Sunday, 20 October 2013

Smokehouse: all smoke, some fire

A great meat palace with a bit of gristle

I used to cycle past The House by Highbury & Islington every day. It had always intrigued me, because despite looking like Wetherspoons, a friend assured me it was "The Ivy of Islington".

I doubted that very much. I went there to prove my point but got so drunk I couldn't remember enough to back up my argument. Still, my suspicions were confirmed when it closed.

To my joy it reopened as The Smokehouse, advertising delicious meat, lots of smoke and, most importantly, a crate load of great beers. When you walk in the first thing you see is a row of 20 taps, all marked with Sharpies to tell the baffled barmen which is which. You then approach the bar and see that right around the inside of it runs beer fridges practically falling open with craft beer. On the wall is a blackboard entitled "Beer and food matching" that lists the best drinks for their dishes. The wine doesn't really get a look in, which is a refreshing change of tack.

Sadly on my first visit I was eating brunch (see my egg and beef hash, left), and decided that just hours after stopping drinking, the last thing I should do with breakfast was have a beer. On this visit I was not so reserved. I dived straight in to order a Mikkeller APA, along with a croquette of breadcrumbed beef with gochuchang mayonnaise. The concept of both is trashy and flawless, the delivery less perfect. Most disappointingly the beef, having been fried and then deep fried, was a little dry. Still, that gochuchang mayonnaise made from fermented chillies and soy beans, was incredible, the acidity slicing through the meat like a knife.

For the main I had only one choice once I'd seen it - ox cheek with cauliflower cheese, which I paired (at their suggestion) with Pressure Drop's brown ale. That cheesy sauce was something else, as was the gravy the meat came in, but again the meat was a little dry. Given the clever cooking on show elsewhere, how did the chef make a fatty cut like ox cheek seem dry?

Still, the mopping businesses at the end with their crispy roast potatoes was a memory to treasure. It was chips, cheese and gravy the way a Michelin-starred place would do it.

By this point my companion was well stuffed (as well as "not really being a pudding person", as if that's a valid statement) but I still had room for their Friday Pie - which turned out to be a seriously rich, seriously dark chocolate tart. It was one of those tarts where the pastry is so thick you think you'll go through the plate before the pastry gives in, but it needs it with a gloopy chocolate. With these flavours the remnants of my brown ale had no chance and tasted like soda water. Perhaps more of  Belgium is needed on the beer list so the puddings can meet their match too.

Given the wealth of brews on offer we decided we had to have one for the road. The Smokehouse likes to put itself across as a pub, and does have the comfortable vibe of a country inn, with exposed wood, fireplaces and soft lighting. And they were happy for us to take our time - which is lucky because if you  rush a 5.9% beer that cycle home can get fraught.

Luckily my wallet was a lot lighter, so at least I was balanced on my bike. £90 for two did seem a little steep, especially when I'm not convinced by the quality of the beef (the cooking was excellent) but when the beer is this good, the place this lovely, and elements of the food super you'll always go back to give it another try.

Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

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