American BBQ comes to Hackney
Update August 2013 – newer, more up-to-date review published
Barbecue restaurants are like buses – you wait ages for one to arrive and then two come along at once. Pitt Cue in Soho may be (deservedly) getting all the attention, but a lesser known BBQ joint called Duke’s has also opened up. Duke’s is located in Hackney near Haggerston Overground station and is within spitting distance of both the City and Hoxton. Oddly located on a semi-residential street, Duke’s is situated inside a former pub but has a rather eclectic decor with both tiled and exposed brick walls decorated with antlers and prams.
In spite of the aspirational, trendy decor, the staff at Duke’s are friendly and reasonably efficient (and tend to be intimidatingly attractive to boot). Despite being billed as a barbecue restaurant, there are only a handful of barbecued meats on the menu and I visited Duke’s three times to sample them all. All of the mains come with tart pickled onion shavings, gherkins and a coleslaw that’s creamy without being sickly and overpowering.
First things first
The beef ribs at Pitt Cue are one of my favourite dishes at that barbecue joint, so I had to sample Duke’s version. The dark red, sensuously reflective surface has a charred, very sweet and slightly boozy flavour to it, but the effect is only skin deep. The marinade clung to the surface, while the meat below was comparatively bland. The rib meat itself was occasionally tender with rivulets of fat and connective tissue, but mostly quite chewy and tough. It’s not bad, but I prefer Pitt Cue’s beef ribs which have a far greater depth of flavour.
Oddly, pulled pork isn’t available in a large slab but only as a mini-burger or slider as the Americans insist on calling them. The small tuft of pork is reasonably moist and tender, but is quite bland and doesn’t have the sweet smokiness found in the pulled pork at both Spuntino and Pitt Cue.
Meatliqour may be overrated, but the one dish it does consistently right is the deep fried pickles. Duke’s has its own version that combines slithers of deep fried pickles with chunks of deep fried okra too. Sadly, the thick, bland and stodgy coating gets in the way of both the creamy okra and the sweet, tangy pickle.
Duke’s desserts change fairly frequently and one dessert that has yet to make another appearance on the menu despite my repeat visits is the chocolate cake. This is no surprise though given its uncanny resemblance to a Swiss roll with its layers of cream and jam. This is perhaps a little unfair as some parts of the cake do have a soft, almost ganache-like texture but it’s mostly quite dry and dull.
Going back for seconds
My second dinner at Duke’s turned out to be remarkably similar to my first. The pulled pork slider was virtually identical to the last one I had, if a tad larger – this would bode well for consistency except that it’s a yawningly average serving of pork.
The pork ribs have an almost identical marinade to the beef ribs (the boys at Burger Anarchy have a plausible sounding theory about how the ribs are cooked). The sweet, charred flavour clings to the surface and although the marinade this time around is less boozy and more smoky, it also tended to stick to my fingers rather than to the meat. Sadly, the rib meat isn’t isn’t especially tender and is a bit on the tough side.
I wasn’t terribly impressed with the smoked beans with pork either. Although the beans had just the right amount of firmness, they were also lacking in any sort of flavour.
The Hackney mess is supposed to be Duke’s version of that classic dessert, the Eton mess. The resemblance is passing though, if only because there’s no meringue in the Hackney mess. It is charmingly presented in a dimpled pint glass and is quite a dense dessert with its mixture of thick cream, marshmallow and chocolate biscuit, but the latter is quite anonymous and the entire thing would be quite bland if it wasn’t for the raspberries.
Third time lucky?
I was intrigued by the presence of a burger on the menu of a barbecue restaurant, but it’s hard to tell if the patty has been barbecued or not. It seems unlikely though as the patty is surprisingly crumbly. The moist meat has been coarsely ground and possibly seasoned with chopped onion. There’s subtle herby heat reminiscent of ginger or garlic that I couldn’t account for. This sounds odd, but it’s actually quite pleasing as well as tantalising.
Sadly, the soft, floury bun struggles to keep the crumbly patty from spilling out, a task made all the harder by the copious amounts of tart gherkins and very sharp red onions which almost overwhelm the taste of the meat, the moderately hot mustard and the subtle sweetness of the barbecue sauce. There’s the makings of a good burger here, but the consistency of both the bun and the patty need a rethink. The accompanying fries are just fries, but sprinkled with paprika (or something similar) to give the carbs a very slight spicy kick.
Sadly, the quality of the pulled pork slider had declined since my previous two visits. Not only was the wisp of meat drier than before, it was even blander too and was dependent on the small dollop of coleslaw for both flavour and moistness. Poor.
The Flame Haired Squelchie and Wicket are more enamoured with cheesecakes than I am, but I opted for Duke’s cheesecake anyway as it was the one available dessert that I hadn’t tried. The cheese filling is dense and smooth and rests on a surprisingly thin biscuit crust. It’s not bad, but given the relative blandness of the cheese, the whole thing could’ve done with more of the toasted almonds which sit on the side – their distinct flavour and crisp texture was in many ways more enticing than the cheesecake itself.
Despite the fairly negative tone of this review, I actually had a fairly good time at Duke’s. Most of my disappointment is directed at the lacklustre side dishes and desserts. The ribs and burger are reasonably good – it’s just that the ribs aren’t as accomplished as their counterparts in Pitt Cue and there are better burgers available elsewhere. The one undeniable advantage Duke’s has over its Soho rival is that it takes reservations and Duke’s isn’t massively oversubscribed, so a booking can easily be had if you plan ahead a day or two.
Still, there’s no escaping the fact that if you want the best barbecue ribs in London, and other meats too, then you should head to Pitt Cue in Soho first. Sorry Duke.
Name: Duke’s Brew and Que
Address: 33 Downham Road, De Beauvoir Town, Hackney, London N1 5AA
Phone: 0203 006 0795
Opening Hours: needlessly long-winded.
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £26-32 approx.