Like most of the rest of the London ‘Big Smoke’, I love barbecue. More than that though I love barbecue without all the machismo and hype that often accompanies it. Its generally associated with grease, excess and gluttony but why could it not be subtle and measured? Chef Neil Rankin is known for doing good barbecue in a relaxed atmosphere (ex Pitt Cue, John Salt..) but has strong roots in classic cookery having worked at multiple Michelin starred locations. This combination makes for delicious, smoky food with exacting balance of flavour and texture- something you don’t often find in my experience. This all means that its not your common or garden ribs ‘n wings, its more about using smoking in unexpected ways.
That in itself is surely worth a pilgrimage? I’ll be honest; for a South of the River girl it is a little bit of a schlep. All the way to Highbury & Islington and then a good ten minute walk. Just as you’re starting to tire and expire from hunger you round a corner and outside a very plain looking pub we were greeted by this:
Well quite. Bring it on.
Inside the design is simple and light and airy during the day but cosy at night, lots of wood, mismatching furniture and church candles. Outside there is a walled garden full of greenery and tiny fairy lights- possibly the perfect pub garden feeling a million miles away from the rest of Islington. One of the joys of Smokehouse is that whilst its definitely a restaurant menu on offer, it is still run very much as a pub with plenty of space for casual drinking.
This being barbecue, we are firmly in craft beer land. The range on offer is truly mind boggling with a board of almost unlimited wittily named options; Weird Beard, Flying Dog, Beavertown and Anchor Steam all sound nothing like the beer that they contain. The wine list is dominated by a pretty comprehensive trip around Italy, Spain and France, reasonably priced with plenty of sub £30 options and contains a couple of my Gascon favourites from Plaimont Producteurs. If you’ve never had a Pacherenc before try the St Albert here, at £3.50 a glass it would be criminal not to.
The staff are all young and very enthusiastic and all to keen to explain the background to any of the dishes. At their recommendation we kicked off with a potted smoked duck leg on toast giving us a first hint at the deep, dark smokiness instilled by the green egg barbecues favoured by Rankin. Staying succulent under a seal of peppered, clarified butter this was a taste of things to come.
Determined to try out some of the non barbecue bits we ordered a courgette flower stuffed with Fourme d’Ambert & honey. Utterly delicious but not in the slightest bit pretty so you’re not getting a photo. It was also a lovely change to have a delicate blue cheese in the flower instead of the usual goats cheese.
It took a long time to order main courses due entirely to our inability to choose. We finally settled on Shortrib Bourguignon (£17.50) which is an almost unrecognisable spin on the classic and essentially consists of a large chunk of smoked beef shortrib on the bone with a thick wine sauce, crispy onions and a super smooth Mr Whippy style mash. Really absolutely nothing to fault. Seemingly held together only by the sticky sauce coating the outside, it fell apart with the slightest prod of a fork into perfect strands of deeply smoky meat.
The somewhat innocuous sounding “Grilled salmon, radish peanut & green chilli” (£16.50) turned out to be mindblowingly spicy. Cooked delicately and still surprisingly moist, it was unfortunately a little overpowered by the spice. That said, I get the feeling that meat is what these guys do best. It isn’t all meat, meat, meat though; there are plenty of options for vegetarians so don’t shy away from letting them come along for the outing.
Speaking of spice we had also ordered a side of Korean pulled pork; well why wouldn’t you? Light and a little crispy with a gently building heat searing past the sweetness, its beyond good, its fantastic. What we couldn’t eat came home and was possibly even better the following day.
The almost rans included a highland burger topped with that same Korean pulled pork (£15) and the very dramatic sounding “The Sphere” which, contrary to sounding like a Saturday night gameshow, is actually a construction of smoked ham hock, pigs cheek, squid romesco and fregola (£18). A smoked duck, kimchi and potato cake (£19) sounded pretty delicious too and smelt it as a plate of it drifted past leaving us craning our necks behind it.
Dessert almost didn’t happen. We were stuffed to the gills with meat in an almost undignified way but then that second stomach thing happened. You know, that little bit of space that seems to stay free no matter what you eat? Yeah, it came into play and a DD Tart (apparently an homage to and pimping up of the lowly Double Decker) was ordered at our waiter’s recommendation. It could/should have been very sickly indeed but a thick, dark, bitter chocolate ganache kept things away from too sweet on the top of a crunchy base of cocoa pops in white chocolate (£6.50).
A trend seems to be developing recently for pictures involving the loos in my posts so this one will be no exception. Antlers host those ever crucial spare loo rolls. Great quirk.
Whenever I eat out I always try and order something that I’m not likely to be able to make at home which is perhaps why I found it so hard to choose what to eat here. Although the emphasis is on comfort food, the big plates and simple presentation conceal real skill and innovation of cooking.
Would I go back? If it was more local to me I’d be there for Sunday lunch more often than a vicar goes to church but due solely to distance its more of a once in a while trip.
Highlights: Shortrib & mash.
Summary: Excellent carnivorous comfort food
63-69 Canonbury Road, Islington, London. N1 2DG