The move from street food maverick to established restaurant can be a rocky one. Even if you somehow tame the logistical and financial maelstrom of setting up a London restaurant, there’s still the task of evolving your menu to keep up with the competition. That’s something The Joint, one of the winners of my original barbecue group test, failed to do when establishing its Marylebone restaurant – and that branch has now since closed. Thankfully, this is a hurdle that Pitt Cue has managed to avoid in its move from street food van to cramped Soho upstart and now to a far bigger premises in the City near Liverpool Street station.
The new City Pitt Cue won’t win any awards for decor originality – the bare brick walls, exposed overhead ducts and pig-related paraphernalia lining some of the walls are all just a bit too cliched. It’s several times larger than its original Soho incarnation though. This not only means more comfortable and spacious seating, but Pitt Cue now takes reservations. It’s not part of an online reservations system such as OpenTable or Bookatable though. That means some tedious back and forth via email or phone, but it’s not too much hassle as long as you have a flexible schedule.
Pitt Cue Soho was always far better at its off-piste specials than it ever was at the classic American barbecue staples of pulled pork and ribs. This is reflected in the new, ever-changing menu which, along with an extensive specials board that changes daily, skips the cheap cuts typical of American barbecue in favour of more British cuts that are also sometimes more esoteric and more expensive too. That might seem like a cop-out, but it’s unlikely you’ll hold that opinion for long once faced with Pitt Cue’s range of smoked, cured and brined meats.
The weird cuts at Pitt Cue, Devonshire Square
Lamb tongue had a texture that fell somewhere in between that of liver and kidney. Tender, smooth and lightly offaly, the tongue was made even better by a fruity glaze, a lightly spicy sauce and some crisp spring onions. Spot on.
‘Blood cake’ might sound unnervingly off-putting, but it’s really just an honest description for black pudding. Light and tightly packed grains were accompanied by a sweet and refreshingly tart apple sauce. It won’t set the world alight, but it’s a good black pudding nonetheless.
Pitt Cue always has sausage on the menu. It might look like an odd McDonald’s-style sausage meat patty when it first arrives at your table, but that doesn’t matter. The smooth and thick meaty concoction here was made of both pork and eel. It was so well put together that I couldn’t tell where the smoky porkiness ended and the smoky fishiness began – the two were neatly complimentary. A mildly flavoured carraway celeriac coleslaw on top helped cut through the smoky joyfulness.
Cured and smoked jowl was one of my favourite dishes at the old Soho Pitt Cue and it’s even better here. Gently crisp skin may be too subtle for some, but I found it instantly addictive. The layer of fat underneath may not have been fully rendered, but it was still soft and served as a reservoir of smoky flavour for the dense, salty and gammon-esque meat underneath that. The smoky, salty meatiness was enhanced by the neat contrast and progression in texture between all three layers. Exquisite.
Light and fluffy mash, with a meaty undertone courtesy of bone marrow, had a lightly herby and earthy mushroom reduction mixed into it. Pitt Cue’s mash may well have ruined all other mashed potatoes for me.
The lardy cake wasn’t what I expected at all. The crisp layers of pastry stuffed with prunes reminded me more of Soreen than anything else – an unfortunate childhood staple I can do without. This primitivist throwback wasn’t helped by the presence of rind-filled marmalade. I did at least enjoy the accompanying vanilla ice cream – smooth, airy and with the distinctive and consistently bold taste of actual vanilla.
Seafood at Pitt Cue, Liverpool Street
Seafood isn’t traditionally thought of as a barbecue foodstuff, but Pitt Cue shows that it can work wonderfully. The smoked roe grill bread isn’t a great place to start though, with the pate-like smearing of roe lacking both smokiness and creaminess. Far better was the chewy and soft bread which fell somewhere in between a naan and a potato farl in terms of texture.
Oyster paired with kimchi was another mistake. The briney oyster was drowned out by the tart and sour kimchi. It’s such an obvious non-starter that I’m surprised that the kitchen ever thought this would be a good idea. At least I only ordered one.
Far, far better was the smoked eel broth. Tart and gently sweet broth was dotted with bits of smoky eel meat that resembled lardons. The smoky fattiness was very pork-like, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if the kitchen cheated a little with swine flesh. It was lip-smacking stuff on its own, but even better when taken with the bread on the side. Nutty and dense rye-like bread was topped with an unctuous, crispy, meaty spread that tasted even more sensational when dunked into the soup.
Octopus tentacles were a tad too soft, but it was otherwise expertly tenderised with a lightly charred and crisp crust covering the soft flesh. A herby and creamy mayo was well-chosen but ultimately unnecessary – the tentacles’ gentle briney inflection was not only evocative of the sea, but brought back childhood memories of scoffing whelks and cockles in my dad’s Volvo on a Saturday morning.
Although this was supposed to be my seafood-focussed meal at Pitt Cue, I couldn’t help but have at least one pork dish. A very smooth and porky sausage had a fabulously moreish garlicky hit. The only disappointment here was the undetectable presence of the promised cep mushrooms.
Surprisingly tame fennel was still enjoyable thanks to a mix of sweet and lightly sour apple slices and a garnish of nutty almond pieces.
A reasonably nutty and coarse hazelnut crumble was dotted with mildly sweet and tart cubes of pear. All of this went well enough with the moderately bitter-sweet and fluffy chocolate mousse, but I still struggled to muster more than a shrug for this competent if ultimately forgettable dessert.
Beef at Pitt Cue, The City
Pitt Cue City no longer has ribs as a regular dish on its menu, but they do sometimes turn up as specials. ‘Caramel’ beef ribs, almost certainly back ribs rather than short rib, had a sweet and umami sticky glaze that was vaguely Chinese in character. The bark had an unusual light crispiness, while the meat underneath was moist and dense if a little scanty. It’s not as satisfyingly multi layered in texture or as viscerally flavoured as the very best beef short ribs, but this slab of back rib was still far better than the so-so pork ribs so often served elsewhere in this city.
Less satisfying was a hunk of beef neck. While very tender, it was also very heavy, leaden and flavourless. The light smearing of stilton and a slightly more generous daubing of gently sweet butternut squash puree couldn’t hide the labourious, joyless nature of eating this dish.
I couldn’t help but dip into the porky delights of Pitt Cue’s menu. A smooth, dense and smoky trotter sausage had an unctuous undertone and was topped with sauerkraut-esque pickled veg.
Rabbit and bacon broth wasn’t the visceral punch I was expecting at all, but was instead far more subtle and layered. A lightly sour and herby soup dotted with chewy veg and sweet, crunchy macademias. Crunchy and nutty toast topped with an unctuously meaty spread made for fine dunking material.
Baked celeriac may be a bit too like parsnips for some, but I enjoyed its tender creamy sharpness.
‘Milk’ ice cream was surprisingly but enjoyably malty and yeasty, as well as airy and light, while the accompanying chunks of rhubarb were gently squidgy, tart and interspersed with a crumble that added some crunch without getting in the way. While not as masterful as the somewhat similar rhubarb and panna cotta dessert available at the nearby Osteria, it was still a well-crafted, deliciously layered confection.
Pork and lamb at the new Pitt Cue
Snaggletooth has an unhealthy love for pork, so it was no surprise that he joined me for my pork-focussed meal at the new Pitt Cue. Wafer thin slices of ham, made from Pitt Cue’s favoured mangalitsa breed, were wonderfully fatty and moist with a gentle woody sweetness that precluded the need for the included walnuts.
Although apparently made from Dexter beef, this cow sausage tasted very similar to the pork trotter sausage from my previous meal – so much so, that I wondered if there had been a mix up in the kitchen. There was no mistaking the slick, fatty, salty goodness of the dripping bread though. It was made even more deliciously unhealthy by the butter on the side which was tart as well as creamy.
In lesser barbecue kitchens, a hunk of mangalitsa shoulder blade would’ve been wasted as a subpar pulled pork. Here, it was served as whole cut in of itself and it was a beautiful sight to behold. Taut skin with an unctuously moist layer of rendered fat underneath. The chunky strands of meat, similar in texture to hock, had a gentle smokiness that wasn’t too overwhelming but was offset anyway by oddly circular slices of fennel on the side. The firm bite and yielding follow through left both Snaggletooth and I wanting for nothing.
Given the exquisiteness of the mangalitsa blade, we thought nothing could top it. That was until we dived into the smoked lamb neck. A salty, woody bark (almost too salty for Snaggletooth) was stripped away to reveal dense meat that was profoundly earthy, yet balanced a subtle sweetness with smokiness too. Small radishes prepared kimchi-style were served on the side, cutting through the richness. The combination of visceral sensuality and sophisticated nuance in the bark and meat is more than enough to make this lamb a candidate for dish of the year. And it’s only March.
A side of mash was just as good as it was before. Snaggletooth’s dessert of crumble, chocolate mousse and pear was similarly unchanged – fine, but ultimately unmoving.
When rarebit appears on a menu under the dessert section, I would expect something clever, post-modern or deconstructive. In this case though, it’s literally a rarebit. Chunky, somewhat chewy toast topped with what appeared to be caramelised onions and a melted medley of cheeses, which I had thought to be the sweet, chocolate-esque brunost, but was actually a less exotic selection of British cheeses. It’s a decent rarebit – thick, chewy and gooey – but it felt very out of place as a dessert after so much meaty richness.
Steak and fish at the bigger Pitt Cue
Rump cap may not be the most glamorous cut of steak, but it’s (relatively) inexpensive and can be a real joy to behold. The thinly sliced rare/medium rare medallions here were slightly chewy, but still mostly tender, with a gentle woody flavour and a strip of fat acting as reservoirs of smokiness. Ace.
Fish doesn’t really lend itself to low-and-slow barbecue cooking, so the dover sole here just received a lick of flame on the grill instead. The light and gently smoky white meat was cooked just so with a gentle bouncy texture. Simple and straightforward.
Taut, slippery and lightly bitter hispi cabbage was given a moreish edge by a tinge of garlic.
I expected the milk ice cream with rhubarb to be much the same as it was before, but it was a notably different dessert this time around. The rhubarb was drowned out by the very crunchy and nutty crumble, while some equally crunchy ice crystals marred the milkiness of the less nuanced ice cream. A disappointing lapse in consistency, but at least this misstep was an outlier rather than one in a series of many.
While it’s tempting to compare the new Pitt Cue against other more traditional American-style barbecue restaurants, Pitt Cue’s departure from the standard Southern staples means that such a comparison isn’t quite apt. It can match its colonial-style competitors when it comes to smoky visceral boldness as its lamb neck shows, but the understated subtlety and layered complexity of its many smaller dishes shows that Pitt Cue has forged a unique identity all its own. Its pork dishes are a true exemplar of what can be done with swine flesh, easily bettering the misguided approach of the now defunct Blackfoot, while the rest of its cured, brined, smoked and grilled menu outclass almost everything on offer at the somewhat similarly themed Rok.
The only things that spoil Pitt Cue is the somewhat fussy reservations system, the fact that it doesn’t open on weekends and the boorish City boy clientèle, a sad inevitability of its location. When faced with waddling Square Mile drunks bellowing from across the dining room or halfwits at the next table joking about marital rape, it takes an iron resolve not to douse them in freezing cold water and send them limping back home to a telling-off from their mothers.
Objectionable diners aren’t, of course, Pitt Cue’s fault and they shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this singular, uniquely enjoyable barbecue and meat restaurant. The new Pitt Cue really is in a class of its own.
What to order: Anything pork; the broths; the sausages; steak; lamb when available
What to avoid: Oysters; perhaps the desserts
Name: Pitt Cue
Address: 1 The Avenue, Devonshire Square, London EC2M 4YP
Phone: 020 7324 7770
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday noon-15.00 and 18.00-22.30. Closed weekends.
Reservations: highly recommended early in the week; essential the closer it gets to the weekend.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £50-60 approx.