Ten years ago American food in London was confined to fast food restaurants, garish chains and generally anywhere that served meat smothered in a thick, gloopy BBQ sauce with French fries on the side. It wasn’t the carnivore’s dream of thick slabs of meat smoked for hours, if not days, to create that woody flavour and succulent flesh that falls off the bone – just like you get in America.
In 2002 Andre Blais set about changing this; his dream was to bring the authentic taste, style and soul of his beloved Kansas City to London Town. Now, almost ten years on, that dream has been realised in the form of Bodean’s
It didn’t come together over night. They smoke their meat at Bodean’s in an oak smoke pit, which gives their meat that authentic American BBQ taste. As the owner tells me, ‘smoking is an art. You can’t just buy a smoker and expect to get that kind of flavour on first use. It took us years to get it just right.’ The menu has been evolving with the methods improving, but now, as the owner informs me, they think they’ve got it perfect.
Bodean’s now has four branches, and while the menu is the same, the atmosphere in each is unique. I have not had the pleasure of visiting Fulham or Clapham, but Soho has a deli upstairs, which has that communal, cramped and vibrant New York feel, with diners rubbing shoulders as they sit on high stools and eat off counter tops while cheering on the Yankees on the big screens. It like no other atmosphere you’ll find in London. Sadly American sports are lost on me, but it’s still a great atmosphere to be a part of. Meanwhile downstairs is a calmer atmosphere – big tables, comfy booths and table service.
On this occasion I was invited to the Tower Hill branch. Renovated earlier this year, the upper level was once very similar to Soho, but now is a cool bar with a huge restaurant on the lower level. The top level does feel a little cramped, it’s deep but narrow, reminiscent of bars in Toronto, which was ironic because our waiter was from there.
If you like your American beer and bourbon this is the Bodean’s branch for you, and arguably location for you. They have as comprehensive a menu of American alcohol I have come across outside of The States. From ales to stouts, lagers to wheat bears and pale ales to special brews, Bodeans has over 30 different brews on their menu. Be sure to try their own custom brew; it’s smooth and wheaty. As is their Sublimely Self Righteous black ale. At £16.75 it’s one for a special occasion but if you’re an ale-man this is for you; thick and rich and perfect for winter. Plus they have Original Sin, which will set anyone who says they don’t understand Cider in the States straight.
Onto the bourbons and again it’s an extensive list, broken into categories that a whiskey bar would be proud of. Singles to sours, wheats to ryes to corn whiskey, they have it all, and from all over the states, including the very rare Makers Mark Rock the Vote. The signature red wax bottle top is replaced with a mix of red, white and blue for this limited edition batch. Sweeter than the original, the infusion of cinnamon, vanilla, honey, oak and spices are balanced perfectly with the alcohol for a rich, smooth taste. This is a superbly satisfying bourbon to end any meal or to slowly sip on over the course of a cold evening. If you’re feeling flush, why not ask them to knock you up a batch of extra special Makers Mark Rock the Vote chicken wings – I just invented that!
Bodean’s serves up pretty much every American favourite; their burgers are mean and meaty, their fajitas sizzle as they are served and if you’re one of those people who doesn’t eat meat – not that there’s anything wrong with that – their Gamba Shrimp is said to be everything you want when you order shrimp and more.
Their steak selection is disappointing to say the least – 10oz sirloin and 10oz rump, chargrilled are your only options. But then again, it’s their BBQ from their famous smoke pit that they have spent the better part of ten years perfecting that Bodean’s are renowned for. So I tell them to give me the works! The owner responds with, ‘famous last words’. Little does she know I’m a self-professed meat eating heavyweight champion.
For starters it’s their ‘assortment of teasers for two’, you get a bit everything. The crab cakes are crunchy on the outside, soft and moist on the inside. The crabmeat is soft and flaky and perfectly seasoned. The vegetable quesadilla (see they do think of the vegetarians here) is toasted to the point where it’s just crisp, but not crispy or crunch. The tortilla is almost golden brown, but the cheese is golden and oozes out of the sides. Furthermore the vegetable to cheese ratio is perfect. It’s all you want when you want a quesadilla. But I want meat!
So on to their spare ribs. The pork is thick and juicy and pulls away from the bone in one fell swoop. Like most of the meat at Bodean’s they come without any barbecue sauce on, allowing you get to taste the oakiness of the meat, fresh from a fourteen hour stint in the smoker and then add your own desired amount of barbecue which is on your table. Bodean’s boasts two of their own brand of barbecue sauce. For a sweet, woody flavour go for the Smoked Hickory, or for a spicy kick, go for the Hot Chipotle. They’ve proven so popular with regulars that they can now even be bought in most supermarkets.
Finally on the platter we have the chicken wings. Bodean’s clearly have a portal to my mind, because their chicken wings are covered with a sauce made of barbecue sauce and my favourite bourbon – Makers Mark. The sticky, sweet, boozy sauce clings to the crispy skin of these big, moist and juicy chicken wings.
After a sufficient time to let my stomach get used to the idea that what I have just given it was simply a starter, the main is served up. As I stare at this platter piled high with six different varieties of meat straight from Bodean’s oak smoked pit I start to get concerned. But the manager tells me with a smile, “Don’t worry if you can’t eat it all, people take it home in a doggy bag, stick it in the refrigerator and it goes great in a sandwich”, I am relieved, pleased and also a little excited. The doggy bag is such an American item and to have the management use it in a sentence and know that it is on offer really makes me feel like I am on the other side of the North Atlantic.
Starting at the top of this mountain of meat we have the beef rib; it’s a tyrannosaurus bone with a joint of beef attached to it! And amazingly, this is just one-quarter of a rack of beef ribs. The full rack should carry a warning: a full rack may result in protein overdose and members of staff breaking out into a fit of laughter at your naivety.
I start on the single beef rib. I’m a firm advocate of the rib strictly being a hand food, but when the meat is this thick, I had to question how much I wanted to risk getting lockjaw, particularly when there was so many other varieties of meat on the platter just taunting me as their meaty juices flowed from them. The beef on the bone is firm, but not tough. As you bite into it you will find that the whole chunk pulls away as one, essentially turning this rib into a steak. There is no fat, just pure red meat – charred on the outside, pinkish on the inside, oaky smoked all the way through. This is the greatest rib I have ever had!
Also included in this platter is another two of the spare ribs that were included in the starter, a full rack of tender baby back ribs, a tender of chicken served on the bone – the smokiness baked into the crisp skin permeates through the juicy white meat – and a huge helping of the most tender pulled pork around.
But I have saved the best for last – Bodean’s trademark Burnt Ends. Thick chunks of beef brisket that are so soft they shred and fall to pieces as soon as the tips of the fork enter. It brings back memories of my Mother’s stews from when I was a child; she would be stewing the beef a day before we got to enjoy it and it would literally melt in your mouth. That’s exactly what Bodean’s burnt ends do. Drenched in a thin barbecue sauce you can eat them with a spoon. I know. I did.
With sides of fries and a crispy, creamy coleslaw (including the all-important red cabbage for colour) included all for just £22.95, this is a substantial meat feast certain to satisfy and fill two healthy appetites.
But if you’re seriously hungry and want to go for something on the side, the Mac and Cheese is a must. Recently voted best Mac and Cheese in London, the top is burnished to perfection, the macaroni is soft and the béchamel seriously cheesy, creating that sticky, springy texture that sticks to the fork. I had some seriously flavoursome mac and cheese in America, and while Bodean’s do a mean traditional mac, it lacks a wow factor. Maybe I’m being picky because the meat tastes like nothing I have had here and I can recall better macs elsewhere.
I am dreading desert; apart from the fact I know it won’t be able to compare to the standards of the meat banquet I have just enjoyed, I am experiencing a feeling I don’t get very often – I’m full to the point that the thought of more food frightens me. But, it is my duty, so I push on and attempt to tackle the chocolate profiterole ice cream cake. The pastry on the profiterole is fluffy and fresh and flakes away with the lightest touch releasing an explosion of smooth cream. The chocolate sauce is thick and sticky and clings to the spoon and your mouth longer after the bite has ended. The rich vanilla ice cream base melts under the heat of the chocolate and white creams mix with the dark chocolate to make a light mocha medley. It’s the perfect sugar combo to combat the savoury, salty overload of meat I have just devoured.
This is just one of the classic American deserts that Bodean’s Tower Hill boasts: key lime pie, apple cobbler, chocolate fudge brownie, pecan pie, Eli’s original cheesecake, each more American and I am quite sure, sweeter than the last. Please note the menu varies between Bodean’s branches and always remember to ask your waiter for daily desert specials.
My Father always said when in a new city and choosing where to eat out, choose the restaurant with the longest queue. As I’m leaving Bodean’s at 8:30PM on a Friday night the queue is twenty deep.
Likewise he said when going abroad and planning on trying the native delicacies go where the locals are. Guessing by the accents, 50% of the diners in Bodean’s were American. And on game days this is even more. As one American patron called it, ‘it’s my home away from home’. I’m not American, I don’t like their sports, but I love Bodean’s food so much that I share that sentiment.
A three-course meal at Bodean’s will cost you from £25 – £35 excluding drinks and service charge. For great promotions apply for a Q card online at http://www.bodeansbbq.com/
Bodean’s can be found at one of its four locations: Soho, Tower Hill, Clapham and Fulham.
If you are a fan of Bodean’s and believe it to be the best American Restaurant in London, remember to register your vote when the polls open on 25/11/11.