As has been the case with all my London escapades, I found myself in Shoreditch for the first time to visit a restaurant. The incessantly recommended hipster sect, merry bohemia with all its whiles, did not beguile my straying from central London until recently. Fact is, I’ve settled too swiftly into residential life in London. I know my routes, the areas of convenience and prominence and intrigue, and have tended to stick to their offerings when searching for places to eat. But in the spirit of seeking discomfort, and the allure of smoked meat, I decided to tick off Smokestak, the next restaurant on my endless list.
As soon as I got out of the Overground station, suddenly all I had ever heard about Shoreditch made complete sense; it wasn’t all conservative blagging, or counter cultural denigration, but the unalterable truth. You cannot avoid the graffiti festooned walls, the homogenous mess of fashionable clothing and the obvious aura of people trying to be unique to fit in. The picture is not a new one and is there for you to see as soon as you step off the platform and into Shoreditch.
This day was for Smokestak, a London smokehouse that has been described as the place meat- eaters go when their vegan girlfriends drain the life out of them. The restaurant looks like some sort of bygone era male stronghold, a smithy’s workroom, an age blackened tavern, a sea captain’s quarters. There are no frills about the place. I had to walk right up to it for me to realise that this was where I was to eat. The only reason I could even tell it was open was because of the faces I could blearily see through the windows. The large iron doors were closed and there was no signage identifying the restaurant by its name. I tried pulling and pushing at the door, but it did not budge. I decided to go around and see if there was another way in. There wasn’t. So, I waited patiently until a couple of people who did the same thing as me, managed to pull a tad harder at the handle of the main door than I did and walk in. My second go at the door was smoother, as if I’d been there before, and had not struggled a few moments prior.
There is something special about being sat in such a darkly painted room; the schema, an amalgamation of rust and soot colouring with the glint of shiny work surfaces and the behemoth steel smoker. The staff are also in all black and wear black sanitary gloves too. Dusky wood tables, rocky legged chairs and the racks of pots and walls of brick, made me feel like an innkeeper was about to slam a pint of mead in front of me with a massive medieval pork pie. But it does not take long to see that the rough-hewn impression is merely a conceptual front. Everything is so meticulously kept that you get a sense of the high standards Smokestak hold themselves to.
As I settled down, I got into conversation with a guy who was waiting for his bill. The way I was looking about the place making mental notes about its features must have identified me as a newcomer. He told me he was the same when he first came, and that he has been coming since it had opened at least twice a month. Smokestak was his place, and it would be for as long as he could afford it. He seemed genuinely excited for me, which in turn, added to my own bubbling excitement. My expectations were sky-high and Smokestak did not disappoint.
It took under ten minutes for my food to arrive, each dish coming just as the other was about to be finished. I had ordered the first four items on the menu, simply for how each – besides the calçot – represented a part of the pig that one does not immediately associate with delicacy. The pig’s jowls were, to my surprise, four strips of what looked to be a cross between parma ham and streaky bacon. They had the crispness of thinly sliced pancetta and pallor of prosciutto. Each strip had a deliberate oily sheen, kept on for the luxury of salt and caramelised fat.
If I am being earnest, I had no idea what a calçot was when I ordered it. The two guys at the table beside my own had asked the waiter what it was, and when he said it was cabbage, I was more than intrigued to see what tempura cabbage would taste like. The calçot in its light tempura batter becomes almost like leeks do when cooked in liquid: soft, moist, with a subtle spring onion-y sweetness. An addictive puddle of aioli, wrought with the garlic pungency that would emulsify a vampire, was a dip that I would use for almost anything.
Crispy ox cheek croquets and the barbecue pig’s tails came in quick succession. The granular crunch of the croquet breading gave way easily to its, disintegrated meat that resembled brown crabmeat in consistency. Ox cheek is the kind of meat that does not require forks to pull apart after a long, slow cook, but rather must be held together and in shape by protective breading. I was not too keen on the anchovy mayonnaise that came with it. I was reminded of the kewpie mayo that I had at Chick’n’Sours some time ago. As you’ve probably have guessed, I simply dunked the croquets in leftover aioli and all was right in the world.
Now the pig’s tails were special. I’d never had the dish before and I’ve always wanted to try pig’s tail. The pieces of meat are rather fantastic, a mongrel cross between chicken wings, pork ribs, and dare I say overly sauced peking duck. There was the crispness of the charred skin glazed with sweet barbecue sauce with hoisin notes, rougher more chewy strands to work through, and surprises of fat that brought a more sinful edge. They were great. I thought fondly of my mum and aunt who absolutely delight any opportunity to chew on fleshy bones.
While the smokehouse does make forays into interesting vegetarian compositions like salt baked beetroot with goat cheese and hazelnuts, shaved fennel salads or Mediterranean style charred greens, I still would not necessarily feel comfortable bringing a vegetarian to this meat sanctuary. If not for their sake then for your own. This is a holy place.
By the time I was finished with Smokestak’s opening salvo, I knew that if I had left then I would have done so feeling light and satisfied. But, of course, you do not leave a place like this with so many intriguing options on the menu until you are full, full in the way that lowers your eyelids and stimulates a kind of self-love.
Two slices of pristine beef brisket came in a steel tray with sliced red peppers and a mustard barbecue sauce. While the sight of the meat is convincing enough, you need only to poke at the slices to know they were perfectly cooked. The brisket looked like the kind of slices that gourmet Vikings might have dreamed of being served in Valhalla – though I do think their portion sizes would be significantly larger. Knife glides through yielding brisket, through butter-sweet fat, and gets snagged, if only for a moment, on the charred, caramelised outermost layer. The brisket at Smokestak, whether it is in a bun with pickled red chilli or as a whole cut for the table, is an unmissable experience.
And to think I had enough space for dessert: sticky toffee pudding, with its warm, earthy textures adorned neatly with clotted ice-cream protected pathetically by a moat of gleaming toffee sauce. I wouldn’t normally have ordered the dish, but I was in an indulgent state of mind and gave irrevocably into it.
Location: 35 Sclater St, London E1 6LB