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

The White Horse Inn, Woolstone, review

Creamy wild mushrooms on toast

Creamy wild mushrooms on toast at The White Horse Inn

Many apologies for my absence of late – I haven’t forgotten you nor indeed vanished in a BBQ-induced fug! Slow the recovery from pneumonia is…

Whenever we go camping we treat ourselves to a meal at one of the local pubs. Obviously my ability to get out and about into the countryside has been somewhat hampered of late but I was able to drop by an old favourite quite recently and was very glad I did.

The Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire is certainly not lacking in idyllic village pubs that serve food. Almost every hamlet you pass will have a sign extolling the virtues of their particular local haunt and why you should stop and eat there immediately. Interestingly enough however, most of the claims in this area do appear to be pretty accurate – in a world where more and more pubs are putting the kitchen before the beer and generally resulting in more and more opportunities for terrible cooking, generic menus, and trend-chasing, this is worth taking note of.

The White Horse is located in the almost achingly beautiful village of Woolstone – a mixture of black and white timbered cottages, 18th century stone farmhouses, and a babbling brook that trickles through the centre. The pub takes its name from the Bronze-age chalk figure carved into the downs that rear above the village and over the last few years it has been carving a reputation as a serious contender for best eating pub in the area. And there is some seriously stiff competition – Helen Browning’s magnificent Royal Oak in Bishopstone and the Blowing Stone Inn in nearby Kingston Lisle to name but two.

The first time we ate at The White Horse we not particularly impressed – the food was fine but overly styled and underly flavoured as if the chef had been watching too many episodes of MasterChef and not bothered to taste the food before it was delicately arranged on the plate/slate/board. A lemon chicken that tasted too much of lemon and not enough of chicken but looked like it had come out of a food-styling manual, scampi and langoustines that cascaded out of a bucket of chips but tasted like they’d come from a supermarket – these were conundrums that were coming out of the kitchen. All style, no real substance. That, however, was in 2011 and things have since changed in a big way and now the careful and exact presentation is matched by flavours that sing and dance around the palate in happy harmony. Don’t get me wrong – there are no Michelin pretensions here, no foams, airs, sous-vides, or the like, but there is serious, straightforward cookery that takes pub staples and makes them deliver beyond expectations. A starter of wild mushrooms in a creamy garlic sauce was rich and satisfying but still perfectly judged as a first course – a delicate parmesan crisp complimented the lovingly cooked fungi and added a nice bit of extra crunch. Likewise the duck pâté was beautifully smooth and served with a simple salad, chunky toast, and a zingy chutney that brought the whole dish together.

Roast chicken thighs with salsify and tarragon sauce

Roast chicken thighs with salsify and tarragon sauce

Mains also deliver – mushroom-stuffed chicken thighs served with salsify (a tricky root to get right), buttery mash, and a lick-the-plate-clean mustard and tarragon sauce was expertly cooked and consequently devoured in minutes. Lamb three ways (roasted rump, crispy belly, and slow-cooked shoulder wrapped in pancetta) on a bed of spring cabbage, beetroot, and sweet potato was brought together by a wonderful light minty sauce that also had us chasing the final dregs around the plate.

Lamb Three Ways

Lamb three ways

The lamb itself was delicious – the shoulder was so tender that the pancetta could barely keep it from falling apart on the plate and the crispy belly was a triumph. In a similar vein the Board of Piggy is also worth investigating with a lively combination of confit belly, smoky fritter, and black pudding served with crispy sautéed potatoes and a serious whack of braised red cabbage that will leave even the hedonistic pork-lover full and happy. There are also more traditional pub favourites like fish and chips, steaks, and a lunchtime menu offering burgers and sandwiches. And maybe next time we’ll give that scampi and langoustine dish a second chance – you never know. The vegetarian options are possibly a bit less imaginative – baked mushroom or a butternut squash ravioli – but if the meaty mains are anything to go by (or indeed, that mushroom starter) they should prove to be a cut above expectations.

Puddings-wise the selection is limited but not under-thought – the treacle tart with ice-cream was a true wonder with thin, short pastry and a generous filling, served hot with a toffee ice cream melting on the side. From the description it should have been far too sweet but was actually just right. There is also the inevitable cheese board or ice-cream selection but there is nothing wrong with that – I recently opted for the classic combo of vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate and it was exactly what I wanted – nostalgic, simple, satisfying.

After a few years of visiting the area, The White Horse has definitely become a new favourite and is well worth seeking out. They recently installed a vast wood-burning pizza oven in the garden which is fired up twice a week (must try and time our next visit right so we can try it) and the Sunday roast is fantastic, a vast platter of lamb, beef, and pork, rich gravy, fluffy Yorkshire pudding, and seasonal vegetables plonked in the middle of the table for everyone to dive into. Again, the vegetarian options are a bit unimaginative and I have to say I’m not sure I’d choose a vegetable stir-fry as a Sunday main but perhaps I should be a bit more adventurous.

Or just stick to the meat and stop worrying…

The Board of Piggy

The Board of Piggy

All of this great food is served in a friendly pub environment with a decent selection of ale and cider and a pretty decent wine list. Prices are between £5 and £8 for starters and mains range from the mid-teens to early twenties (the fillet steak tops the list at £25.95) which is pretty representative of the area in general and with food cooked this well is certainly value for money.

So if you find yourself rambling the South Oxfordshire Downs or are looking for a new destination for a decent country dinner, find your way to Woolstone and visit The White Horse – you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Grillstock Smokehouse, Walthamstow – review

 

DSC_0983

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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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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