Smokehouse Islington

You wouldn’t believe it but when it comes to eating out I can be somewhat hard to please. Really do wish I wasn’t, as it can make me a serious pain in the ass to be around.

But is it such a crime to expect good food and drink served in a setting that make time stand still? Service that is attentive but not overt, warm but not gooey, knowledgeable but not snobby? And ending with a tab that doesn’t feel like you’ve been mugged?

Since I fell for well-made “craft” beer on a bicycle brewery tour of Norfolk and Suffolk four summers ago it’s been my mission to find a restaurant/pub/bar/bunker that brings together that holy quinquennial of fabulous food, wonderful wines, brilliant beers, stellar service and sumptuous surroundings.

It’s been an almighty challenge really, as most places that focus on food and service have been slow to catch on or flat out refused to acknowledge (due to old school snobbery) that quality beer is amazing with things edible.

On the other side of the coin the venues that herald the mighty ale as the king seem to place less emphasis on those customers who may prefer a goblet of good wine and can eschew more creative food offerings.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 09.28.36That has all changed with Smokehouse in Islington.

First off the interior is cozy, spacious and inviting without being too overdone or twee. Love their little wood fires dotted about and the pretty beer garden will be packed in warm weather. The loos were obviously not updated with the rest of the building and are in need of a bit of a facelift. Not dire, just incongruous with the rest of the surroundings.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 09.36.46The selection of beers in bottle, can and keg (only a couple cask options) is pretty wide ranging but with an eye on the London. Expect the Kernel, “The Towns” Camden & Beaver and Fourpure with solid imports from Germany, Belgium and the US. Though they would do well to add a few more 75cl to the line-up as they work well as an alternative to a bottle of wine with dinner.

Despite cider being on the up it barely just gets a look in with only a quintet available in bottle and 3 are from Cornish Orchards. Shame.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 09.28.48Looking at the eclectic wine list may disappoint those on a budget with only one offering of red and white under £20 and more grumbling from those wanting anything from the “New World” as it focuses exclusively on France, Spain, Italy and Portugal.

However, they are flying the St George flag in the rather small fizz section with three out four options coming from England, which is good… and expensive. Their “house” Prosecco is an eye-watering £28.50 which I think is just too much, even for Islington. Surely they can get something under £25?

On a positive note if you are comfortable dropping £22-30 on a bottle then you there’s plenty to choose from in all three shades.

The staff are friendly, knowledgeable and were very helpful when it came to choosing what to eat. Which is where Smokehouse does itself proud indeed.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 09.28.07For starters, I tried the deep fried rock oyster, beef dripping toast, smoked bone marrow which tasted as good as it sounds. Succulent, salty, rich and crunchy. A special dish and worth making the trip to Smokehouse just to try. Also gracing our lips and belly was a very inventive squid pad thai (not currently on the menu). Instead of rice noodles the squid was the “noodles”. Reminded me a bit of udon but with more bite. The flavours and textures were exquisite.

For main I went with the signature short rib bourguignon and wallowed in its smoky, sticky animal goodness. It’s the sort of dish that after you have eaten it makes feel as though you’ve rescued a cat from a tree or held a bus door open for a trapped pram. Satis-Fied.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 09.29.01Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 09.28.19Beverage wise I stuck with beer working my way through the Bearhug “Hibernation” White IPA and Fourpure “Session” IPA on keg before a run of receptacles in the form of Beavertown “8 Ball” Red Rye IPA, Rogue “Hazelnut” Brown Ale to pair with the short rib. Neither of which blew my socks off, so ending with a Weird Beard “Black Perle” Coffee Milk Stout seemed the only decent thing to do.

The tab was a bit on the high side but considering how many beers my pal Scanners and I tried it wasn’t too bad.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 09.34.23If you want to please a group of meat-eating friends some of whom drink wine while others favour beer then Smokehouse Islington is a must try.

Luckily for you West Londoners there’s a second Smokehouse now in Chiswick.

 

Why Mess with Perfection

Whatever your opinion is of Camden Town Brewery they must be given real kudos (along with a couple other London breweries) for breaking the chokehold that dull macro beers had on London (and further afield of course). They are sometimes accused of not brewing the most exciting or experimental range of core beers but have cut loose when “collabing” with other breweries. Personally I don’t give a shit if they’re unlikely to brew a salmon, swiss chard and satsuma Double IPA (Oh I want a credit if someone actually makes a Triple S DIPA).

What they are doing very successfully (something that also seems to upset some people) is brewing very drinkable beers that are broadly enjoyed by a wide range of consumers. The type of people they are converting (in large numbers) used to probably drink Fosters, Stella or in the case of my wife, white wine before her exposure to Hells Lager.

I like their Unfiltered Hells, Pale Ale and Camden Ink is a nice alternative to Guinness. But for me the jewel in the Camden Town crown is IHL aka India Hells Lager. A hybrid that Vulcan mind melds those two styles into one of the Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 17.43.59most dangerously delicious beers I have tasted. A roller coaster combination of crispness, tropical fruit, offering total refreshment and drinkability. In short, pure pleasure.

unnamedSo it was with some excitement when I was invited to their launch of Barrel Aged India Hells Lager the other week. Brilliant I thought, a pimped out IHL.

The result was anything but. A subdued nose hinted at hay and tinned pineapple. The palate was slightly antiseptic, very firm, resinous with a woody tannic feel and a far off agave heat.

I found it painfully dry, a touch astringent, but sadly lacking body and any discernable fruit flavour. It wasn’t undrinkable, but I didn’t enjoy it. It made me a bit sad really, by putting IHL into those barrels they purged everything that (in my opinion) made it a truly great beer. A real waste of perfectly glug-able IHL.

More cynically the timing of the launch made me question the inspiration behind putting that wonderful beer into bourbon and tequila barrels in the first place. The reason for my scepticism is that CTB happen to be in the midst of launching a crowdfunding initiative to raise money to build a new brewery. Becoming a Hells Raiser looks an interesting investment if you like their beers and want to “diversify your portfolio”. At the time of writing, they had reached their intended target but it’s still open. 

I couldn’t help feeling that the release of a below par, barrel-aged version of their newly anointed gold winning beer was nothing more than a well-timed PR stunt. Marketed with much pomp and ceremony as some treasured one off, whose purpose was simply to drive more investment. That’s me being cynical mind. 

All that said I have a lot of respect for CTown and it’s going to take a lot more than the abuse of my dearest IHL to get me to poo-poo them on a permanent basis.

They are a brewery with purpose, vision and a great following. Their success and pervasiveness have become such, that I have even started to take them for granted when beer spotting as I walk into a pub. My eyes are accustomed to their logo and the pioneer in me keeps scanning for something a little more off piste.

But you can guarantee they’re what I’ll order every time if the alternatives are just plain “piste”.

 

Street Feast @ Hawker House

Judging by the popularity of Hawker House in Hackney on it’s 2nd weekend of 6, I would go as far to say that Foodie-ism is perhaps the fastest growing religion in London. Set up in an old warehouse with stalls selling all manner of culinary communions, from Indian to Ice Cream to Americana. This winter offering from the Street Feast crew is really packing the “pulpits” with it’s ying of family friendly eating and drinking in the early evening, but goes yang later with DJ’s spinning into the wee hours.Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 11.58.12 There was a big bar doing cocktails and brewskies plus a smaller boutique wine bar, but I was feeling beer, so big bar it was. Stepping up to the long counter I was surprised and slightly disappointed to find they only had Camden Town Brewery Pale & Lager on draft as well as some bottle offerings from CTB & Meantime Brewery. Hardly representative of the staggering array of great breweries we currently have in the capital, but don’t get me wrong I like Camden Town beers and Meantime are alright, but was hoping for more choice. A few beers in hand it was time to eat, Breddo’s Tacos were first up and thought they were pretty decent. Spicy juicy and fresh, cScreen Shot 2013-11-22 at 11.59.00hicken and pork I as I recall… Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 11.58.35Next was Slider Bar, brethren unto Breddo’s. Now sliders are all the rage at the mo, and I am often less then thrilled, but this was not one of those times.Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 11.57.29 The chilli heat, the meaty moistness and warm sweet bun was a revelation, best mini burger I have had in recent memory.Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 11.57.52 The longest cue was at B.O.B.’s Lobster so I had to go there next, coming away after about 20 minutes armed with Lobster Mac and Cheese and their signature Lobster Roll.Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 11.57.15 Now I wasn’t wild about the MnC, not enough lobster and the mac was mushy, but their Lobster rollScreen Shot 2013-11-22 at 12.01.56, even at £11 was something quite enlightening. A square brioche bun jam packed with the most succulent sweet meat of that king of crustaceans, drizzled in a savoury, citrus vinaigrette…heavenly. Still peckish we went for another round of sliders, classic cheese this time, but 30 mins elapsed before we got them… just about worth the wait. Now if you don’t like to stand in line or urinate outdoors in winter(men only) then this may not be the place for you. But if this sounds like your idea of nourishment nirvana then bring a wad of cash(it’s not cheap as it goes) get there early as you can and bag some seating. Then go forth and eat my sons & daughters, eat…

Camden Town Brewery USA Hells Lager

Now twas some months ago that I trotted along to North London to see my pals at Camden Town Brewing for the launch of their new American style Hell(e)s Lager.
The Camden Town beers were flowing, the boys were taking the good folk on Brewery tours, Big Apple Hot Dogs were sizzling and staunching the hunger pains in real NYC style and there was a real party atmosphere about the place.