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.

 

Croydon Craft Beer Festival

 

Well, Croydon had its first craft beer festival last weekend and I went along late Saturday afternoon to check it out.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 18.17.48Braithwaite Hall is a very impressive venue and had the feel of a grand old university library with its stained glass and towering rows books. However unlike the ales on show, there were some doubts as to the books authenticity.

The room was full and buzzing, a nice mixed crowd of friendly looking beer enthusiasts. Good start.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 18.17.37The first thing that struck me as approached the tables behind which stood the casks of beer I hoped to try was the alarming amount of them that held signs that said “Sorry this cask is unavailable”. Of the 31 the beers they started with on Friday night more than half were off.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 18.17.20Undaunted I ordered a couple halves of The Cronx Kotchin Nektar. They weren’t bad, Nektar just edging Kotchin, they were session-able, but nothing to write home about. Bexley’s Kent Green Hop was my beer of the session, showing some nice bite and tropical fruit. Yet it didn’t particularly excite me.

What followed was an average Peckham Coal Line Porter from Brick, an undrinkable acrid Entire from Cronx, which I traded for limp but inoffensive Oatmeal Stout from Hop Stuff and ended with a tepid ok-ish Red Ale by Bexley. Now temperature isn’t as big an issue with cask beer as keg, but my feeling was all the beers could have been a shade cooler.

What bugged me the most was the beers in the main lacked vibrancy and vitality. Real ale is a living beverage, and the best stuff expresses charm, character and most importantly it has to make me want another sip. Most of the beers I tasted failed to do that.

Now I know I may be harder to please, but seems the organisers fell victim to first beer fest folly; not ordering enough beer. Of course, they didn’t want to lose money so playing it safe seemed to make sense but with so many beers off for such a short festival. Disappointing.

I got chatting to some other punters and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. The lack of beers didn’t appear to be a problem though they weren’t ooing and ahhing over anything either.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 18.18.00Speaking to one of the organisers he admitted they could have done better, but overall the event was a huge success with plans already in the works for more events next year.

The bottle/can bar had some good stuff and was doing a decent trade, but I had come for the cask and as another beer ran out I decided to call time. A good thing too because as I later found out they had run dry by 7pm. Three hours before the fest ended!

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 18.28.06Luckily BRGR & Beer @ Matthew’s Yard were hosting Fourpure and Gypsy Hill pop-up stylee to celebrate CCBF. It’s an idea they should consider making a permanent fixture. There’s plenty of space and how cool would it be for a rotating residency of London’s best and brightest brewers supporting the solid line of bottles by BRGR & Beer?

I had really nice chats with Neil at Fourpure (am loving their Amercian Brown) and Mike at Gypsy Hill, the latter being in my opinion the most improved brewery in London at the moment (and one of my favorites along with Beavertown).

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 18.18.10

In rather reserved style after halves of Fourpure’s decent Red Rye IPA and GH’s sublime Hepcat Session IPA, I called it a night.

Now if I’d been there on the opening night of Croydon’s first craft beer festival it may have been a more enjoyable experience for me.

However, I get the feeling that this experiment wasn’t geared for geeks like me. Perhaps it was more about giving the people of Croydon (& Southest London) a taste of something new. Engaging a fledgling audience of curious imbibers who had tired of the same old same old and were simply seeking better beer.

Despite running out of the aforementioned ales (a cardinal sin to some) the organisers can feel confident that they probably achieved that.

Craft Comes to Croydon

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 10.19.05Roll up roll up! This Friday and Saturday (Oct 16 &17th) Croydon (yes Croydon!) will be holding its very first Craft Beer Festival.

But why do I suddenly care about the beer scene in Croydon? What could posses me to encourage people to travel to a beer festival in this much-maligned borough?

Well, there’s a story behind that and if you’ll indulge me it goes a little something like this…

When my Mrs. Drink n Eat and I began our search for a first rung on the property ladder, South Norwood was nowhere on our radar. We longed for a cozy bolthole in Crystal Palace or Forest Gate urged on by friends who had bought in those areas before they became the unaffordable meccas that they are today. It actually took what appeared to be a knock-back on a dingy flat in Canning Town for us to totally reset our priorities and lo, we now find ourselves in leafy SE25.

Though it’s a London postcode we are served by London’s largest borough, incidentally an area we had at the outset said we would avoid. But here we were in “The Mighty Croydon” (as my pal Dan used to call it when he lived here), a place that has had a bad rap for as long as I have lived in the nation’s capital (which is a few years now). But as seems the norm across all of London, the ground continues to shift both physically (being built on clay) and socially (gentrification) under our feet.

Now the shopping isn’t as bad as you would think in Croydon centre and that’s even before you take into account the newly green-lit cathedral to consumerism Westfield and the Boxpark hoardings heralding the arrival of those containers of cool, those popped-up shops at East Croydon station. The transport links are excellent with trains, trams and buses shooting out to all points on the compass.

But for a gastronomic ghoul l like myself, C-Ville still seemed to have a big problem; no quality pubs, wine bars, restaurants or speciality drink shops. The new Aldi at Norwood Junction isn’t bad for wine (check out my first & follow up blogs). Then there’s Waitrose on George Street and at the Chruch Street Lidl wines are fast improving courtesy of my pal, Matt Walls (and a certain Richard Bamfield MW). But they are supermarkets and to be honest, the Waitrose beer selection doesn’t set my pulse racing (notice I don’t mention Aldi or Lidl’s beer options. There’s reason for that).

I was feeling no more confident about my imbibing opportunities after an evening out with local beer blogger and pal Sam Hill where he took me to the “two best pubs in Croydon”. Now I don’t want to besmirch the Glamorgan who do very good burgers and the Oval Tavern which is a friendly lively boozer indeed but the beverage offerings weren’t great, typified by the fact that we drank bottled Guinness West Indies Porter (which is rather good) in the former and St. Austell’s Tribute in the latter.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom with South Croydon boasting a few good restaurants including Albert’s Table, but greedy me I wanted something whack bang in the centre. Why couldn’t I have it?!

Little did I know that was all about to change last week after meeting up with award-winning, esteemed beer writer friend, that man of many facets Des de Moor (he’s worth a Google). Des had recently published the newly updated and revised The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars (buy it here from the CAMRA Shop) so he is the man in the know when it comes to brewy goings on in the capital.

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 10.19.52Supping an out of date but still characterful Brabo (Belgian inspired Pale Ale of Des’s creation in collaboration with Brains Brewery) and standing in the warm glow of that finest of beer/hot sauce/wine shops Hop Burns and Black in East Dulwich, I bemoaned in true 1st world problem style the dearth of good beer places in my area. As we both waxed lyrical about The Hope in Carshalton (a must go to Pub) Des picked up the store copy of his aforementioned book and poked to the cork coloured topped pages of Outer South London first pointing to The Green Dragon and then to the Wine Cellar which boasts over 1200 wines it was worth a visit but they also did beer. “They have a decent beer range as well as cask beers to take away, and I think they’ve opened another shop in central Croydon as well.” Des said in his musical lilting Tractor Boy twang. This was worth investigating.

So Friday I set about hunting around the tinternet and within minutes by a combination of Twitter and Google maps found the location of Fresh Fields Market/Wine Cellar.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.26.01Thrilled with the prospect of checking out these places practically on my (distant) doorstep I tweeted and texted Sam to enlist his company. Of course, he was in. So it was set.

Later that evening I jumped on the trusty tram and rode the 6 or so stops and as I passed the Lidl (which I knew) I wondered where this Fresh Fields could be? Then lo and behold the tram pulls right up to it and stops. It’s literally right there at Church Street tram stop and if it wasn’t for the annoying safety barriers you could literally walk off the tram right through the doors.

Unassuming as you enter, organic fruit and veg to your left and a drinks case containing the usual suspects of the soft drink world albeit with healthier more exotic leaning. Looking past the tills with same old spirits and smokes behind on the right, all the rest of store stretches out and it appears at first glance to be an off-licence of the normal ilk. A shelf of Echo Falls “wine”, rows of tinned food, pasta, bleach, biscuits etc.

I glance along to some tall wooden wine racks beyond the registers, my hoppy sense starts to tingle at the sight what looks like the chunky forms of German bottles and approaching I can see a decent array. A few of the great S’s are there; Schlenkerla Märzen, Weizen and Helles but so too is Spaten Oktoberfest, a gaggle of Schneider Weisse and the very good Jever Pils.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.30.26Along that wall, there are more wooden racks with an assortment of wines, but tonight was not a night for wine (I did have a peek at the wines and despite a couple interesting bottles the focus here is most definitely beer). Perhaps this Teutonic front was the extent of their beers? My heart began to sink… but as I turned to my left where on a tall metal table sat a stout cask of ale with some tasting glasses (a good sign indeed) there appeared a sliver of an oasis or was it a mirage of glittering glass?

Turning so my angle of view became more direct my breath caught in my throat, it took a few seconds, but finally my brain caught up with what eyes were struggling to take in. Not simply a wall, it was a 7-8 foot wave of beer that even curled at the end to include a glowing chiller fridge as well.Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 10.23.59

Dumbfounded and giddy I grappled with myself to keep from crying out like a lunatic. The selection was immense, especially in terms of London & UK Breweries, and not just a bottle of this or a can of that. Some breweries had more than half a dozen offerings on show. There was stuff I had never seen before from breweries I knew and others who I had been meaning to try. It was Alladin’s friggin cave!

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.30.59Belgium and the US were well represented with all the Flemish classics on show, and more beers from Brooklyn and Anchor than I had ever seen. Speaking of Anchor, their collaboration with Brotherhood Brewing Brotherhood Steam is a revelation and perhaps the best beer I have had this year. Heaven in a can.

What also impressed me was the pricing. For instance, Beavertown Neck Oil is £1.99, yes you read right one ninety-nine. In addition plenty of top beers are priced at a very decent £2.49 and even 75cl bottles of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace are on at £9.99. Not satisfied with a very fair pricing policy FFM also offers a 10% discount when you buy 6 bottles (they also offer a 10% off to card carrying CAMRA members).

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.31.32Stood like some creepy beer stalker unable to even touch anything I was soon approached by a friendly smiling member of staff who asked those magical words; “Would you like to taste some beer?”. He brought me a little goblet of Triple FFF Brewing Company “Stairway” from the cask and I slurped it greedily, my mouth having gone completely dry.

My hands quivered as I texted Sam to tell him that he to see this place with his own eyes and that wasn’t a drinking venue as such, and we’d have to go elsewhere. He told me later he knew it was serious when I declined to meet him in a pub and that “I’d just wait there for him”.

While I waited on Mr. Hill that kind member of staff introduced me to the manager Ben (aka Benedict Nicholas Selvaratnam). He’s the perfect ambassador for this venture; warm, friendly, passionate about good beer and wholly committed to turning Fresh Fields Market into the beer destination for not only Croydon centre but the entire borough. He talked me through some of the recent hiccups (having to ditch the once larger selection of organic fruit and veg because it wasn’t selling) and his vision for its ambitious future.

As it stands they have to commit more of the shop to convenience store items to make up the costs in these early days, but Ben has already earmarked an entire aisle for “clearing out and just filling with good beer”. But he’s not done there. There are plans for a growler/flagon fresh beer filling station and meet the brewer events as well.

He even asked me if there were any breweries I wanted to see on the shelves! Now that’s a man who aims to please.

Eventually, Sam turned up and we began that unique ritual that such places can have on grown men. We shouted and squealed like ten-year-old boys dashing back and forth pointing to this or that on the shelf. But soon we regained our composure enough to fill our arms with those magic six then tromped to the till like conquering heroes.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.35.32Ben rang up my purchases and I couldn’t help feeling like he missed something out, or did he give me a better discount? But no, on examination it was all there with the 10% off. Bargain.

We talked some more about the market but then talk turned to the imminent Croydon Craft Beer Festival of which Fresh Fields is a major sponsor along with New Addington based Cronx Brewery. Sam and I both grabbed tickets (£3 in advance from Fresh Fields Market, The Oval Tavern, The Wine Cellar and Brgr&Beer or £3.84 through Eventbright or £4 on the door) and after heartily thanking Ben we wandered out into the night clutching our treasures.

We headed in the direction of Matthew’s Yard, an eclectic cafe, art and music warehouse space that houses BRGR & Beer. While we ordered we discovered from the very friendly staff that festival’s celebration of good beer wasn’t limited to the goings on at the Braithwaite Hall. They were hosting the folks behind Fourpure Brewing Co. and Gypsy Hill Brewery with special events also afoot at the Green Dragon, the Spread Eagle, Croydon Clocktower Cafe and much mentioned Oval Tavern.

BRGR & Beer do some mean burgers (Beef, Chicken, and Veggie) and their rosemary fries are a real coup and as it says on the tin; there’s a decent selection of bottle beers. Do check em out.

Right, I think that’s it and you are up to date.

I am now looking forward to the weekend and sampling London’s best and brightest at Braithwaite Hall along with bottles and cans from around the globe. There’s even tell that some small scale London-based cider producers will be showing their wares too, which will be music to the ears for those of you who eschew grain-based beverages. Speaking of tunes, Gastropub Live will be providing live bands and food stalls will round out what looks to be the event that puts Croydon Craft Beer on the map.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 09.43.52I hope to see you there.