Ramblings..., Reviews

Smoke Ring Roma – Review

Via Portuense, 86, 00153 Roma, ItalySmoke Ring interior

Rome is a wonderful city for finding tasty food – there is a much broader selection of cuisines and styles than you will find in many other Italian towns (although that too is slowly changing) although anyone who has visited Italy will know there is more to the cuisine than pizza and pasta. During my most recent visit I chose four places which I feel any food-orientated traveller would be well rewarded by investigating if they find themselves in the Eternal City and reviews of all will eventually be posted. I should point out that I deliberately chose two eateries that are about as far from traditional Italian cooking as you can get and this is not because I dislike Italian food (far from it) but because sometimes you have to go somewhere a bit different. And let’s face it, if you find a traditional U.S-style smokehouse in Rome it simply has to be tried…

I was very, very excited when I discovered this place during some web-based research for possible tasty destinations. After all, I was in Rome to visit my ‘Meat-wife’ (my real wife is a vegetarian) who has shared some of the best BBQ the UK has to offer and who has recently moved to Rome to teach. She told me that she really, really missed the kind of meaty treats that we had gorged on every month so I felt it my duty to find somewhere. I wasn’t expecting much to be honest – at best I thought I might find a sort of TGI-Friday sort of faux American monstrosity – but I was thrilled to find that in 2013 a group of Italian BBQ enthusiasts opened this welcoming place on the West bank of the River Tiber. They take their craft very seriously, lovingly explaining on their website the importance of low and slow cooking and the miraculous flavour that smoke imparts to meat. They meant business. We had to go.

In true tourist fashion we arrived for dinner WAY before the locals – the place was empty at 7pm but the tables were dotted with reservation markers for 9pm and beyond – but like the troopers we are we were not put off. Smoke Ring has set up home in a brick archway and if you have been to any BBQ joint pretty much anywhere in the world, as soon as you walk in you’ll feel right at home. Light bulbs dangle uncovered from the ceiling, a huge rack of barrels full of liquor are stacked on one wall, signs behind the bar offer craft beer and cocktails – it is every inch the smokehouse that anyone would expect. Yes it may seem a bit tired to those who have tried many (not us however) but finding this kind of place in Rome is both comforting and refreshing. We took a seat at one of the many communal tables and had a look at the menu – eager to see what we could cram into our bellies. Meat is sold by weight (or portion in the case of ribs and wings) and you grab a tick-box form from the table, wonder how much meat you can get away with, and then take your filled in form up to the bar to pay. We ordered ribs, brisket, pulled pork, hot links, and chicken wings along with a bottle of an amber coloured wine from Lazio – as we weren’t sure on portion size, we went for 6 servings of ribs, 200g each of pulled pork and brisket, 2 portions of links, and 5 hot wings. This proved to be possibly rather excessive.

Hot links, ribs, and brisket

Hot links, ribs, and brisket

The ribs were St Louis cut – fat, juicy and huge. They had been gently seasoned with a simple but tasty rub and smoked to perfection – a nice bark and the meat clinging to the bone. I would perhaps have appreciated a glaze of sauce to finish but they were pretty fantastic all said. And six was far too much even for us (we managed four). The brisket came sliced thin which revealed the rouge ring imparted by the smoker and was savoury and delicious but possibly a little dry. The servings of links turned out to be two huge sausages cut into generous portions – we were very nearly defeated by them – and were some of the best that I’ve had, spicy and smoky with a satisfying snap when bitten into. Wonderful. Wings were also excellent – smoky, succulent, and pleasingly messy. The pulled pork was not half bad either and packed a deep, porcine punch with just the right amount of rub and a top quality amount of smoke for flavour. This is hard to do – Smoke Ring do it VERY well. The only slight let downs were the two sauces that came with the wings and pork – one was supposedly a standard BBQ sauce but in reality tasted a bit like ketchup with a bit of oregano thrown in, the other was a supposedly spicy number but lacked any real kick. That is not to say that either were unpleasant but given the quality of the majority of the cooking it did come as something of a disappointment.

But for all that meat and a bottle of excellent local wine we paid the grand total of 55 euro which was more than good value. By the time we left the place was filling up nicely and I certainly intend to visit again the next time I find myself in Rome and if you find yourself craving some serious carnivorous delights when you visit, this is the place to go.

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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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