Monday, 21 October 2013

Soho Diner: a chip off the old block

Just another diner. Not different, just better.

Diners are like London buses because they're FRICKIN' everywhere. I went past about five on my way down Old Compton Street to the Soho Diner, including several I've already reviewed (like Ed's Easy Diner). And when you're not tripping over diner-themed restaurants, you're walking headlong into trendy burger bars. It's ridiculous.

And I love it. And I also love the Soho Diner. I was as hungover as one of Michael Barrymore's party guests on Saturday and still I finished that burger. True, I had to duck out to the loo twice just to be safe, but I was determined to get through it.

What the diner has so cleverly done is recreate was the McDonald's burger is in our heads before we actually eat it. The patties are thin but rare, the sauce thick and sticky, the cheese so gloopy it sticks to your throat, and all in a sweet brioche bun that feels cheap but so, so good. Perhaps sensing my hangover shakes (or simply smelling the alcohol) they asked if I'd like bacon and eggs on my burger. Ambitiously I said that sounded excellent. It made it seem more like brunch, which is a good, hearty thing to eat when suffering the drinker's withdrawal. The bacon was something else, about 2cm thick and rammed with sweet honey and gammon flavours. And then the egg was perfect and runny, but perfectly circular, just like the crap McDonald's ones.

If all that sounds a little too sycophantic don't read the rest, because I haven't even started on the milkshake - pistachio and honeycomb. Oh my days. If I'd sicked it up I'd have probably tried again it was that good.

Having ranted about the food, the location seems somewhat moot, but it is rather nice. Very spacious and wooden, with cocktails on tap and a decent enough beer list (could do better Soho House, could do better). There was even a European-like gathering of probably-older-than-you-think guys in leather jackets drinking beer from stemmed glasses outside, despite the freakish weather and an enormous delivery truck (probably needed for the extra thick bacon) blocking their view of the street. This is why I have no picture of the outside.

There are some pretty shoddy reviews of the Soho Diner on the usual customer websites. They're hardly a barometer for good food, but I am baffled. It's not changing the world, but Soho House (who run the place along with Chicken Shop, Dirty Burger, PizzaEast and Dean Street Townhouse) never try too. They just nail it. Whoever is at the top knows what the public want, and from a diner it's trashy food done in style, in a place where they would want to come at any time of day. It's open 'til 3am at the weekend, so I know where I'm going when caught short and drunk in Soho. Hopefully I won't need loo breaks at that point.

Soho Diner on Urbanspoon

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