Smokestak, 35 Sclater Street, London E1 6LB (020 3873 1733). Small plates £4.50-£9.50, big plates £8.50-£17.50, desserts £3.50-£7, wines from £27
Some people would take one look at the items in front of me at Smokestak, push their gnarled, slatboard chair back from their aggressively battered table, mutter “filthy muck” under their breath and walk away. Is it cooked food, or something you’d cook food over? Both the sawn-off beef rib and the plank of pork belly are not just darkly sauced. They’re mostly black, like something you’d rescue from the wreckage of a house fire while sobbing over what has been lost.
I am not some people. I am the other sort of person, the one who looks at this and sees the long, virtuous interplay of fire, smoke and time on cow and pig muscle fibre; who sees only joyous caramelisation and the deep flavours gifted by the Maillard reaction, when heat says hello to amino acids and natural sugars and they all get along famously. I see only the good things. I see lunch.
Barbecue obsessive David Carter opened Smokestak in 2016, after he’d spent years working the festival and street-food scene, turning a smoked brisket bun with pickled red chilli into a cult object. And when he finally got his hands on some bricks and mortar, he went all in. Those of us who spent too many nights in the early 1980s at the Camden Palace, mingling with Steve Strange’s menagerie of painted boys and taffeta-ed girls, will recognise this for what it is: one glorious, considered and completely uncompromising pose. For the sake of doubt, I am very fond of total poseurs.
Carter took the business of opening an urban barbecue restaurant, in the heart of east London, very seriously indeed. It’s not just those ludicrously uncomfortable chairs, seemingly made from old wooden pallets. (Those of this column’s readers who make a point of complaining in the comments section online about how uncomfortable the seats look – I call them Team Haemorrhoid – will be appalled.) Nor is it those equally raw tables. It’s everything. The bare concrete walls have been artfully blackened as if years of soot have been absorbed by them. The windowpanes have a perfectly executed Dickensian frosting of brown-black faux “pollution” painted on to them. There is ducting, and naked wiring, and rough floors and hard edges. It’s catering inspired by Hieronymus Bosch; it’s the works canteen in the back carriages of Snowpiercer. The place is so distressed, I was tempted to Google a good therapist.
All restaurant design is like this. That new French bistro that paints the walls a charming shade of nicotine yellow? It’s doing exactly the same thing. As is the tapas place that tiles the bar with blue ceramics, as is the sushi bar that splurges half the budget on blond wood. Restaurant design is about creating a space that tells you about the food you’re about to eat. Smokestak is no different. You may not like it. It may make you very cross. I do understand. If this is you: don’t go.
At the heart of the operation is a very large smoker, of the sort you could you use to dispose of a body. It scents both the air and the food. A starter of crispy ox cheek with anchovy mayo brings four sizeable squared-off croquettes of beef that have been slow-cooked until a thrilling tangle of ripe, smoky fibres, before being breadcrumbed and deep-fried. They arrive white-flecked with crystals of salt against the dark brown. On the side is that mayo, to add an extra burst of salt and acidity. It’s a powerful and dramatic plateful for £6.50.
The smoker gets involved in cooking most things, including a sprightly salsa made with charred sweetcorn. It comes with golden triangles of hand-pressed, slightly oily and salty corn tortilla.
That famed brisket bun is on the menu, alongside a pulled-pork bun. You can also get both of the fillings by themselves, alongside other meats by 200g weights. The charred pork belly rib, served with pickled cucumber and red chilli, is sliced up and then reassembled into a whole, so it feels like you’re dismantling it. The crisped, sauced, charred surface gives way to a thin layer of fat on the verge of melting away, and then the soft meat below. The 30- day-aged beef short rib is a more solid and hefty version.
Not everything here once had a pulse. A whole aubergine has been roasted over coals until the skin is blackened and blistered and the flesh has slumped. It’s then piled with roasted cashews, chopped spring onions and dribbles of bold, insistent red miso. The understanding of the need for acidity and heat alongside this kind of food is clear in their shouty ginger and green chilli slaw.
It’s one of those viciously hot days in August, which dims the appeal of their sticky toffee pudding, even with the clotted cream ice-cream. Instead, I have their salty-sweet malt-flavoured soft serve, a huge whorl of the stuff, apparently dusted with neat Ovaltine, in a serving that goes right to the bottom of the cone, and eventually starts melting all over my hands. I’m not complaining. I’m enjoying myself here on this mannered stage set. I’d like to come back on a cooler day, when the food might better suit the weather. It’s obvious that this is cooking engineered for lubrication; accordingly, there’s a list of beers brewed relatively nearby in Dalston, King’s Cross and Bermondsey. There’s also a short cocktail and wine list.
This post-lockdown world has many downsides for the hospitality business. Lots of restaurants simply haven’t reopened. Others are on shorter hours and fewer tables. Launches are in extremely short supply. The latter is a rare upside, at least for me. It blunts the ingrained neophilia of the journalist. We can’t simply go dribbling after the shiny and new, like the wet-lipped fashionistas we are prone to be, because it barely exists. This means I get to play catch-up. I am four years late to the Smokestak party. I intend to make up for lost time.
Throughout September, a collection of restaurants in London’s Chinatown are running the “Take-Put” campaign. The rather awkwardly-named campaign, a mash-up of Take-Out and Stay-Put, invites diners to get a take-out dish from one of the participating restaurants, priced at between £8 and £10, and then stay-put by eating it at the newly installed tables on Newport Place. Dishes include slow cooked pork belly with steamed rice from Leong’s Legend, beef rendang from the Malaysian C & R Café, and sweet chilli kung po chicken from Plum Valley. chinatown.co.uk
Another campaign for September: restaurant food delivery business Deliveroo is offering a discount of £5 on orders of £20 or more, from Monday to Wednesday throughout this month. The offer will run on the first 100,000 meals but only on orders from around 16,000 small independent restaurants. The larger national chains will be able to participate, but only if they fund it themselves.
Sadly, there will be many permanent restaurant closures as a result of the pandemic and it will be impossible to list them all. But I have to mark the passing of the much-loved vegetarian and vegan restaurant Vanilla Black which first opened in York in 2004, before moving to London in 2008. It was a real trailblazer in the world of non-meat cookery and will be sorely missed.
Jay Rayner’s My Last Supper, One Meal a Lifetime in the Making, is published in paperback by Guardian Faber. Buy it for £8.69 at guardianbookshop.com