Thursday, 22 June 2017

Plaquemine Lock

Plaquemine Lock is the new incarnation of the refurbished Prince of Wales pub, appropriately situated near the lock on Regent's Canal at Angel Islington. It serves mainly London craft beers, a carefully curated selection of wines, a few potent cocktails — and an exciting seasonal menu of Cajun and Creole food.

There is a wonderful story behind the pub's name, menu and entire ethos; settle down and bear with, reader, you'll like this. Plaquemine, Louisiana is a city in Baton Rouge where — you guessed it — a lock was built in 1909 to connect the trade routes of the Mississippi to the Louisiana Bayou. The project brought together two young people — civil engineer Jacob Hortenstein and Carrie Beth Schwing. Carrie was Louisiana gentry, the daughter of successful local businessman Dr Samuel Schwing; she officially opened the new lock by smashing a bottle of champagne against it as the first boat passed through, which happened to be a steamboat named after her.

Carrie and Jacob married and had a daughter, Virginia, who became an artist, actress and socialite. Virginia married and had a daughter, Haidee, who is now a successful London-based artist and the creator of the murals inside the pub. Haidee married and had a daughter and a son, Jacob - Chef Jacob Kenedy, chef patron/owner of Bocca di Lupo, Gelupo, Vico - and Plaquemine Lock. How cool is that? (See, I told you you'd like it.)

So back to the present day and, with a new appreciation of my surroundings, I turned to the menu.

Whilst deciding we had a bag of cracklins, little spiced crispy nuggets of pork belly, and an elegant sharpener from the cocktail menu, a Pear 75 - Plaquemine Lock's take on the French 75 but with Miclo Poire William instead of gin. I'm not sure this was the most obvious choice of pairing on my part (I think the punchy snacks would be an excellent accompaniment to a cold beer) but I wasn't about to miss the snacks and these Luisian-inspired cocktails made me feel very southern belle; after all, a girl has to get in character.

We started with the mini crab cakes. There is no world in which crab cakes are on the menu and I won't order them. These were the home-made kind of delicious, which I mean as a great compliment. Allow me to explain. Some foods you want to be delicate, precise and refined: souffl├ęs, mille feuilles, sandwiches at afternoon tea. Crab cakes, for me, are not that kind of food. I want them to look like they've been deftly squished together between capable palms, possibly rolled in a coating of some kind (that's optional) and thrown into a pan. These delivered: crispy, golden exterior, beautifully seasoned, packed with flavour and served with a spicy mayo.

We then dived straight in to the mains with a plate of boiled crawfish; a huge, heaped platter of spectacular creatures that are basically mini lobsters. Instagrammers, this is your #nofilter moment.

Plaquemine Lock's menu very helpfully not only contains a glossary of culinary terms so that you can tell your grits from your gumbo, but also a step-by-step guide to disassembling a crawfish: basically, twist the tail to remove, peel a segment of shell off to reveal the meat and then squeeze to release. I confess I have a weakness for interactive food; I love eating with my fingers, dipping, peeling, scooping and sharing. This was lots of fun — but be prepared to get messy.

You can't really go to a Cajun/Creole restaurant and not try the gumbo. This was one of my favourite dishes — a delicious hearty, spicy, thickened soup with okra, chicken, shrimp and andouille sausage served over rice. I'm writing this in the middle of a London heatwave but I can imagine an autumnal walk along the canal ending with a huge bowl of this and a craft beer.

My companion had a fried shrimp po'boy, a soft white roll with shrimp, lettuce, tomato and pickles; I was pacing myself but did have a tiny taste (obvs).

This I felt was good, if unexceptional; but to be fair it is, by definition, a relatively plain dish. It originated as a large sandwich given free to the 'poor boys', striking streetcar conductors, as a gesture of support and solidarity from a New Orleans coffee shop which was owned by two brothers who were both ex-streetcar conductors. Nowadays, I can see it as a great pitstop option with a beer if you don't want a full meal, or you don't like things too spicy.

I opted for shrimp 'n' grits with bacon and butter. For those who aren't yet familiar with traditional southern fare (though get ready guys, I have a feeling we'll be seeing more as the year unfolds), grits refers to corn porridge a little like soft polenta, used as a base for those big Louisiana flavours. I liked this a lot — creamy, soothing and spiked with bacon, spring onion and shrimp.

We then ordered six Oysters Rockafella. The original Oysters Rockefeller recipe is a secret; on my next visit (for there absolutely will be a next visit) I will try and corner the chef and tease his version out, as these were delicious and indulgently rich. I can only tell you that the famous green colour comes here from spinach creamed with absinthe. Hell, yeah.

As you can see, we had gamely eaten our way through pretty much the whole menu (you're welcome, dear reader) and were seriously flagging by the time it came to dessert. The most we could manage was a shared beignets and coffee but I'm so glad we did. Whatever you do, don't miss these — they are light, fresh and utterly divine.

Yours, puttin' some South in my mouth,
London Girl About Town xx

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