The concept of excessive consumption of American-inspired, barbecued meat is hardly a novel one, these days. The likes of Red’s True BBQ (originating in Leeds and spreading out to Manchester and, more recently, Shoreditch) and Bodean’s (a safe bet in London) have prospered greatly as a result of our insatiable approach towards all things smoky and meaty. Though few carnivores will qualm the spread – and, indeed, frequency – of this cuisine, it might fairly be said that quality has given way to quantity: rich and aggressive meat, combined with craft beer or bourbon-based cocktails, is a winning formula, but it’s become a rather easy formula to replicate. As such, the barbecued meat market has become as saturated as the fat that lurks on your plate. The upside of this, however, is that it has provided the incentive for newcomers to go the extra mile and provide something above and beyond what we are becoming all too familiar with. This opening is one that Temper – which I plan on reviewing soon – in Soho, and Smokestak, in Shoreditch, have sought to exploit. Being a big fan of the concept, but a little wary of the complacency shown by some of the more established chains, visiting David Carter’s reinvention was a no-brainer.
What do they do?
Notwithstanding my introduction, Smokestak will readily remind you that they do not do BBQ-style food – rather, they do smoked food. To the uninitiated (including myself), this seems like a fine distinction, but Smokestak are (rightly) very proud of the monster of a smoker that was imported from the US at the beginning of this restaurant’s journey, a few years ago, when it operated as a pop-up. Having flourished in that capacity, Carter and his team took the plunge and turned Smokestak into a permanent fixture just a few months ago (although that’s been long enough to see rave reviews from the likes of Fay Maschler). This smoked food is intended to be shared, and ranges from pre-dinner nibbles (such as Pigtails or Crispy Ox Cheek, at £4.50 per portion), to starters and mains (ranging from £5 to £14.50, and explored below), and is accompanied by an imaginative and original cocktail list, with a good array of wines and beers also on offer.
What did we have?
We kicked things off with Wild Mushrooms and Beef Dripping Toast (£7.50). Expecting a fairly simple, comforting welcome, we instead were knocked into touch by thick, rich and soggy (in the best of senses) bread, laden with heaps of dark, irresistible mushrooms.
Rather than being lightly fried (à la fried bread), the toast was oozing with decadent, beefy goodness, which perfectly complemented the depth of taste in the mushrooms. With every mouthful presenting a harsh punch of flavour, we thoroughly enjoyed this baptism of fire, and awaited the next dishes with bated breath.
We followed this with Thick-cut Pork Rib and Pickled Cucumber (£9), and Beef Brisket and Pickled Red Chilli (£9.50).
The ribs were tangy, chewy, and had the satisfying texture that all good smoked (or, dare I include it in the same breath, barbecued) meat should have: a bit of a battle, but a battle that forces out more flavour with every bite. The brisket is – I think it’s fair to say – Smokestak’s pride and joy. As such, we had high hopes. On this front, there was no disappointment at all: the beef had satisfying pink tones, a perfectly burnt outside, and a soft centre that was the gift that kept on giving. The chilli added another twist to the flavours, but no one in their right mind would really want a distraction from the flavours at play in the slice of brisket itself. This was easily the highlight of the meal (and, indeed, one of the best smoky meats I’ve had). We accompanied these dishes with Roasted Carrots, Thyme and Honey (£4.50) – although this post doesn’t contain a snap of the veg, this dish was also nicely done, and is worthy of recommendation. We saw quite a few people indulging in what appeared to be the Jacket Potato and Smoked Rarebit, which looked like the pick of sides -something worth noting for (what I’m sure will be many) future visits!
Flavours aside, it’s worth noting that the portions were fairly generous – there was enough for us both to have a plentiful taste of all of the dishes that we tried. The cocktail list was greatly enticing, and we opted for Quince + Thyme (£8.50) and Burnt Peach Old Fashioned (£9). These went down a treat, too, and (unsurprisingly, given that the former contained burnt butter bourbon, and the latter was augmented with burnt peach) fit perfectly with our smoky feast. For those who think that there can be too much of a smoky thing, perhaps the beers or wine would be a better move – given the attention to detail obvious throughout Smokestak’s offering, one can safely assume that these alternatives have been curated just as precisely as the cocktail menu, but perhaps with less intense smokiness.
Value for money – 4/5: The food bill came to £18 each (including service), with the cocktails bringing that towards £30 per head. This is pretty good value – it might be more that you’d spend on a basic meal at somewhere like Red’s, but the food was simply on another level, and we had probably at least much food as you get for the same amount of money elsewhere.
Pretentiousness – 4/5: Okay, so being based in Shoreditch means that it may not be the surprise of the century that Smokestak have a few pretentious strings to their bow (water served out of a watering can, for instance). But, to their credit, these quirks only served to enhance the experience – nothing seemed to be done for the sake of being, for want of a better word, ‘edgy’. Rather, it was clear that a lot of thought had been put into the interior, and it was very tastefully done.
Atmosphere – 4/5: As is hinted at above, the attention to detail was excellent, right from the mysterious exterior, to the rather chic bathrooms. The service was also decent, which never hurts. This all made for a really enjoyable evening, and did the food justice.
Smokestak are right to think of themselves in a different light to the BBQ-based offerings that’ve sprouted up all over the UK in recent years – without a doubt, they are in a different league. The gluttony which pervades the majority of this market has been replaced with a more refined, scrumptious menu, which will satisfy any foodie better than the usual suspects.