This post was first published in February 2012.
One of the problems with being an aspiring food and drink writer is that you devote so much of your time to food and drink. Of course, this sounds both hypocritical and contrarian – surely that’s the bloody point, isn’t it? Let me explain. Writer A may know a bit about food. He may have eaten at some great restaurants in his time. He may be able to impress his less gastronomically-inclined friends at dinner parties. His opinion, therefore, on matters culinary may be considered mildly educated, even occasionally fit for consumption by the general public. The problem arises when you realise that you are so into food that you no longer eat at bad restaurants. You read so many blogs, reviews, restaurant guides, and Top Ten/Best Of lists that going out to lunch or dinner on a whim seems, well, very 90s.
So until the time comes when you are respected enough to be invited to review a restaurant – which in my case is likely to be somewhere between a cold day in hell and the end of the world – why would you gamble a sizeable chunk of change on an unknown entity? Partly, this is a by-product of having an obsession with food. Partly, it’s also basic recession economics – we eat out less, so we take more care when we do so. Of course, you can still have a bad experience at what is considered a good restaurant – Burger & Lobster dramatically overcooked my burger, for instance, and in retrospect I am less than enamoured with the downstairs restaurant at Roti Chai. Still, it has become increasingly apparent that my gastro-obsessive nature often unwittingly compromises the vitality of my critical streak. Sorry – ‘Writer A’s’ critical streak.
Why is such a preamble necessary? Because two nights ago I went to Pitt Cue Co and a gushing review is imminent. It was everything I expected, wanted, craved and so much more. BBQ is like crack to me. Though New England is hardly the BBQ capital of the States – that would be Texas, North Carolina, or Kansas depending on who you ask and where they’re from – it’s still full of Americans and where you find Americans you inevitably find a healthy tradition of grilling and smoking various hunks of flesh. So while I’ve never travelled far enough afield to be considered a total guru on matters of the pit, my palate is still trained to detect quality smoked fare – whether it’s at a classic backyard booze-up or on a trip to a delicious dive like the Blue Ribbon BBQ in Arlington, MA.
Thankfully, London now also has its standard bearer. And what better time to check out one of the world’s messiest, least graceful forms of eating than on Valentine’s Day? Probably as a result of having recently moved just up the road from Hipster – ahem, Hackney – Central, I’ve noticed a real popular backlash against V-Day this year. Roses and candlelit dinners are out, it seems, and mock ironic gestures like supermarket budget cards are in. With this trend in mind, what could be a more perfect, anti-romantic way of saying ‘I love you’ than an evening of brisket and bourbon?
But before I admit that my experience at Pitt Cue Co on the 14th was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable meals I can remember, let me try and maintain some semblance of critical credibility by saying that they could do the whole ‘No Reservations’ thing better. Burger & Lobster have it spot-on: if a table isn’t available, they take your name and number and ship you off to the boozer across the road. I understand that Pitt Cue Co have their own – admittedly magnificent – bar. I have absolutely no problem waiting there for over an hour for my table, as I did two nights ago. Even if it means that when the bill arrives I experience a mild form of cardiac arrest, I am perfectly happy to line the coffers of an establishment as worthy as Pitt Cue Co.
What I do object to is waiting on the pavement when the bar, too, is full to capacity, especially in winter. Smelling the armpits of your fellow denizens in confined surroundings is one of the proud rituals of any self-respecting metropolis, whether it’s in a bar or on public transport. Watching them throw down pickle backs and (generally) cold beers in warm, funky surroundings while you freeze your plums off in a non-descript Soho side street is something altogether less tolerable. It’s like watching three trains pass during rush hour, but worse.
Cram that extra person in, I implore you – especially when that extra person is me. Normally, the prospect of drinking in an identikit Nicholson’s pub is about as appealing as a meal with the Brockley machete man, but this is one of the rare times when I would have welcomed the experience. Having said that, my brief spell in the cold was worth it, and I’m sure most of my fellow diners would agree. If anything, Pitt Cue Co has translated into the realm of full taxability better than its spiritual relative, MEATliquor. The chaotic nature of Papoutsis’s ventures lent themselves perfectly to the pop-up scene and to frequent relocations. In fact, only the stint at The Rye in Peckham failed to thoroughly impress me – the burgers were still tasty as hell, it just felt too gentrified. I occasionally feel a similar uneasiness about the new reality of munching a Dead Hippie in ultra-swish Marylebone.
Pitt Cue Co, however, exploits having a roof over its head to the full. The undeniable sense of ‘I love you, man…’ directed at one of 2012’s most anticipated openings starts with the bar, which is as soul-destroyingly cool as it is small. I’m not totally sure what was in Al’s cocktail – it was a Valentine’s special so the fact I forget the name isn’t that important – but it was a brilliant concoction. Sour and bitter doesn’t often entice the fairer sex – or me for that matter – but this received rave reviews and I could see why. The earthy finish, which was something to do with beetroot I think, was especially impressive – it whisked me away to a rocking chair on a porch in the Carolinas, dog sleeping at feet, shotgun at side.
From my personal fetishistic point of view of craving all things American without necessarily wanting to set foot back in my country of birth for too prolonged a period of time, Pitt Cue’s beer selection was extremely nostalgic. Pabst Blue Ribbon might have become yet another deliberately unhip hipster status symbol, but to me it will always be the cheap but fairly potent lager my friends and I used to get pissed on during our high school years. Queue recollections of police sirens descending on White’s Pond on balmy Massachusetts summer evenings. Moosehead Pale Ale was another walk down cliché lane, while the presence of Kernel Pale Ale was a welcome acknowledgement of the successes of Britain’s craft beer revolution.
The infamous house special, the pickle back, was also in fine form. Appropriate to the evening, it featured a special beetroot-flavoured brine to go along with the bourbon: vibrantly purple, it was a transcendent experience, perfectly spiced, like chasing whiskey with Babushka’s secret recipe borscht. Food and drink compressed into shot glasses. Sublime. The bar snacks, too, were pretty flawless, my only quibble being that the homemade pork scratchings I had spent most of my time in the queue fantasizing about were unavailable. Fortunately, their deep-fried pickled shitake mushrooms were as good as advertised. Like a gourmet take on deep fried pickles, this nibble worked for similar reasons: the briny acidity of the pickling juice cutting through the grease inherent in deep-fried produce with aplomb. What made them truly exceptional was the meatiness of the shiitake mushrooms. Perhaps a bit upmarket for a BBQ joint, but nevertheless bordering on culinary genius. A small bowl of chicken wings came clean-off-the-bone and were obscenely tasty, though I found Round One a bit underwhelming in terms of the heat factor. More on that in a moment…
With great drinks and even more brilliant snacks, it was dangerously easy to pass an hour or so at the bar. So when we were eventually whisked away to a table downstairs, it felt like I was losing one friend while being offered another. The menu was generally as expected – ribs, brisket, pulled pork, various takes on American side dishes. But it also featured some interesting daily specials. Al felt obliged to try their vaguely Cupid-themed starter, a homemade pate with duck hearts and pickled pomegranate. Again, I worried that it all sounded a bit gastro-pub – and again, my fears were unfounded. I’d be clutching at straws if I pointed out that the toast it was all served on was a bit on the crisp side – all in all, it was a brilliantly gutsy nod to the Hallmark holiday we were celebrating, the flavours and textures playing off each other like a purposefully unrefined symphony.
Yet it was the ‘suicide’ wings that blew the lid off my mouth. As previously flagged, I’m often seen vocally complaining about the juvenile spicing of so-called ‘hot’ dishes in restaurants. Chili eating contests and curry house challenges are one of my favourite self-destructive pastimes, another potent drug in my Doherty-esq catalogue of gastronomic addictions. And for sure, these off-the-menu wings were not one for the Mickey Mouse Club. I’m sure I detected a serious hit of naga in the sauce – but, to be fair, the pickle backs and PBR’s had fully kicked in by this point. Whatever the ingredients, this was one ridiculously hella’ moreish bangin’ wing sauce. It burned your lips and the top of your mouth on first impact and didn’t relent. And as is often the case with well-made hot-sauces, it also managed to be wonderfully flavourful. After the slightly too sweet offerings at the bar, I was in a particularly agonising kind of smoky heaven.
Could it get any better than being pushed to the limit of my personal Scoville scale? Apparently, it could. The main plates really stole the show, with each and every aspect being amongst the finest expressions of BBQ I have ever tasted. St. Louis-style ribs were an elderly-friendly tender while still retaining that crucial tiny bit of bite – this is meat, after all, and you’re meant to chew it, not just inhale it through a straw. Beef brisket was pleasantly juicy and a welcome second helping of meat without being mind-blowing. Al’s pulled pork was as good, if not better, than that on offer during the Hungerford Bridge days: meltingly moist, perfectly sauced, and impeccably foiled by the house slaw and pickles. Burnt end mash completed the feast which, barring our excesses at the bar, would have worked out very affordable indeed – about 25 quid a head for a gut-busting meal before drinks.
There was also dessert, though by the time it rolled around, I can honestly say I was a bit too tipsy to remember specific taste notes and textures. But, genius machines that they are, iPhones don’t get drunk like their owners so I have a cute little photo of the pudding we both shared! It was something a bit rhubarby and a bit gingery. I think. Like everything else we consumed that evening, it was pretty darn good.
I’ve learned through my years of culinary exploring that you can find amazingly authentic takes on ethnic and regional food in the least likely places. The Irish Massy in Katowice does a brilliant cheeseburger, there’s a little Mexican place in Llubjana that does near flawless fajitas, and the Ethiopian fare at Zeret Kitchen in Camberwell is one of the tastiest deals in town. It wouldn’t seem imprudent to add proper Southern-style smoking in Soho to the list. For my money, Pitt Cue Co must be Britain’s best BBQ joint; sorry BBQ Shack in Brighton, but my Christmas meal was underwhelming. It looks like you’ve got a fair bit of catching up to do.
This will hardly seem like radical news to intrepid gastronomes – realistically, we all knew Pitt Cue Co. was going to be awesome, didn’t we? The real question, therefore, may be whether this is the best BBQ in Europe. Do we exclude the exquisite suckling pig roasts famous in Spain and Portugal (and Romania for that matter)? What rank do we assign to rustic Italian arrosto mistos? And what about the myriad excellent Turkish grills in Stokey, Dalston and beyond (Berlin’s Kreuzberg district springs immediately to mind)? If we interpret BBQ in the strictly Yankee tradition, then I honestly can’t see anywhere doing it better. Certainly nowhere this far north and wide of the Mason Dixie line…