Thursday, 22 December 2016


Fans of London’s street food scene – and let’s face it, who isn’t? – will already be familiar with Smokestak from Street Feast Dalston Yard (now at Dinerama) and the legendary beef brisket buns with pickled red chillies.

Well, David Carter has come in out of the cold and opened a bricks-and-mortar version off Brick Lane on Sclater Street E1. I would say that you can't miss it, but we watched many a perplexed punter wander past the forbidding Game of Thrones-esque door and only return once they had failed to find anything more welcoming. If you get lost, just follow your nose.

The doors set the scene for the brooding industrial interior  - smoky concrete walls, exposed pipes and towering windows, this is about as masculine as a restaurant can get. Everything about it is big, solid and no-nonsense, either wood, steel, or matt black, and the focus of it all is the huge four and a half tonne smoker brought over from Houston.

That said, the general vibe is really warm and relaxed - unusual in such a new restaurant (it had only been open ten days when we went). The staff were charming, friendly and just attentive enough, never rushing us but always busy. Carter himself was the still centre of the storm, stationed calmly at the bar with his laptop, advising chefs and front of house staff as and when needed.

We were waiting for stragglers at our table (yep, you know who you are . . . ) so we early birds ordered a couple of cocktails and a cheeky little starter to keep us going. We opted for the smoked girolles on beef dripping toast which turned out to be a phenomenally good call; robust, punchy, with real depth of flavour, this set the scene for the rest of the meal. Do NOT miss this. You can thank me later.

The cocktails were pretty good too; I had the Smoke (rude not to, really, given the theme) with tequila, smoke, lime and ginger, and my companion had the Burnt Peach Old Fashioned, a great take on the classic with bourbon, burnt peach, warm spices and bitters. 

The boys arrived and we went for a bottle of the recommended red wine and the 40ft pale ale. To go with, we ordered scratchings; this turned out to be huge light-as-air swirls of crispy skin, a great appetiser for what was to come.

I lived in Texas for a couple of years (yeah, it's a long story) and this was a return to the larger than life barbecue fare I remember - and then some. Texans love their beef, and take their barbecues very seriously. Politics? Sport? Religion? Tackle a Texan about what kind of wood chips to use, what spices to include in the rub or how long is long enough and you could find yourself at the wrong end of the second amendment.

For mains, we had the beef brisket, which I was happy to see arrive with a sprinkling of the pickled red chillies on the side, and the pork ribs with pickled cucumber. The beef was exceptional; meltingly tender and perfectly seasoned even without the barbecue sauce, and great with the zing of the chillies.

The thick-cut pork ribs were also really good; chunky, succulent and delicious.

Opinion was more divided on the sides: the roasted carrots got a universal thumbs up, same for the wonderfully fresh and crisp celery, almond and preserved lemon slaw, which was so much more than a sum of its parts.
The grilled baby gem lettuce with bacon and walnut gremolata was okay, but I felt its flavours were fighting with the meat mains, which was a contest it was never going to win. The jacket potato with sour cream and chive was the troublemaker; three of us, myself included, loved it but one of us wasn't a fan of the texture - a smooth, almost pureed potato and sour cream mix in a crispy skin.

I'm sad I didn't get to try the salt-baked beetroot . . . next time!

So gluttonously on to puddings. We tried the sticky toffee pudding, which was judged to be everything one would want from the dish, and I was hoping to try the toasted oak ice cream with salted hazelnut praline but unfortunately they were out of the ice cream so I had to have the burnt butter ice cream instead. This was good, but now I have yet another reason to go back . . .

Yours, addicted to smoking,

Girl About Town xx

Square Meal

Smokestak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Dumpling Shack pop-up

So I managed to grab a couple of places at John Li's Dumpling Shack pop-up event in Leicester Square last weekend - no mean feat, considering that his last pop-up venture with Shotgun sold out within hours.

Dumpling Shack has been resident in the School Yard at Broadway market since 2014 and John Li has built a steadily increasing reputation and fan base for his fresh, handmade dumplings amongst some very stiff competition. This pop-up brought his street eats inside and central, at Leicester House in Soho.

The table was set with some roasted peanuts and a sizeable bowl of zingy smacked cucumbers (surprisingly easy to make at home btw if you are serving a spicy Sichuan main) for a fresh, palate-cleansing start.

First to arrive was a salad with lily bulb, celery and jellyfish. I can't recall having had lily bulb as a key ingredient before but it was interesting, with a texture and flavour not unlike a mild version of roasted chestnuts.
This and the toasted sesame dressing went well with the crisp celery and the classic delicacy of very finely-sliced jellyfish, looking almost like glass noodles.

Then came the star of the show, the dumplings. Note that these are sheng jian bao, pan-fried soup dumplings, which have a completely different texture to the xiao long bao Shanghai soup dumplings popular in dim sum restaurants. These are more robust in texture, the exterior almost like a thinner version of the fluffy char siu bao bbq pork bun; and they needed to be, as the fillings were substantial - and amazing.

The signature pork and water chestnut filling was tender, juicy and deftly seasoned; the shiitake, woodear and leek provided a veggie option that had great depth of flavour, but for me the crab and truffle option was one of the highlights of the evening and had me chasing tiny shreds of filling around the plate with my chopsticks out of pure greed. They were as good as I had heard - a beautifully crisp, browned base, not too doughy and piping hot. One word of warning though - when I say hot, I really do mean hot - please don't be tempted to pop a whole one in your mouth as soon as they are served, as the result will not be pretty.

These were followed by the long bean fritters with smoked tofu mayonnaise. These were not so much actual fritters as long bean tempura, with the lightest of batter coatings and a fabulous gently spicy chilli kick, balanced by the creamy smokiness of the mayo.

Next up were the barbecued duck heart skewers; beautifully and simply presented, tender nuggets of meat with robust bbq flavours.

Potatoes in spicy red bean sauce arrived next; again the spice factor is mild, more warming than eye-watering, with the starchy sweetness of the red beans providing a comforting backdrop to the dish.

We were seriously starting to flag when the next dish arrived at our table, the signature spicy cumin lamb chops with pickled radish. However, these were everything you might hope they would be: juicy, crisp, perfectly seasoned melt-in-the-mouth heaven. Definitely one of the stand-out dishes of the evening.

Scallops in XO sauce came next. I lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years and XO sauce was a staple seasoning, a seafood-based umami high. These were good but not outstanding . . . although in fairness we were both ridiculously full and still going on about the lamb chops.

The final dish arrived, a vegetable dish of kai lan served with crushed peanuts. I had a mouthful or two and confirmed that yes, I absolutely would order it again as a side if I hadn't already eaten my own body weight in dumplings and associated fabulousness.

Rumour has it that this pop-up is in preparation for a bricks-and-mortar version of Dumpling Shack planned for 2017. For what it's worth, my vote is a resounding YES PLEASE.

Yours, still daydreaming about dumplings,

Girl About Town xx