So - here we are wandering the backstreets of Hackney Wick on an ominously overcast Saturday afternoon, looking for the venue of choice for our Meat Lust Bare Bones tour. As it turns out, this isn't too difficult, as said venue is a London double-decker bus, painted bright pink and pimped into a mobile barbecue shack/ bar/party venue/kitchen. As you do, right?
The key themes of the day are meat and flavour: big, bold, inventive, uncompromising, assertive. For those of you unfamiliar with Meat Lust (at least in the culinary sense) they produce a range of street-food inspired sauces with, as they say, 'thug flavours that punch hard and don't apologise', including a Buffalo sauce with a smooth buttery flavour and a big cayenne kick, and a rather moreish fruity Chinese BBQ.
To showcase these they have assembled a seriously strong team, headed up by acclaimed chef Ben Spalding (ex Fat Duck, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Le Manoir, Roganic and John Salt to name but a few) and friends cooking on-board dishes on the top deck and each of the featured foodie stops creating a taster dish for the tour.
The Gipsy Hill Brewing Co. manned the downstairs bar, providing four beers apiece from a selection of six; after all, who doesn't love beer and barbecue? (In a fabulous touch, the labels on the beers feature staff members, with charming co-founder Sam McMeekin, left, in a starring role on the Beatnik beer.) A neon-lit interior and cool soundtrack set the mood and we were ready to go.
First stop, The Ribman. A street-food stalwart at Brick Lane, The Ribman is also well-known to hungry West Ham fans as he serves up his amazing ribs and rolls outside the Boleyn Tavern whenever they play at home. The Ribman has a pretty strong hot sauce game himself, with his Holy F**k sauce heading up a range of freshly-made (and similarly-named) sauces. We started off here with with some meltingly soft rib meat rolls - though smart money was already on going the bun-free route to leave room for later. If you are one of the lucky few to get a ticket for this, I strongly advise this option.
Back on the bus and off along the streets of East London to our next stop, and time for our first dish from Chef Ben Spalding. This extraordinarily talented young chef has a touch of the maverick about him; he is driven, knowledgeable, passionate and uncompromisingly creative. If you were trying to find a critically-lauded chef trained in a series of Michelin-starred kitchens willing to freeze his bits off on the top deck of an open-topped bright pink bus in February and prepare bespoke dishes in a six-foot-square space on a barbecue on a moving vehicle, he would be your guy. And boy, did he deliver.
Dish one was Bingo Wings - brined, poached and caramelised turkey and chicken wings in ML Buffalo sauce with apricot, blue cheese popcorn and creamed Blacksticks blue cheese. This balance of textures and bold, punchy flavours set the bar high for the rest of the day.
Our next stop was Clutch chicken and on came a tray of 'chicken lollipops' - succulent chicken with a satisfyingly crisp, crunchy coating flavoured with soy and garlic. We paired this with a Gipsy Hill Beatnik beer, a light and very drinkable pale ale with only 3.8% abv - perfect for pacing yourself without sacrificing taste.
But that wasn't all. The Clutch team came back with yet more goodies - trays of spicy wings and 'Love Me Tenders' - juicy chicken breast strips with a zingy parmesan and lemon coating. I'm planning a trip to nearby Columbia Road flower market in the spring and have earmarked this for a proper visit to check out their cocktails.
Back on the bus, our next dish from the chef was New Kid on the Block - one of the candidates for my standout dish of the day. Rack of kid was blasted on the barbecue and lightly flambéed in smoked black rum. A tartare was layered with crispy chicken skin and a delicate kid chop, served very rare, wobbly and delicious. The chicken skin was a perfect scoop for the wonderful tartare, lightened with a trace of pineapple and lemon thyme.
As if this wasn't enough, it was served on a block covered with set caramel, to be licked clean. I confess now that this has been my foodie equivalent of 'the one that got away'. I was one of the hordes that had booked months in advance for a chance to try Spalding's 'Chicken on a Brick' at John Salt several years ago before creative differences led to an early exit. It was everything I had hoped it would be. Closure feels so good.
Next stop, Foxlow. Head chef Jon Stewart arrived on the bus for a quick Q&A and bearing gifts - his favourite cut, Hanger steak, cooked medium-rare with shiitake mushrooms, whipped bone marrow and fried shallots. I was a particular fan of the bone marrow as this is such a rich and strongly-flavoured ingredient that I sometimes find it a little overpowering but this was beautifully balanced. By this time we had moved on to Gipsy Hill's Belgian dubbel, Les Gilles, a malt-based beer with a sour cherry finish (and weighing in at a hefty 6.5%) - our new favourite from the crew and a good match for the robust flavours of the steak.
By now the temperature was seriously dropping and I felt for the chefs upstairs. Our next dish to arrive was #Smokinduck - Gressingham duck leg brined and slow-cooked, served on a pancake topped with a barbecued cabbage leaf, creme fraiche, red plum, ML Chinese BBQ sauce and a velvet slap of flavour from umami king MSG. Again, the expert balance of flavours was incredible; each note distinct and at the same time a crucial part of the whole. On a more prosaic note, we were all grateful that this was small in size if not flavour, as we had all pretty much eaten our own bodyweight in meat.
Our final stop was Bleecker Burger; I love burgers as much as the next guy - more, probably - but its not the kind of thing you generally choose to eat when you are already full. Happy days, then, when we opened the full-sized carton to find a slider-sized burger - and testament to Bleecker and their delicious dry-aged beef that we all finished every bite, despite having just announced that we couldn't possibly eat another thing. (By we, I mean the entire lower deck of the bus, as we had by now all got to know each other and were having the best time. Fun events attract fun people, clearly.)
Homeward bound, but still two dishes to come from the chef and his hardworking team of two upstairs. The next was This Little Piggy - pig cheeks brined, grilled, braised and then glazed with ML sweet green chilli sauce, served with a smoked lychee, cream cheese, crispy rice and sour pomegranate. This was served on a swirl of crisp, puffy crackling and though I was about to slip into a meat coma, it was irresistible.
Last, but definitely not least - and my other contender for stand-out dish of the day - was Crack Rib. Before the major player arrived it was already a winner, courtesy of these highly addictive little numbers here. They were basically a kind of crack crouton infused with (I think) garlic and blue cheese. The incredible thing was the explosion of flavour when you put just one tiny cube in your mouth - I'm totally hooked! Ben gave these out in advance so we could taste a few and sprinkle the rest over the beef.
The main dish was aged Longhorn beef short rib, served on the bone, glazed in ML BBQ mop sauce, seasoned with smoked sel gris salt with Bramley apple, tom yum and crack crumbs. I cannot tell you how unbelievably good this was - silky-textured, incredible depth of flavour, with the intense apple tang to cut through it - it was perhaps a shame that it didn't get an earlier billing. I totally get that it is a real 'drop the mic' dish but we had all eaten so much we were struggling to breathe and couldn't do it anything like the justice it deserved.
We agreed that we would have been pretty happy to pay the ticket price for this alone and rolled off the bus feeling vaguely guilty at the quality and quantity of food and booze we had got for the money. (And on top of this, I won a selection of beers in the social media comp, so walked away with those too!) So, thank you Meat Lust, thank you Gipsy Hill Brewery, and most of all thank you chef Ben Spalding and the guys for a truly unforgettable dining experience. To create those dishes in a restaurant kitchen would have been impressive, but in those conditions - I humbly salute you all.