Now there’s a headline I never thought I’d ever write
Update 14/2/17 – this restaurant has now closed
The comfortably leafy and middle class, yet relatively remote northwestern climes of Kensal Rise is the last place I’d expect to find an American barbecue restaurant. Even more so given the celebrity money backing it – DJ Yoda is apparently an investor. The turntablist has also threatened to turn up occasionally and put on impromptu sets, a prospect which sets my teeth on edge. I prefer to listen to the chatter of my dining companions when eating, or at worst the screaming voices inside my head, rather than someone else’s questionable musical abilities.
Edit 29/08/15 – my off-hand comment about the ‘relatively remote’ location of Kensal Rise prompted some passive-aggressive overreaction on social media. ‘Remoteness’ does depend on where you’re starting out from and how far you’re willing to travel – hence my use of the term ‘relatively’. Having said that, my thoughts on how some typical Londoners react to ‘remote’ locations has been documented in the first paragraph of my One Sixty review. Let that be the end of it.
That aside, Austen’s has the artificially ramshackle decor that’s become tediously mandatory for American barbecue restaurants on this side of the Atlantic. I could warble on about the annoyingly misplaced apostrophe in Austen’s name (presumably meant to evoke Austin, Texas) which tended to wander on either side of the ‘s’ depending on which online or physical signage you were looking at. But I’ll suppress my nascent grammar fascism as this has been largely fixed.
Although there are some pick and mix sandwiches on the menu, I concentrated on the core barbecue dishes of beef short rib, pork spare ribs, pulled pork and brisket along with some forays into the sides and the desserts.
Austen’s weekend bar-b-q
Crockery is notable by its absence at Austen’s with everything served either on paper or metal containers lined with grease proof paper. This extends to the drinks – root beer arrived in a fast food-style takewaway paper cup. It was surprisingly good root beer though with notes of cherry and vanilla.
Deep fried pickles were moist on the inside and not too oily on the outside, but each slice was only moderately crispy and lacking in tartness too.
The beef short rib arrived looking positively acrobatic, straddling two rib bones like an overly ambitious rodeo rider. While the large hunk of meat was moist, there were only occasional bits of gelatinous connective tissue and very sporadic hits of peppery fat. This sparsity of connective tissue, collagen, fat and flavoursome rub made for very plain, uninspired eating that bordered on choredom.
The cornbread muffin was small and not quite as good as the cornbread available at Red’s True Barbecue, but its sweet fluffy nuttiness was still nonetheless pleasing and ranks among the better cornbreads available in London. It’s a far better side than the predictably bitty, floppy and salty fries. This may be an American barbecue restaurant, but I still prefer proper chips over fries – even with my burgers and barbecue.
Austen’s weekday barbecue
I returned to Austen’s for the second and final time to try out the Meat Market Sampler with the aid of Kangaroo Face, allowing me to sample the rest of the core barbecue staples on the menu in a single sitting.
The pulled pork had an unappealing grey pallor to it, but what matters here is taste and texture. Although firm, it was a touch dry. It wasn’t fatty enough either, so it was largely dependent on the tart, moderately spicy sauce for flavour. It’s not bad, but just can’t compare to the better pulled porks available from Hot Box and Red’s.
It was a similar story with the pork spare ribs. Although meaty, the dry flesh was lacking in both smokiness and fat, rendered or otherwise. It was akin to eating a dreary economy pork chop cooked by a drunken student late at night in halls.
Far better than either of the pork options was the beef brisket. Although one of the best dishes here, it lags behind the other, better briskets available in this city. Although moist and meaty, it severely lacked the salty, fatty depth of character found in the briskets from Texas Joe’s and Red’s.
I’m not usually a fan of barbecued chicken as it tends to be far less interesting than its pork and beef counterparts. In the bizzaro alternate universe of Austen’s however, the chicken turned out to be surprisingly good – moist, smoky and with a mild spicy kick too.
I wasn’t expecting much from the sausage either, but the smooth, smoky nature of the sliced wieners definitely hit the spot.
The beans were reasonably firm and had a mild boozy tang to them.
Austen’s hush puppies were a tad too oily, but these deep fried cornmeal balls were fluffy and nutty enough for this flaw to be overlooked.
Kangaroo Face and I doubled down on the desserts which turned out to be a grievous error. The ‘crack’ pie was cracking alright – on my teeth. The cold and hard caramel shortbread was about as appetising as concrete, while the bracingly cold ice cream should’ve been rested for longer.
Kangaroo Face’s peach cobbler was served almost as cold and hard, but with even less taste. It should’ve been served warm, but the staff warmed it up by merely nuking the the thing in a microwave or oven, turning it into a goopy, sickly sweet embarrassment. Making a bad dessert even worse is such a staggeringly high act of gross incompetence that it deserves whatever accolades they hand out for uncaring ineptitude.
Following such an unappetising and poorly prepared pair of puddings, the nutella lady fingers was a comparative relief – but only comparatively. The soft, formless heap of creamy sponge served at room temperature resembled a partially melted Vienetta, albeit one with a mild taste of nutella. This dessert may be an ill-conceived slag heap of mushified sugar, but at least it’s not as grossly offensive as the crack pie or peach cobbler.
Appallingly dreadful desserts aside, Austen’s is a mediocre barbecue restaurant. When even the best of its core barbecue staples, namely the brisket, is easily outclassed by the best of the competition then something has clearly gone wrong. Austen’s feels like the suburban equivalent of the equally middling Bodean’s, but with more novel decor and bigger portions to wow over the easily impressed and neophytes who don’t know any better. This might have been good enough three or four years ago, but it’s now a bad joke given the highly competitive and increasingly high quality state of American barbecue in London. Austen’s can do better and so can you.
What to order: Beef brisket; Cornbread muffin; Chicken
What to skip: Desserts; Spare ribs
Address: 109 Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Rise, London NW10 3NS
Phone: 0208 964 3200
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday 17.00-23.00; Friday 17.00-midnight; Saturday noon-midnight and Sunday noon-23.00.
Reservations: highly recommended; especially for groups of three or more
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35 approx.