Ramblings..., Reviews

Grillstock Smokehouse, Walthamstow – review

 

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There may be some (or indeed many) that view the opening of a new American BBQ joint in London as yet another example of lazy, greedy people trying to cash in on recent food trends. Another attempt to grab a few extra quid from the ‘dude-food’ obsessed crowd of bearded 20-somethings who slavishly follow every pop-up, food van, or ‘next big thing’ bricks-and-mortar establishment. And if the new branch of Grillstock in the heart of Walthamstow (alarms begin to sound as people realise they have to travel beyond the hipster haven of Hackney) was the result of cynical, soulless, cash-laden backers trying to make a quick buck then perhaps such suspicions would be justified.

But this, my good friends, is Grillstock.

And there’s a little bit more to it than that.

Starting life as a Bristol music and food festival way back in 2010, long before pulled pork featured on almost every pub and restaurant menu, Grillstock is a loud, meaty love-letter to the massive BBQ festivals and traditions of the US. We’re talking about groups of people who all get together over a weekend and sit around their blackened smokers, occasionally testing temperature and burn rate, to produce the ultimate in low and slow cooking, drinking ice cold beers, and generally being awesome. Grillstock (the festival, which this year is taking place at three different locations) puts meat at the centre of their celebrations and, like the US, features a genuine BBQ competition where everything from chicken to brisket to ribs is judged and rewarded with a variety of prizes and awards, alongside some great music, fine beer, BBQ demos, and some excellent places to chomp on various parts of porcine anatomy. And the chilli-eating competition is alarmingly entertaining to watch.

Following the success of the festival, a little smokehouse in Bristol’s St Nicholas market opened which was quickly followed by a larger site at Clifton Triangle and the lucky locals were thus able to feast on genuine, fabulous BBQ all year round. Having visited both on several occasions I can honestly say that the meat at Grillstock in Bristol seriously rivalled anything I’d had in London and, actually, made me rather jealous in the process. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got some excellent BBQ in the capital – Miss P, Pitt Cue Co, The Joint – but we didn’t have Grillstock.

Until now.

Following the success of their first opening outside of Bristol (in the beautiful city of Bath), the owners turned their eyes toward London and, having carefully found the right site, opened their doors to the baying public on April 10th this year. I was lucky enough to get an table at the soft opening (which was by guest-list only) the day before and took a good friend along who also shares a penchant for smoked meats. This was my first proper expedition out of South London since being ill and I was personally very pleased I could just sit on a tube to the end of the line – thus saving more energy for meat.

On entering I have to say I was pretty bowled over by the place. The Clifton smokehouse is small – one large table down the middle of the room and that is it – but Grillstock E17 is spacious and filled with a huge variety of seating options. There are tables for two, a few booths, a big communal table with high stools, and a selection of customisable options for groups of anything from 5 to 10. Like Bristol (and I assume Bath too), once you’ve been seated you then order your food from the bar, collect your drink, and sit back and relax in anticipation of a huge meaty feast to come. The decor is pretty stripped back – the breeze block walls are adorned with posters from Grillstocks past and a bit of metal here and there – but the atmosphere and lighting is welcoming and hearty. It’s the kind of place that will be great on a hot summers day but also perfect to hide away and warm up in thedepths of winter. Also like Bristol, the staff are relaxed, friendly, and clearly enjoying themselves.

DSC_0982But what about the food?

Grillstock offer either a plate of one type of meat, a combo of three, a sharing platter of all four meats for two people, or the Grand Champion which is a selection so big I wouldn’t be surprised if it took more than one staff member to carry it (finish it in an hour and win a shirt and some hot sauce – maybe next time). They also do a range of burgers which includes the vast Lockjaw, consisting of two 5oz burgers, pulled pork, brisket, burnt ends, cheese, and fry-sauce which has to be seen to be believed, as well as hot dogs and a variety of sides and extras like BBQ beans and cornbread. This may make choosing your dinner rather difficult.

I’ve eaten my fair share of ribs, pulled pork, and wings in my time. Some have been good, others pretty poor. My combo platter of all three aforementioned meats at Grillstock was, quite simply, amazing. The ribs were soft and tender with a good ‘bark’ of smoked exterior that yielded to reveal perfectly cooked meat within. The wings had a nice zing and were succulent and delicious and the pulled pork was smoky, savoury, and incredibly more-ish. These marvels of smoked flesh were served with a huge fistful of fries, a well-balanced slaw, a lovely little brioche-style bun, and some house pickles which put many so-called ‘home-made’ pickles I’ve sampled in London to shame – crunchy, tangy, a bit of spice – everything a pickle should be.

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Ribs, wings, and pulled pork combo

My companion also had pulled pork but chose the smoked chicken and a slab of brisket to go with it. Brisket is a hard thing to get right – it is easy to dry out and turn into a leathery mess that needs a saw to hack through it – but the years of experience of low and slow cooking pay off here, producing a juicy, smoky, slab of wonder. The chicken was pretty special too.

Chicken, brisket, and pulled pork

Chicken, brisket, and pulled pork

All of this can be smothered in the house BBQ or hot sauces, which sit proudly on the table alongside traditional condiments like ketchup, American mustard (French’s of course!), and the classic Frank’s Hot Sauce.

And speaking of Franks – Frank Underwood would definitely come back for the ribs here, even though he has a favourite rib joint of his own.

Sorry, I may have been watching a bit too much ‘House of Cards’….

Back to Grillstock…

To go with our meats, we sampled the own-brand pale ale which was light and nicely hopped – perfect with BBQ – and were certainly tempted by the wall of bourbons and other boozy delights that shone from behind the bar. I can also recommend the Pistonhead lager or any of the Brooklyn beers they offer – all easy drinking and all perfect with the food. Or you can have cider, cocktails, iced tea, or root beer. You get the idea.

We were reluctant to leave – it was very tempting to sup on a few more beers, wait for the food to go down, and then start again but eventually we shuffled off, full and happy.

I cannot recommend Grillstock highly enough. Everything from the staff, the room, the food, the drink, the atmosphere – it’s all brilliant. And surprisingly well priced too. The combo platter (which filled me up enough so as not to need dinner) is £18 which is an absolute bargain, I have been to places where a single portion of (not so good) ribs cost more and certainly didn’t come with such a wide selection of sides. The beers were £3.80 each and you can get a Jack Daniels and Coke for £3.50! This is all good news.

So get on up to Walthamstow and try it. Or, if Bristol or Bath are nearer, head down there instead – you’ll find the same quality of food and service across the board. And once you’ve done that, buy a ticket to one of the festivals this year either in Bristol, Manchester, or London and take your experience further. Grillstock’s motto is Meat, Music, Mayhem – it could not be a more fitting description of this excellent enterprise.

Grillstock Walthamstow

198 Hoe St,

E17

www.grillstock.co.uk

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Meaty, Ramblings..., Recipes, Reviews

Pig’s Trotters on Sourdough toast – review & recipe

It may seem odd to be reviewing a recipe but sometimes a dish requires more than a list of ingredients and a method. Generally I always try to follow instructions as closely as possible on the first attempt of a new recipe, only making changes if something is not working properly i.e. burning. Which does sometimes happen. But every cook will tweak recipes as they go and I’m no different. However this recipe is so good that I find very little adjustment is required.
It is one I’d been wanting to try for a while but had never quite been brave enough to attempt – the ingredients alone fill one page of the recipe book and the process takes several hours. However it was the first dish I ever ate a fine dining restaurant (the excellent Trinity in Clapham) and has stayed with me ever since. I saw that it featured in Trinity chef Adam Byatt‘s book ‘How to Eat in’ and I managed to get hold a copy to ogle over. And there it was ‘Pig’s Trotters on toasted Sourdough’. Brilliant. But, as I said, complicated and time consuming. It also features a fair amount of meat and, as my wife is a vegetarian, it was never going to be something that I could present for a normal dinner at home. And it’s a starter anyway so there you go.

However, as she was away for a couple of weeks and I had a good friend coming to stay – one with whom I often cook over-the-top and ambitious dishes – it seemed like a good opportunity to give it a go. And the recipe says that the cooked trotter mix can be kept refrigerated for several days (ideal for making in advance) and also frozen so allowing me to make a full batch and only use what was required for two before storing the rest. Or scoffing it myself. However, in the end I decided to do a half batch as I wasn’t sure I’d get four trotters in my casserole.

As the title suggests, the main component is pig’s trotters which was not something I had ever cooked with but that never stopped me before. It also needs smoked ham hock along with stock vegetables, vinegar, and spices. I had decided to forgo the garnish of crackling – not because I dislike it but purely because as I was only cooking for two it seemed a bit excessive and crackling doesn’t exactly keep well. After ringing various butchers with no avail to enquire about the availability of trotters, I meandered into Brixton where, of course, I was soon in possession of two huge trotters and a good hunk of smoked hock. The recipe says that some trotters need to cleaned and soaked overnight to remove impurities before having any hairs removed but these were ready to go and so no fuss for me. Thankfully.

The cast iron casserole was dug out and my instinct about only doing a half quantity was proved wise – the two trotters I’d bought only just fitted in. Lucky me. I carefully prepared everything – chopped vegetables, measured oil and vinegar, found the right amounts of spice – then, after re-reading the recipe again, I began.

Trotters ready to go!

Trotters ready to go!

It is here I must tell you that although I said the recipe was complex, the processes involved are actually very straightforward – there are simply several of them. Vegetables and spices are browned in oil then quickly caramelised with honey, vinegar added and then reduced before the meat and stock are added. All very simple. This is where the time factor comes in. The trotters need to be simmered slowly to break down all the gelatinous tissue so the initial cooking-time is five hours with regular basting. Note that the trotters will curl up slightly (as if they are still alive) during this period – this may be slightly alarming the first time you open the lid to baste them. Well, I was alarmed.

After five hours in a low oven, the casserole is removed and the mixture allowed to cool (time factor again) then the meat and skin is separated and diced, the vegetables strained and discarded, before the stock is left to chill in the fridge (again, plan you day carefully to allow for this), skimmed of fat and then reduced. Not complicated stuff – just a series of processes.  I didn’t add all of the skin as the recipe suggests, opting for about two thirds as it seemed to be plenty.

While the stock reduces, more onions are fried in a pan and joined by the meat and stirred together before the rich coloured stock is added and everything is reduced to the consistency of a sticky, juicy and chunky pâté. At this point, the mixture can be cooled and stored for future reheating and this is what I did. Although I had a sneak preview first of course.

My sneak preview

My sneak preview

It was gloriously rich, almost overpoweringly so, but the finished dish features a sharp and creamy Sauce Gribiche and a fried quail’s egg to help counterbalance the richness so I wasn’t worried. The Sauce Gribiche was a recipe I’d used before so I didn’t use the same as Adam although the ingredients and flavours were the similar – hard-boiled egg, oil, vinegar, cornichons and capers, tarragon and parsley. Great with many things not just trotters.

I had got some quail’s eggs from the local butcher and, once the toast (my own sourdough of course) was on, the trotters reheating, we carefully cracked them into the pan and cooked for about one and a half minutes. The dish was assembled and looked, well, pretty damned impressive I must say. Almost professional standard in my own rather humble opinion. And it tasted utterly amazing with the richness being perfectly balanced out by the Gribiche and quail’s egg. A truly wonderful starter and one of the best dishes I have ever cooked.

The finished dish.

The finished dish.

So in conclusion, should you try this recipe out for yourself? Yes. Absolutely. Don’t be put off by the size of the ingredients list and the time involved – other things can be done while the trotters simmer and the advance preparation make it perfect if you’re planning a special dinner. Or just a greedy night in. Is it as good as the one in the restaurant? Well, that’s a matter of opinion isn’t it?

If you want to try it, here is the version that I used – it makes enough as a starter for 4-6 people.

Ingredients

  • 2 shank pig’s trotters (check with the butcher if they need cleaning and soaking)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/4 head of garlic
  • 2 large white onions
  • 1 stick celery
  • 1 small leek
  • 100ml vegetable oil
  • 1/2 star anise
  • 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 25ml red wine vinegar
  • 500g smoked ham hock
  • 1 litre Chicken Stock
  • 2 quail’s eggs

For the Sauce Gribiche

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 100ml extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 5 cornichons – finely chopped
  • 1 tsp capers – rinsed, dried, and finely chopped
  • Handful each of parsley and tarragon leaves, finely chopped

Method

Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 3/170⁰c.

Peel and roughly chop the carrots, garlic cloves, and one of the onions.  Trim and roughly chop the celery and leek.  Peel and finely dice the remaining onion and keep separate (to add to the cooked trotter mix later).

Heat half the oil in a large cast iron casserole and colour the roughly chopped vegetables with the spices over a high heat.  Onceed brown, stir in the honey and boil for a few minutes and caramelise lightly, then add the vinegar and boil for a further 2 minutes until reduced by half.

Drain the trotters and place on top of the vegetable mix with the ham hock.  Pour in the stock, put the lid on the pan and bring to the boil, before transferring to the oven and cook for 5 hours, basting the trotters from time to time and turning them over at hourly intervals (and not being too freaked out by the movements of the toes!)

Remove the casserole from the oven and leave to cool, then lift out the trotters and ham hock and set aside.  Tip the contents of the pan into a fine sieve set over a bowl and let the stock strain through.  Chill the stock in the fridge so that the fat rises and sets on the top.

Carefully remove the meat and skin from the trotters, then dice both the meat and skin and place in a bowl.  Separate the meat from the skin and bones of the hock.  Dice the meat and add to the bowl.

While you wait for the stock to chill you can make the Sauce Gribiche (or whenever you need it to serve) by placing the egg in a pan of boiling water and simmering for 7-10 mins until hard boiled. Remove and run under cold water until cool then peel the egg and separate the white from the yolk (which should be a solid ball), reserving the white for later. Mash the yolk with the mustard in a bowl until you have a smooth paste.

Slowly dribble in the oil (as if making mayonnaise) and mix the paste – it will look like it has split or turned into a horrific mess at first but keep mixing until it turns into a smooth, silky mixture.

Chop the egg white into small cubes and stir in to the yolk-mix, along with the chopped capers and cornichons, then finally add the chopped herbs. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary and keep refrigerated until required.

Skim the fat off the chilled stock, then transfer the stock to a pan and reduce by half over a high heat.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a frying pan until hot and fry the diced onions until caramelised. Mix with the diced meats, and stir in the reduced sauce.  Season and keep warm until ready to serve – or cool and store in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 10 days.

Toast some sourdough bread and carefully fry the quail’s eggs for no more than one and a half minutes (any longer and you won’t get a runny yolk) then assemble your dish by spooning a generous amount of the trotter mix onto the toast, top with the fried egg and garnish with a dollop of Sauce Gribiche and a scattering of parsley.

Feel very pleased with yourself.

I’d like to thank Adam for not only creating this brilliant recipe but also giving me encouragement via Twitter as I made it!

 

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Boqueria, Acre Lane – Review

This was a piece I originally wrote for the Brixton Blog, however it transpired I’d totally misinterpreted the brief and reviewed the wrong site – Boqueria recently opened a second branch in Battersea and it was there that I was meant to go.

Ho hum.

However, as I’m not capable of much at the moment, I thought I’d post this here for anyone who has tapas cravings in South London.

Enjoy!

Tapas sneaks itself onto many menus – wine bars (how terribly 80s), posh pubs, not-so-posh pubs, and many restaurants will do a version of the snack-based selection. It is often used as an excuse for chefs to try and show how ‘multi-talented’ they are which resulted in varying quality which sadly, in my experience, tends to fall on the ‘rather rubbish’ side of the scale (although I have to say the British tapas in the Beer Emporium in Bristol is AMAZING – rare roast beef with horseradish on dripping toast? I think so!).

So what do you do? Well, if you’re in Brixton you actually have a fair amount of choice from Seven at Brixton in Market Row to Boqueria on Acre Lane or some of the other more diverse and Portuguese influenced eateries up towards Stockwell.

Chorizo in cider and Patatas Bravas

Chorizo in cider and Patatas Bravas

But as Boqueria has been on my list for a while, it was up to Acre Lane we went on a quiet, chilly night  .

On entering the first thing that struck me was how smart and clean the place is – sometimes in regional restaurants someone feels the need to plaster the walls with cliché in an attempt to make the diner ‘imagine’ themselves to be in the country of origin and it pretty much never works. Boqueria is minimalist, sharp, and high-end yet relaxed and inviting. The long bar stretches towards the door with stools and the odd tall table at one end and the doorway through to the dining room at the back. Immediately you realise that if you just fancied a quick drink and bite (which, after all, is what tapas is all about) you would be just as welcome as if you planned to spend an evening in the restaurant. The staff come out to greet you and very quickly it begins to feel like the beginning of a good time and that is a rare thing in a restaurant these days.

We were asked if we’d booked but as we were arriving at 6.30pm we hadn’t thought to, especially given the day of the week we visited, but this was no problem although we were warned they’d need the table by 8.30 (and looking at their booking sheet they were not lying). And anyway, if push came to shove and we were still there by that time, there would have been no issue with us heading to the bar to finish up.

After a bit of a debate with the waiter about where to sit (the original offering was in a rather, ahem, atmospherically dark corner) we had a good look at the menu and were pleased to see that there were 5-7 choices per section, suggesting a focus on flavour and quality rather than a myriad of disappointment. From the Entrantes we opted for Pan con tomate (bread with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil) and then a selection from both the Meat and the Traditionales parts of the menu – Patates bravas (the benchmark of any tapas), chorizo in cider, suckling pig (with apple sauce and lemon sorbet), and a soft, mild cheese with quince jelly and tomato jam. That seemed enough to be starting with and we had a fruity, crisp white Legaris wine to wash everything down with.

Cheesey delight

The first to arrive was the bread and although it didn’t look like much it packed one hell of a flavour punch – mashed raw tomatoes with a hit of garlic and salt, run through with delicate olive oil and served on soft, toasted bread. Sheer delight and gone within seconds.  The cheese (which came soon after) looked rather splendid – perfect triangles of pale dairy, dotted with quince cubes, raisins, and a side plate of the tomato jam – but was fridge cold which was a tad unappealing. Once it warmed up however it was a true delight – the mildness of the cheese worked wonderfully with both the quince and tomato which were sweet but not cloyingly so – and it was soon joined by the chorizo, patatas bravas, and an elegant dish of suckling pig balanced on parsnip crisps.

I have to say the patatas didn’t fill me with confidence. I was expecting a rich tomato sauce and a garlic aioli to go over the crispy potatoes but was presented with what looked a suspicious, beige burger sauce. I tried a mouthful and was immediately converted – the aioli/sauce was hot with garlic but sweet with a big whack of tomato and the potatoes themselves were perfectly cooked – lightly crisp on the outside and soft and delicious within, even the ones hiding at the bottom under a layer of sauce still retained their crunch. Fantastic.

Suckling pig

Suckling pig – truly wonderful

The chorizo was deep and smoky with the paprika oils oozing into the cider they had been braised in and was addictively moreish. But the star of show has to be the suckling pig – meat so tenderly soft that it almost fell into a thousand delicate pieces as my fork touched it. Velvety smooth, deeply porky, utterly brilliant – a shining example of slow-cooked perfection. The sauce and sorbet were excellent compliments and I would quite happily have eaten another 2 or 3 portions to myself. No need to order more though – we were quite full by the time our plates were empty.

I sampled a traditional Tarta de Santiago con helado de vainilla (almond cake with vanilla ice-cream) for dessert and was soothed into a very happy place with the moist almond mixture – like a cross between the top of a Bakewell tart and the lightest sponge – but mildly frustrated that my ice-cream was a frozen ball that threatened to jump onto the floor every time I tried to eat it. Patience not being my strong point when it comes to puddings. It melted soon enough and was pretty spot on however.

We had no idea how much we’d spent – Boqueria is listed as a top ‘Cheap Eats’ place but we hadn’t really been paying that much attention (another danger with tapas is the ease with which the cost can spiral when more and more dishes are ordered). We were very pleased to find our total bill coming in at under £60 including wine and service which, for the quality of not just the food but the service and venue, was pretty amazing. And more than enough encouragement to start planning a return visit.

So if you fancy good, confident Spanish cooking in a nice, relaxed, and smart surrounding – head up to Boqueria on Acre Lane (or their second branch in Battersea) – you will not be disappointed!

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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

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Reviews

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.

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Reviews

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!

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