Smoke and fire that didn’t really rock my world
Thanks to the recent and growing popularity of American barbecue in London, restaurants serving other cuisines have jumped onto the barbecue and smoking branded bandwagon. It wouldn’t be completely fair to ascribe such cynical opportunism to the people behind Rök, as they do serve dishes inspired by the smoking, curing, brining and pickling traditions of Norway and Sweden (‘rök’ is apparently Swedish for ‘smoke’), but the Scandi-influence is subtle rather than kitsch or in your face.
Don’t expect the latest in swish and comfortable Scandinavian interior design at Rök. The interior is very spartan, almost unfinished in appearance, while the stool seating can get very uncomfortable – especially over extended periods when the service slows to a crawl. Thankfully, the latter appeared to be improving over the course of my two visits with Baron Greenback.
First things first
There are a lot of pickled vegetables available at Rök and it’s not just the usual gherkins. Although the pickled samphire didn’t have the same depth of flavour as the fresh version of this vegetable at Paradise Garage, the briney sweetness imparted by the pickling was still enjoyable. Despite being only lightly tart, the dense and earthy slices of beetroot were pleasing if a little too heavy and autumnal for the height of summer.
Nduja turns up surprisingly frequently on Rök’s menu, showing that the kitchen isn’t strictly beholden to old school Scandi ingredients. Although apparently present in the scallops, I couldn’t detect the presence of this distinctively soft and spicy Italian sausage. The scallops themselves were big and meaty with a firm bite and a tender interior blessed with a reasonable amount of fresh zing. The small puddle of thin sauce had a beguiling burnt sweetness to it, but it was hard to appreciate given both the small amount present and how it was easily overwhelmed by both the scallops and the surprisingly tame topping of fresh samphire.
A far more successful seafood surprise was the mussels. Small, but fleshy and zingy, the little molluscs came bathed in a thin yet mildly bitter and lipsmackingly moreish sauce.
Despite the initial joy of the woody and fruity bark, the pork belly turned out to be a bitter disappointment. The dry, hard and bland swine flesh had all the appeal of styrofoam. At least the roasted apple on the side, almost puree-like in texture, was a winner with its sweet and tart fluffiness.
Although not especially unctous, the bone marrow mash had a surprisingly subtle but still unmistakably meaty undertone – almost as if the original potatoes had been watered in gravy and suckled on a cow. Texture-wise, the mash somehow managed to be both fluffy and dense at the same time. Good stuff.
The highlight of my first meal at Rök was the only dessert on the menu, roasted peach. Although the squidgy fruit barely tasted of peach at all, it was nonetheless addictive thanks to its smoky booziness. It was even better when taken with the refreshing creme fraiche, which was almost like labneh in its thickness, and with the nutty, lightly sweet and dense selection of crushed oats and almonds.
Going back for seconds
A selection of pickled cucumber, cauliflower and gherkins all had quite similar woody and herby tones, with the firm cucumber and cauliflower taking on an extra brininess. You’ll have forgotten about them all come the morning after, but they’re diverting enough.
Even if our friendly waitress hadn’t attempted to explain the intricacies of the assorted charcuterie, in spite of the buzzing hubbub, we’d have forgotten all of it anyway once we got stuck in. Everything just melded into a single woody, herby, indistinguishable mass of cured meat. It’s by no means bad, but it’s all rather forgettable compared to the many splendored wonders of the very best and most distinctive Spanish and Italian charcuterie.
The coarse duck pate barely resembled its description. The small dollops of smooth pate tasted more like a tame reproduction of chicken live pate. The most interesting here was the sweet, light and treacly cloudberry jam served as a topping.
A far better duck dish was the duck leg with lingonberry bacon jam. Apparently cooked sous vide, it tasted more like duck confit with the glossy, fatty meat coming away from the bone with relative ease. The smokiness and tangy sweetness of the jam complimented the duck very well, akin to the sauce of duck a l’orange but less cloying and with more depth.
The scotch quail’s eggs had an odd, thin breadcrumb skin that peeled off with surprising ease and thus added little. As expected, the small eggs were bland with none of the richness that would probably have been present from the runnier yolk of a larger hen or duck egg. It was left to the nduja meat filling to pick up the slack. It was soft, smooth and mildly spicy. Its somewhat loose consistency emphasised its sausage-ness, while the dijon mayo tasted more like aioli. An nduja scotch egg is a great idea, but the malformed implementation here doesn’t do that idea justice.
The cut of cow meat used in the beef with birch syrup varies – on this occasion it was t-bone. Cooked rare, it was moist and tender with very occasional bits of chewiness in places. There was a subtle herby sweetness to the beef, presumably from the birch syrup, but it was far too subtle for its own good leaving this steak somewhat bereft of character. It was still enjoyable but, like so much else at Rök, a little dull and hardly worthy of devotion.
The ‘beef dust’ smothering the cauliflower cheese was apparently granted bresaola and almonds (unless I misheard), but its nondescript taste was neither here nor there. The soft cauliflower florets and so-so melted cheese were perfectly fine as comfort food, but it’s hardly worth the £5 asking price given that the beef dust about as interesting as sawdust.
The long vertical slices of charred sweet potato could’ve been softer, sweeter and fluffier, but I couldn’t fault the smokiness. There was very little heat in the horseradish creme fraiche, but it did have a labneh-esque thickness to it. Still, the smokiness of these carb hunks made them a pleasing enough accompaniment to the duck leg and beef.
The roasted peach dessert was just as good as it was before.
There’s nothing terribly wrong about Rök, but there are precious few things that are terribly right about it either. There are occasional highlights, such as the mussels, duck leg and peach dessert, but these flickering lights in the darkness merely emphasise the so-so nature of everything else. Given the bold flavours and interesting textures that can be produced by smoking, brining and curing, this is very disappointing indeed. There’s potential at Rök, but for now it’s unfulfilled.
What to order: Roasted peach pudding; Duck with lingonberry bacon jam; Mussels
What to skip: Pork belly; Duck pate; Cauliflower cheese with beef dust
Address: 26 Curtain Road, Shoreditch, London EC2A 3NZ
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday–Saturday 18.30-23.00. Lunch service coming soon apparently.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £40 approx.