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.

 

Ergon Deli & Restaurant

Now I imagine this won’t come as much of a surprise but I am a bit of a food and drink snob. One facet of my “affliction” means I rarely eat out anywhere that I haven’t heavily researched online before I decide on it. Drives my lady nuts sometimes, but we usually eat quite well.

So you can imagine my terror when the idea of dinner was floated while out for after work drinks just before Christmas (eeek!) with friends near St Christophers Place in Marylebone (God help us). My iPhone was immune to my panic and was taking forever to load anything useful from Time Out etc. We went old school and started looking at menus outside the many touristy traps on James Street (cue the sweats). The first place we looked had pictures menus (ahhh my eyes!), and despite knowing we had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a table I dragged our foursome to 28/50 Wine Workshop. When I inquired the host feigned sympathy as he knocked us back, but could see his thought bubble as if it was lit by neon saying ” No reservation? Are you guys high!? “.

Desperation had begun to set in, and we were all getting tetchy, small squabbles began to break out, someone needed to be blamed for our predicament. I was worried that they would all soon turn on me, being Mr “lay di da” Drink ‘N’ Eat. But as we wandered James Street for the second time I spotted something up and to the right on Picton Place. It didn’t look too packed, warm windows glowed with promise of safe harbour. We approached full of hope to have a closer look: Ergon Greek Deli + Cuisine it said in solid grey lettering above the closed awning. Ergon interior lowInside bustled two waiters to tables in a mostly full smallish modern clean lined restaurant. The menu looked appealing and affordable with sharing plates that made us throw the dice and go inside. Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 16.05.29We were greeted reasonably warmly and told yes they could seat us, but sadly it was at benches in the window. Not ideal for two couples looking to catch up. The ladies looked glum, and we gave subtle dirty looks to the twosome who sat at a four top behind us. We were so close, there had to be a way. After a few minutes and a smattering of less than friendly glances at our greedy neighbours they managed to seat us at a table that had just left. Meltdown averted. Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 16.02.48

We ordered a bottle wine I was familiar with, Notios Dry White from Gaia and we were off. The menu was well constructed with a diverse appealing range that made me giddy with excitement to order. Service wasn’t exactly attentive, and it took us a little while to get our order taken, but once we did, the food arrived in a steady stream.IMG_2965 Some tasty mixed breads landed on the table, then a dynamic duo of zesty vibrant Greek tomato salad with basil oil and feta cream cheese and a ridiculously decadent fava bean puree with cured pork siglino, caramelized onions and truffle olive. Siglino is a traditional method of curing that involves smoking the pork with sage, boiling it in wine and storing in jars with pork fat and orange peel (sounds like a rather expensive spa treatment if you asked me). The smooth rich texture of the fava beans set against that smoky fatty pork was an inspired pairing and the cleansing Greek salad balanced it perfectly. The Notios white went down very well and very quickly: fresh, clean but with plenty of citrus and volcanic minerals. Next came a dish I recalled from days of yore, saganáki (deep fried cheese) but it was as far from the greasy salt bomb I recalled eating in the 80’s. IMG_2967Their interpretation began with gruyere from Naxos rolled in carob flour, oat flakes, poppy seeds that was pan fried and served with rose petal syrup; it was A-Maze-Ing! Crunch went the oat flakes, pop went the poppy, salty dense intense cheese, the fragrant sweetness of the rose syrup; truly one of the most interesting and delightful things I ate last year.IMG_2968

A quality smoked fish platter was made all the more delicious by its minnow of a price tag (£8) and hearty Greek sausage stew was rich, but balanced with earthy roasted pepper and sprinkling of feta. We had long ago run out of wine but with the waiters struggling to keep pace we were forced to resort to water (I jest… I like water… just rather drink wine) as more food arrived.Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 16.03.50 There were subtle moans of joy as we tried the perfectly tender grilled squid stacked atop silky inky sensual black tzatziki. The squid was complimented very nicely by a slate of very yummy, crunchy fluffy pastries filled with pastourma (air dried beef) on a bed of tomato marmalade and yogurt.Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 16.03.59 Freshly cut fries didn’t stand a chance topped with our old friend Naxosian (is that a word?) gruyere, who showed a different side to itself: grated und melty.

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Finally, our bottle of Notios Red (medium bodied, tart red fruit, perfect with the food) arrived and in the excitement I managed to forget to take a photo of our last savoury dish: homemade gyros with warm pita and spicy Greek yogurt.Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 16.04.17

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 11.42.46This image is courtesy of Wikipedia but the flavours of the traditional Greek gyro are etched into my tastebuds from my time travelling Europe after I graduated from high school. For three weeks I lived rent free (hallelujah!) in place that was owned by relations of a friend of one of my fellow Canadian backpacking companions. I have many fond memories of that third (or was it 4th?) floor apartment with no electricity or hot water (was turned off while the owners weren’t there) on the outskirts of Athens. Nearby there was a family run gyro place that I shall never forget; holding that warm rolled (oh so) soft bread, aromas of flavourful grilled meat, then biting into fresh tomato, crisp lettuce, getting the vaguely sweet pita, salty succulent lamb and a cooling hit of spice laced tzatziki (I don’t recall chips in mine). Goodness I nearly teared up there. Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 16.04.48

What Greek meal would be complete without baklava? Traditionally dense sticky layers of filo pastry with nuts and sweet syrup, this deconstructed take was more mille-feuille, and with of the addition of dark chocolate, I quite liked it. We were stuffed and more than thrilled with the meal we’d just had: all the dishes were extremely well executed, generous, packed with flavour and individuality. Service had been scrappy but friendly and when the bill arrived there was much rejoicing. Bread, 10 divine dishes, two quality bottles of wine and 12.5% service only came to £137.25! A veritable bargain when eating out in Bond Street. Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 16.04.27As you would expect with the term deli on their sign they stock a ton of lovely products in it’s shop downstairs, so you can grab a few bits and try some Greek inspired dishes at home. Grecian fare is often overlooked in favour of its more glitzy neighbours from Italy and Spain. But Ergon and places like The Life Goddess in Bloomsbury are breathing new life into the London Greek food scene, and by Athena it’s bloody marvelous.

So what had started like a bit of a nightmare for a gastro-geek like myself, turned into one of my highlights of eating out last year. Run don’t walk to Ergon.