Smoke is the new black.
It’s easy to rant and rail against hipsters and their rapidly gentrifying east London hub. For many, such as my dining companion Vicious Alabaster, they’re all little more than pompous, shallow, fad-chasing Macaroni twits. That may or may not be true, but I generally don’t care. From a utilitarian perspective, they can live their lives as they wish since that has little real impact on me or anyone else. Plus, like members of other misunderstood subcultures such as goths and Trekkies, hipsters tend to be pleasant and easy-going with a live and let-live attitude – which is more than can be said for the rest of the Western world right now.
Having said all that, Vicious Alabaster’s words of condemnation came to mind as I ate at Smokestak. This former street food stand, and a winner of my original American barbecue group test, has found a permanent home a stone’s throw away from Shoreditch High Street station.
And what a teeth-grindingly on-trend home it is. Minimal signage, an all-black interior darker than a UKIP voter’s soul and counter stools with almost zero foot purchase might look good, but are all woefully impractical. Then there’s the service which can cross interpersonal boundaries in its overbearing chumminess. Asking whether I’m happy with my life is the sort of existential question reserved for second dates, not whether I want still or sparkling.
The menu, more importantly, is a significant evolution of Smokestak’s original street food dishes and moves away from the American Deep South canon with interesting results.
First things first
Vegetables are rarely a highlight at a barbecue restaurant, which made the mushrooms on toast at Smokestak all the more welcome. Supple, buttery and lightly tart girolles layered on top of toast that was crunchy then soft and richly buttery – an excellent combination.
Cured pig jowl was served thinly sliced on toast, increasing its resemblance to back bacon and pancetta. The relative lack of texture allowed its rich fattiness, emphasised by the unctuousness of the toast on which it sat, to take centre stage. It’s not the best example of fatty pig meat ever devised, but it was nonetheless enjoyable.
I was eager to try Smokestak’s version of beef brisket. Not only because the market stall had never attempted it (as far as I know), but because a good smoked brisket is the sign of a top-notch barbecue restaurant.
While far from bad, it was a tad too dry and lacking in character. Reasonably but not exceptionally tender, the anonymous bark and paucity of connective tissue were also conspicuous. It was far too reliant on the small garnish of salt for taste.
I suspect the fault here was not only in the length and quality of the smoking, but also in the cut of brisket chosen. This only makes me more thankful for Texas Joe’s continued existence – it continues to set the standard for barbecued beef brisket in London.
Julienned celeriac was lightly earthy and neatly complimented by tart apples and a musky, distinctly flavoured walnut vinegarette. A touch more tartness would’ve been welcome, but this was still a well-crafted side.
If you’re still in any doubt that Smokestak is deviating from the US-canon, then the presence of sticky toffee pudding on the menu should settle the matter. The squidgy, airy pudding wasn’t too heavy, while the rich toffee smacked of malty molasses and the distinctive sweetness of dark brown sugar. Although the mildly buttery ice cream didn’t add much to the mix, it was at least cooling and certainly didn’t detract from this comforting, well-executed pudding.
Going back for seconds
Deep-fried pigtails were crisp and crunchy, but also surprisingly unctuous given the paucity of meat and extant fat on the little segments of bone. Although a bit too similar in texture to sweet and sour pork for my liking, it was unexpectedly nuanced on the tongue with a gentle moreish undertone.
The pastrami was everything the brisket was not – tender, moist and lightly smoky with a quivering gelatinous rind of connective tissue still attached and a hint of chewy bark. Tart sauerkraut-style cabbage and sweet, vinegary pickles were spot-on palate cleansers. The pastrami was an evocative homage to the take-away salt beef-filled bagels that the nearby Brick Lane is justly famed for. If anything, the resemblance is a little too strong – although not mirror images of course, they’re similar enough to almost me think twice before ordering given the three-times price markup.
The beef short rib was surprisingly small in size, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing given the mammoth portions of ho-hum Jacob’s Ladder ribs served at lesser barbecue restaurants. The lightly chewy bark gave way to reveal a tender, dense, reasonably moist and gently smoky hunk of beef on the bone. A bit more extant fat and connective tissue – which was taut, chewy and slippery – would’ve made it taste even better. It’s not as dramatically satisfying as I remember it, but it was still a winner – especially with the tangy and sweet sauce judiciously daubed on top.
Smooth and silky buttermilk contrasted well with supple and taut cabbage. The latter’s mild vegetal bitterness was offset by the nuttiness and earthiness of tenderised walnuts. The latter made this side seem a little too similar to the celeriac with walnut vinaigrette from my first meal, but it’s still worth having.
The plum crumble arrived hot and steamy – just the way I like my lovers, but not my puddings. It could’ve done with a little more resting time. Once it had settled down, the sweetness and surprising tartness of the squidgy plum segments came to the fore. The lightly crunchy and malty crumble contrasted neatly with the fruit. The ‘burnt butter’ ice cream didn’t taste of much, but at least it didn’t have any crunchy ice crystals and its cool sweetness offset the heat and tartness of the plums well.
From a distance, as I saw it prepared in the kitchen, the pork scratching looked like a huge curl of wrinkly tofu or perhaps a giant Quaver. Crunchy and a tad oily, it was a world away from the enamel-cracking pub snack that we’re all familiar with. Even so, it would’ve been nothing without the oddly fruity dusting of salt.
The ox cheek croquettes were oddly described on the menu as ‘crispy ox cheeks’ which might surprise those of you expecting a slab of flesh rather than deep-fried meat cubes. They’re still worth your time though – crispy and free of excess oil on the outside, unctuous on the inside. The gently zesty and garlicky aioli on the side helped cut through the relative richness of the meaty strands inside the cubes.
The pork ribs – probably a St. Louis-style cut of spare ribs, if smaller in size than usual – weren’t quite tender enough. The fat could also have done with a little more rendering. Even so, the chewy bark, fruity rub and dense meat snuck their way into my affections with their candied jerk-like qualities.
Hearty chunks of lightly sweet and earthy beetroot also had a salty edge to them. A creamy, earthy, funky goat’s curd and gently sweet, crunchy nuts added extra layers of nuance and complexity. Spot on.
I’m not sure what ‘toasted oak’ ice cream is supposed to taste like, but the scoop here had a gentle caramel-ish flavour with a sweet and vaguely aniseed-like herby undertone. The powerfully salty, nutty crunch of the pulverised salted hazelnut praline was pleasurable, even if the overall combined effect was of a somewhat unbalanced salted caramel ice cream.
Smokestak isn’t quite the superlative standard-setter that it was a few years ago as a street food market stand. It’s not only because the competition has refused to stand still, but also due to the kitchen stumbling here and there – most notably with the brisket. And the issues with the décor, atmosphere and service, while not showstopping, will put off anyone without the patience of a saint and the body of an especially pliable yoga instructor.
Still, there’s enough verve and joy to be had with dishes such as the pastrami and beef rib. With the presence of both Smokestak and the branch of Red’s True Barbecue nearby, there’s little reason for local hipsters to eat at the Hoxton branches of mediocre money grabbers Bodean’s or Red Dog Saloon – unless it’s out of a misplaced sense of irony.
What to order: Mushrooms on toast; Sticky toffee pudding; Pastrami; Beef rib; Pork rib; Crispy ox cheek; Beetroot
What to skip: Perhaps the pork scratching
Address: 35 Sclater Street, Shoreditch, London E1 6LB
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-15.00 and 17.30-23.00. Sunday noon-21.00.
Reservations: For lunch, probably a good idea. For dinner, only taken for groups of four to six.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £35-43 approx.