It’s Summer! Or at least what we have come to know summer as here in good ol’ Blighty. But amongst downpours and inevitable grey and gloomy days there will be spells of sunshine and warmth. And what better way to enjoy these days than sat outside with a cold beverage and a plate of great summer grub? To mark the season, we’re visiting a number of purveyors of summer foods and restaurants that are optimally enjoyed in the summer time. The first of which I visited last week; when the temperature hit 29 degrees in London, I was at Elk Bar on Fulham Road to feast on the first meat in London to come from a Primo XL BBQ at their summer pop-up restaurant The Big Smoke.
Located just a few minutes from Fulham Broadway tube, Elk Bar is a large, open plan bar, offering a long list of cocktails and beers, regularly available at discount prices during happy hours throughout the week. The walls are adorned with – you guessed it – elk antlers and there is indeed a stuffed elk head mounted to the wall. And out back they have a giant garden area, equipped with heat lamps and a tarp roof if (or is that went?) the temperature dip and it starts to rain.
This is where I found myself, sat at a big wooden table, sipping on their trademark cocktail – The Mad Dog. It’s a giant, iced margarita, with two bottles of Sol up turned into it and served in a giant margarita glass. This one’s definitely for sharing (unless you want to get hammered before your meal) but the width of the table and the height of the glass make it difficult for two people to drink from the glass at the same time. So the romantic sipping from each side until your straws become entwined is off the table. Nevertheless, The Mad Dog is a refreshing cocktail with a real kick, reminiscent of something I had in Brazil, and an ideal starter for what Big Smoke hope to become known for – their meat.
Chef Paul Sowden is proud to be pioneering the Primo XL BBQ in London. Big Smoke are the first to showcase this revolutionary way of cooking in the capital. As he says ‘the Primo is so versatile it can handle everything we give it. Cold smoke, hot smoke, roast, bake, sear, grill…..hell I can even make Yorkshire Puddings in it!’ And while I rarely say ‘no’ to a good ‘Yorkshire’, I want a selection of their slow roasted then BBQ’d meat.
I start with the classic, baby back pork ribs. A giant rack of thick ribs, slathered in a thick, glazed BBQ sauce are served up on a board that can hardly hold them. I slice into them like a famished butcher, expecting the knife to slide through the slow cooked meat like it was butter. Instead, as I jab the knife into the ribs, it becomes wedged and takes a solid tug to be dislodged. The ribs are practically raw. I’m shocked and confused; how can this be possible with a slow roasting process employed?
The staff are quick to rectify; they’re apologetic and accommodating with free drinks and another rack is quickly ordered and served up double-fast. This time the knife cuts through and thick, juicy ribs come apart. I bite into them but am once more left wanting. The meat is tough and doesn’t come away from the bone easily. It’s certainly not lacking flavour; the meat is bursting with that smoked hickory aroma is certainly juice, but it’s also quite chewy.
The portion size is substantial for the price; the BBQ sauce is delicious; it’s definitely amongst the best I have tasted and the presentation is wonderful. But all of these pros can’t distract from the fact the quality is sadly lacking.
Hopeful for better, we move on to the chicken wings and cautiously opt to take the ‘Holy F**k’ chilli sauce on the side – I’m a cautious character after my misadventure at Red Dog Saloon in February – rather than have them smothered, then cooked in it. With a slight crispness to the caramel coloured skin, they are succulent and tender and have a smoky flavour throughout. And as for the sauce, I recommend taking it on the side. ‘Holy F**k” is indeed apt. My dinner date refuses to take more than a dab on the end of one of her fries, then spends the next five minutes of feeding’ time sipping on the Mad Dog, trying to resurrect her taste buds.
And if you’re someone who can’t disassociate BBQ from the classic beef burger, then Big Smoke have a great selection of these for you. As a Rocky fan, I opt for The Balboa’: a 7 ox patty, topped with melted gorgonzola and Italian spiced pulled beef. I’m disappointed I’m not asked how I want my burger cooked, which has become common practice in the age of the ‘gourmet burger’. It’s often seen as a sign of the quality of the meat. The burger is well done – not charred to a crisp, ala drunk uncle Al on the Q’ – but rather perfectly cooked through. It’s not my preference; I’m a bloody as Hell man, but that said, it’s been a while since I had a piece of beef that is cooked rather than just seared and it’s a real pleasure. The bun is warm and soft, the burger thick and juicy, the gorgonzola strong and salty. But the best part is the pulled beef; it’s a truly unique treat, one which I would love to see on the menu by itself. I don’t actually recall having pulled beef, let alone Italian spiced pulled beef. Atop the saltiness of the burger and the cheese it provides a surprisingly sweet and almost tangy contrast.
Establishments that focus heavily on their meat, such as this one, I find can be accused of taking their sides for granted. Reassuringly that is not the case with Big Smoke. The French fries are extra thin, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. For me it’s the perfect style of chip to accompany BBQ: not to heavy, perfect for dunking and incredibly moreish. The coleslaw is fresh and finely threaded. Light on the horseradish (a nice twist to the traditional ‘slaw) it looks as good as it tastes – textured, light and just creamy enough so you don’t allow yourself to think you’re eating vegetables at a BBQ – Heaven forefend. Equally impressive is the mac and cheese. Reassuringly they use macaroni as apposed to spirali, which is becoming a “thing” – one we need to stomp out! Creamy, cheesy, gooey and piping hot – it is exactly what mac and cheese should be.
Big Smoke is very much a work in progress, but has great potential. Greatness comes with time: Bodean’s took over two years to be satisfied with their process and there are some smoke houses across the pond that have been in the business for over twenty years and are still tinkering with the way they cook their meats. With plans to stay at Elk Bar throughout the winter and a view to set up a Pop Up for next summer, this is a business I shall definitely be returning to in the future. Friendly staff, great service and quality for money, Big Smoke is at Elk Bar for the remainder of the summer. http://www.elkbar.com/index.html