Vegetables finally get the barbecue treatment… or do they?
If cooking is the art of transformation, then meat often undergoes the greatest of all transfigurations – especially in the world of barbecue. What was once undesirably tough and almost inedible can be rendered near-unrecognisable in its smoky tenderness. Indeed, the greater the transformation, the more successful the barbecued meat is judged to be.
Perhaps that’s why few restaurants (in London at any rate) have seriously tried their hand at barbecuing vegetables. After all, vegetables need comparatively little intervention – their cooked form often changes relatively and remarkably little from their raw state. The two seem fundamentally incompatible – a deeply interventionist way of cooking and ingredients that, more often than not, should be messed with only minimally.
Perhaps the quirkily-named Acme Fire Cult subconsciously recognises this. Despite their self-proclaimed mission to let ‘vegetables take centre stage’ on their menu, with meat and fish playing a supporting role, fleshy delights end up having just as big a presence as veg on their admittedly ever-changing menu.
Small dishes at Acme Fire Cult
Corno peppers were not only sweet, but fleshy and tender enough to rip apart easily with just the slightest tug of one’s teeth. It would’ve been incomplete though without the salty umami of anchovies and the zesty salsa verde.
Moist and meaty bits of skewered monkfish were complimented neatly by beetroot molasses which were unintrusive in their sweetness.
A crudo of red mullet suffered from the fish being divvied up into cubes too weeny to leave much of an impact. The cucumber in so-called ‘crazy water’ left a vaguely dill-like impression.
Halved aubergine was relatively fleshy, but was otherwise utterly forgettable. It wasn’t helped by the meekly tangy sourdough mole, which wasn’t anywhere as deep or as complex as Oaxacan moles, while the spiced hazelnut garnish came across as an aspirational Bombay Mix.
Skewers of ox liver were barely graced with any of the advertised ‘Silk Road spice’. Thankfully, they had their own charms to fall back on – pillowy softness with a offally funk that will be familiar to anyone used to scoffing pork guts.
Although I wouldn’t have known that the squash hummus had been fermented if the menu hadn’t told me, its gentle sweet nuttiness was scoffable enough – especially when scooped up with the accompanying flatbreads. Stiffened just on the outside, soft and moreish on the inside, they were arguably far superior to the headlining hummus.
Billowy clouds of ricotta were smooth, lightly creamy and not at all funky considering they had been made from sheep’s milk. It meshed well with the spicy hit of the peppers and and the floral sweetness of the honey, but it was all then easily overwhelmed by the fruity olive oil lurking at the bottom of the bowl. Even so, there was joy to be had from using the crusty then puffy tufts of sourdough to soak up the honey and olive oil – a task at which the bread excelled.
Each glossy ribbon of cured pork jowl was as thin as tissue paper, blessed with a smoky fattiness that was instantly beguiling. The eye-wateringly punchy mustard arguably wasn’t necessary, but I’ll never say no to a sassy mustard.
Cubes of watermelon and cucumber were surprisingly complimentary. The crisp, sweet juiciness of the former languidly spooning the firm yet squidgy succulence of the latter. The ancho oil squirted about proved to be surprisingly dull though.
Taut, slippery and chewy leeks had been roasted then dressed in a nutty and moreish sauce. Its terrific texture and taste hardly needed the wan pistachios scattered on top.
Larger dishes at Acme Fire Cult
A large hunk of ox cheek didn’t just rely on its evenly consistent tenderness for charm. The glistening red meat had a tangy, tart and almost citrusy character to it. The mildly umami and tangy koji cream was neither here nor there, while the crunchy and lightly tangy pickles helped cut through the relative richness of the red meat.
Smoked and cured pork neck was sweet and tender. Although I found myself pining for a bit more pork fat, its almost char siu-like qualities were enjoyable enough.
A dish of trombetta courgettes was one the very few I had at Acme Fire Cult that fulfilled its stated veg-first manifesto. The trunk-thick sheaves of squash were as tender as a smacked bottom, soaking up the curry-like warmth of the spiced butter. The profoundly addictive nuttiness of the crispified chickpeas rounded out an unexpectedly beautiful dish.
Underneath the pliable skin of the butterflied mackerel were richly oily sheaves of fish that flaked apart easily. The tartare-like vibes of the caper-strewn gribiche and herbs complimented the mackerel effortlessly.
Musky and earthy crab head meat, cheekily reinforced with bone marrow for added richness, came draped generously and luxuriously over crunchy bread. A relatively spicy salsa verde and crunchy, refreshing cabbage helped cut through its multifaceted mouth coating mwahness.
If only Acme Fire Cult had held to its veg-first convictions and ejected the fish from a dish of cod and mushrooms. Even if the cod hadn’t been a wee bit overcooked, its presence was arguably unnecessary. A wrinkly, firm and earthy mix of enoki and hen of the woods was so texturally winsome, it had no need for the cod. Meanwhile, what appeared to be a miso-infused parsnip puree added a buttery umami that made the cod seem even more irrelevant.
Guest special dishes at Acme Fire Cult
Acme Fire Cult occasionally hosts guest chefs, such as former Temper maestro Neil Rankin back in the autumn of 2022. While most of his dishes used plants to mimic meat, an approach that hasn’t yielded the best results in the 21st century West, some of them came closer to fulfilling Acme Fire Cult’s purported veg-first philosophy than its regular menu.
Take the barrel-aged Symplicity burger, for example. While it looked unimpressively unadorned, this patty was robustly flavoursome. Moist and slightly coarse, it had a deep moreishness embellished by the light sweetness of the burger sauce. While obviously inspired by a beef burger, this marrowfat pea construction had used that as a springboard to do its own thing rather than as a rigid template to emulate. It’s a time-honoured approach that’s as admirable as it was delicious.
A dumpling, in the English style but also like a faggot, was a moist, umami and moderately coarse affair. Meaty, but in a curiously non-specific way, its mouth-coating succulence was helped along by the light saltiness and tang of a shoyu-esque ramen broth. This is the kind of occidental-oriental, meat-inspired mash-up that I can get on board with.
Things started to unravel a little with the white peach and smoked beetroot larb. Mostly because I wouldn’t have known peach and beetroot were involved if the menu hadn’t said so. To be fair though, while bland in their own right, the crisply squidgy and juicy cubes of fruit and veg were apt conveyors for the cumulative and lingering spicy heat of the dressing.
The unravelling continued with the dan dan cabbage. I’m guessing the slivers of cabbage were meant to be some sort of carb-free noodle alternative. Which would be weird as, unsurprisingly, the resemblance was about as convincing as a melted Madame Tussaud’s dummy. The presumably plant-based mince alternative was also an odd choice, given how well something like mapo tofu goes with carbs and greens alike. The most unsatisfying part of this oddly derivative dish had to be the sauce. At best, it packed a generic tingly warmth, but it was exceedingly mild, hardly scaling the numbing heights of a proper Sichuan pepper-based sauce.
With most high street kebabs, the meat is the most enjoyable thing (relatively speaking) and the salad by far the least – even when the former is grey and mysterious. With the unplaceable ‘doner kebab’ here, it was the other way around. The smooth, squidgy lozenges tasted of unidentifiable nothingness. The finely chopped veg, on the other hand, had a toothsome crunch. Wrapped up in a thick, fluffy flatbread along with a lactic hit of yoghurt and a modest spicy kick, it was pleasant enough in an unmemorably pedestrian way. Much like a high street kebab, ironically enough.
Desserts at Acme Fire Cult
Semifreddo was refreshingly light, its vanilla-ish flavour blending well with the delicate sweetness of fleshy nectarine pieces.
Buttermilk pudding had similar vibes to the semifreddo, but – unsurprisingly – wasn’t as refreshingly cold. It had a certain tanginess to it, which is just as well given the surprisingly bland pieces of plum.
A rather generic chocolate ganache was livened up considerably by crunchy hazelnuts and a dollop of creme fraiche.
Although far from bad, I’m unconvinced by Acme Fire Cult. While passing the hours away at an outdoor table was an amiable experience, even with a periodic waft of ash from the overenthusiastic grilling, the barbecue-adjacent veg-ish menu was – on the whole – ultimately lacklustre. The truly outstanding dishes were few in number. Even then, far too many of those, in my experience at least, fell back to relying on meat or needed further refinement.
To stretch a simile to its breaking point, the menu here is less like a Cult and more of a lapsed Anglicanism with outbursts of hymn singing only at Easter and Christmas. Which would be fine, but those hymns really need to be a sung with bit more gusto, practice and self-belief.
Name: Acme Fire Cult
Address: The Bootyard, Abbot Street, London E8 3DP
Phone: none listed
Web: https://www.acmefirecult.com/ (yes, it’s an annoying website – especially on mobile)
Opening Hours: Wednesday-Saturday noon-14.45 and 17.30-21.30. Sunday noon-15.30. Closed Monday-Tuesday.
Average cost for one person, including soft drinks and service charge, when shared between two: £40 approx.