Thursday, 11 December 2014

Restaurant review: Smokehouse, Canonbury

The Royal Oak pub on Columbia Road has a lot to answer for. Or rather, the beer at the Royal Oak pub on Columbia Road. It had been one of those delightful crisp Sunday mornings in Hackney. I was finished with work for another week, and with that one day that Katie and I would share we decided to stir early and make the most of it. First a caffeine hit, easily dealt with on Broadway Market, followed by a stroll through the City Farm to catch up with pig, goat and hen. Then a cautious dart across Hackney Road to the visual kaleidoscope of the flower market, dodging those last three bunches for a fiver and into the pub. That pub. It was barely midday but on a Sunday that is long past the start of beer o’clock. Although we had only just breakfasted, hunger was already stirring in every direction. It throbbed food. On tables all around babies and half-glasses were being shifted aside for boards of golden chickens or ruby lamb. Even the bar snacks board wasn’t fair; all charred brisket ends and crab. We supped on our cold pints and made suggestions over dinner plans but there lay the problem; it was Sunday. 

Sunday. The best day to be in the pub and generally speaking the worst to eat out. Sundays mean that dreaded thing; Sunday roasts. Urgh. I know most people’s spines won’t be too shivered at that thought, but to me they always seem like a wasted meal. Growing up, I was lucky in that our occasional family roasts were things of beauty. Potatoes fluffy inside a brulee-thin shell, mum’s Yorkies that hit the top of the oven. Chicken skin worth fighting for. It was a true family occasion, with bowls and platters passed around and everyone having a proper catch up. Why on earth would I want to sit in a pub having just begrudgingly spent fifteen quid to chew on leathery potatoes and carrots that still haven’t cooked through after 4 hours in a bain marie. Some do it right, but they are sitting with hen’s teeth for company. If I find myself caught staring down at Sunday menu I frantically look out for the anything but options and mostly get ditched with good old reliable fish and chips or a sad plate of pub pasta. I sympathise with the logistical nightmare that is turfing out high turnovers of often long-roasted joints and garnish, but it is only desperation over sympathy that ever makes me order one of the damn things.
Unfortunately no-one can be perfect, and Katie bless her soul adores a pub Sunday roast. So clearly a negotiation had to be reached as to where we would end up. I had followed the Smokehouse since it opened and knew its reputation well. A quick look at the menu confirmed it a perfect compromise, offering a full rundown of the favourites; pork, lamb, beef and chicken (well, poussin counts I guess) whilst still having a strong sounding hake dish and a veggie option should I wimp out. Within five minutes of faffing around on marvellously clever but beyond irritating iPhone booking systems we were in. Easy as that. And that was the start of how my faith in the traditional and much-loved Sunday roast was restored. 

At that point I was still nervous about the prospect, or at least that was my excuse for heading up Brick Lane and demolishing a monstrous bun of pork and hot sauce from the Ribman. I was even tempted to fill up further with a beigel. Despite wanting to visit the Smokehouse, a small part of me wished that it was on a different evening, as if on Sundays they all had the night off and allowed the Toby Carvery to take residence.
By the time we set off for dinner I had luckily walked off most of my earlier consumption. The bright day of early had been enveloped by darkness and rain, one of those evenings that make the street lamps appear almost old fashioned as their amber glow cut through the drizzle. The mist hit my glasses as soon as I was over the threshold and my shrivelled senses awakened to the warmth and cheer. I never doubted that pubs themselves were and are amazing places to spend especially grim Sunday evenings. Even at first glance, it was apparent that the Smokehouse had managed to combine being a serious restaurant and a good boozer. It wasn’t stuffy like those empty locals, devoid of atmosphere and populated only by the tiny ‘reserved’ sign upon every table. This was somewhere instantly welcoming, where people wanted to stay. It was also warm, at which point my glasses did their textbook steam effect rendering me momentarily blind. Must remember that that happens. 

Sitting in a charming seat near the pass with a fantastic glass of 2011 Chateau Tour des Genderes we were settled and knew we had made the right decision. We only really intended to have just the one roast course, but as all good menus do we were easily tempted to expand our selection. My starter of crispy fried oysters with bone marrow and dripping on toast was greasy and beefy and unctuous in all the right places. It was a plate a few components designed by someone who knew just when to stop. It was the sort of food that would create a window of time and a diverted walk if I find myself walking nearby in the future. Katie chose a well-assembled charcuterie board that would have been glorious save for the absence of bread or something crunchy. When we asked our server we were promised that some would be right along, but time went by and slowly I finished my own dish and Katie rather flatly nibbled her way through the rest without the slightest sign of a crumb.
If there is one thing that can redeem a diner’s faith it is a knockout course and that is exactly what happened next. Not that I needed redeeming mind, as the mellow contentment from my starter continued straight through. I could dress up a paragraph or two gushing about my smoked lamb shoulder main but to cut to the point it was far and away the best Sunday roast dish I have ever had. The meat was no match for silver cutlery or teeth and instead melted into smokey submission. Every other element on the plate was cared for with matching attention; Yorkshire puddings with perfect crisp and sog factor, an inventive broccoli cheese puree and potatoes that gave those old family memories a run for their money. A smart yet wholesome plate of food. We swooned when the condiment tray came around offering vats of mustards and sauces. I was dumbstruck, my Sunday scepticism had been given a well-deserved kick in the teeth. 

And just when things seemingly couldn’t get much better along swung a small bowl of rice pudding. Comfort food followed by comfort food. Rice pudding is deceptively hard to get just right, and here both subtle sweetness and portion size had been expertly judged. Katie opted for the Double D tart, and whilst saying that the pistachio ice cream was the best she’d tasted she found the rest a little rich. Having said that, without my nut allergy I doubt I would have had a problem putting it all away. Again it looked another cracker.
We have eaten out a fair bit in the last few months, and our evening at the Smokehouse was certainly up there with the very best of them. The food, atmosphere and ethos of the restaurant was fantastic. The only nagging point was the service throughout the meal which was patchy at best. Not just for the bread no show, it just all seemed a bit disjointed. We were left hanging for menus and drinks a few times while our waitress casually dressed empty tables and hovered around. We ordered a final glass of wine each after our mains to see us through pudding, yet these only managed to arrive as we were taking our last spoonfuls. But the highlights of the meal in general far outshone this, and we left with swollen stomachs and broad grins.
If like me you are loathe to a pub Sunday roast dinner then book and visit now. The earth will move. We will certainly be back.

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