Smokestak, London: restaurant review
One of London’s most talked-about barbecue street food traders, Smokestak has gone permanent. But how does messy, low and slow finger food translate to the table? We find out
For those Londoners that like spending their weekends cramming their pie holes with the latest on-trend mouthful, be it pillowy bao buns, Instagram-ready rainbow bagels or cheek-clenchingly sour kombucha, then Smokestak will be a familiar name. Founder David Carter launched his US-style smoked and barbecued meat stall onto the capital’s street food scene in 2013. Since then Barbadian David, who previously worked front of house at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, The Savoy Grill and Roka, has grown a reputation in London and beyond (praise the lord for the UK food festival circuit) for his USDA brisket, pork and beef ribs.
Now, with his first bricks and mortar site, in Shoreditch, five minutes down the road from where it all began, Smokestak is making just as good an impression. Staff from next door shouts “it’s awesome, you’ll love it” as they guide me – there’s an unmarked door (follow the scent of smoke, Hansel) – to the corner of Sclater Street.
Inside and out it’s painfully Shoreditch but all is forgiven two plum sours and a brisket bun in. The windows are filthy (purposefully), cocktail menus need to be read by candlelight in the dark basement bar, while seating is reclaimed timber (ladies, be prepared to lose some tights to the cause, snagging is inevitable). There’s corrugated iron, staff wear super-on-trend leather aprons, if you’re a table of under six people you can forget about booking, and the grungy unisex toilets won’t be for everyone (ironically). It’s all a bit Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Derelicte (a la Zoolander). But… the brisket.
Let’s start with the bun – a favourite from Smokestak’s days as a street food trader. It’s buttery, soft and squidgy, and packed with melting, sticky beef brisket, deliciously lethargic from its low and slow sleep in the smoker, and livened up with lairy (and inconsistently hot, beware) pickled red chillies. Phwoar. Brisket, just sliced, too was incredibly special, served simply on paper with a lick of sweet, sour and spicy ketchup.
Ribs – beef and pork – collapsed from the bone with only the merest nudge. Pigtails, cut into bitesize chunks were fiddly with the bones still intact, but this isn’t a place for airs and graces, or cutlery. It’s a place to gnaw, and spit out bones. Pastrami with sour cabbage and pickles was moreish – rudely blushing pink – amongst the dark, sticky plates that continued to stack up.
But David and the team excel at more than just meat. Smoked girolles in a creamy sauce draped over beef dripping sauce was as naughty and decadent as it sounds. A jacket potato – skin crisp, filling gooey – had been pimped up with a pleasingly shameful amount of sour cream and chives, its bubbly golden top calling our name as it arrived on the table.
The service is involved, friendly and passionate. There was a slight mishap – “you need to order six plates each”, when the eight we ordered for two nearly broke us – but leftovers were wrapped in foil to take up with a metaphorical pat on the back by our server for our gallant efforts. “You guys eat as much as me – I’m impressed.”
There’s sticky toffee pudding with burnt butter ice cream, and plum crumble with malt ice cream for puds, but it was the toasted oak ice cream that tempted us. It tasted like cold beer, but was again cranked up another notch by a rubble of salted hazelnut praline.
Plates come out when they’re ready, and tables are small, so prepare yourself to eat swiftly, not that you’ll need any persuasion. This is low and slow cooking at its authentic best.
35 Sclater Street
Photo credits: Carl Sachs