentioning though which do, sadly, detract from the excellence of the cooking. Although the staff were very friendly and welcoming – there were occasionally times when they needed to pull their thumbs out and communicate. On one visit, having been asked by two different staff members if we wanted our ‘limitless’ platter topped up, a full 20 minutes went by and nothing happened. We eventually just asked for the dessert menu but as that arrived so did the long-requested savouries and a beer that I’d requested nearly half an hour earlier. And that brings me to another thing – the ‘limitless’ BBQ of The Big Pig Gig only applies to the chicken and chopped pork but not the ribs. This wasn’t clear on the menu nor the website and I have to say our server did seem slightly embarrassed to have to explain it to us and even though I wasn’t planning to eat all the ribs in Christendom I was at least expecting to be given a chance to try. Drinks that were supposed to be included in deals were charged for separately and all in all, such things did let down the experience somewhat. I should point out that these issues were addressed in a courteous and professional manner – the staff were generally pretty brilliant despite the odd mistake and the waiter who talked me into trying the spectacular smoked whisky was a shining example of top quality service. He also was excellent at demonstrating the correct way to dismember a lobster.

In summary then – should you go to Big Easy? If you’re keen on meat, the ribs alone make it worthy of a visit and although some aspects of the food (microscopic bacon starters, limited ‘limitless’ platters) were a bit disappointing, the quality of the cooking is exceptional. The occasionally neglectful service was only evident on one visit and generally all the staff were warm, cheerful, and professional – quibbles about unopened wine aside.

Oh, and the thing about the toilets being a bit of a trek? That is possibly one of the biggest understatements in history – they are MILES away, deep in the chasms beneath the restaurant. You have been warned!