At Smokehouse in Islington, London, head chef Neil Rankin has created a menu of hearty yet refined food with smoke at its core. James Stagg reports
There was a time when all the UK knew of smoking was fish, and that was seen as a cottage industry performed in sheds and outhouses. But with the trend towards back to basics cooking and hearty dishes, smoking in the UK has become more mainstream, made simpler by kit such as the Big Green Egg smokers.
One chef who is taking the techniques honed in the US to new heights is Neil Rankin. Having learnt his craft through spells at Rhodes 24, Michael Wignall at the Latymer and Chez Bruce, Rankin took the sous chef role at Barbecoa, where he could concentrate on his passion for flame.
"I went to Barbecoa as they promised I would get to work in the butcher's shop," he explains. "I liked Adam's [Perry-Lang, then head chef] cooking and got hooked. From then on barbecue became my thing."
After a making a name for himself as head chef at Pitt Cue Co, where the focus is firmly on the combination of hunks of meat and serious smoking, Rankin was
made head chef at Smokehouse in London's Islington.
With free rein on the menu he has set about combining his broad cooking knowledge, influenced by classical French through Asian to American, to create a
menu that has smoke at its core but isn't restrained by any particular style.
"The idea was to have mediumpriced pub food," Rankin says. "I wanted to get away from offering a protein and side. It gets expensive that way. I think in a pub you just want to be served a wholesome, complete meal. That's what I've tried to do."
At any one time there are four chefs in the kitchen, working with meat smoked using English oak in two Big Green Eggs or the offsite smoker. Front of house is
pub-like, with a bar serving a selection of craft beers on tap, and a 45-cover restaurant where diners sit at candlelit stripped wooden tables. The decoration hints at the meat focus, with mounted chickens' feet replacing the traditional trophy antlers.
Hearty dishes Rankin admits that dishes served are deliberately hearty. "People are going out to eat, probably once a week, and they want to feast," he adds. "You don't want to be dictated to. If I put a lemon posset on, I'd sell 20 sticky toffee puddings and one lemon posset. Our customers keep fit but they want a break from
the diet. It's about balance."
Tipping the scales in the starters is the foie gras, apple pie and duck egg (£10.00). The foie gras is pan-fried with a sauce made from a bourbon and red wine reduction.
This is combined with what Rankin describes as his version of a McDonald's apple pie.
"As foie gras is so fatty you need some real sweetness to go with it," he explains. "The slow-cooked duck egg works with it too. It's cooked at 55 degrees for 45 minutes and the white just falls off, and you're left with the yolk. It's cooked but has a little more texture to it than a normal yolk."
One of the most popular main courses on the menu is the short rib bourgignon (£17.50, pictured). This is a barbecue dish, but designed using the classic French flavours. The short rib is smoked for six to seven hours before being brought back over coals for a final smoky seal. It is served with a sauce made of beef bones, bone marrow and red wine. Combined with mash potato and girolle mushrooms, it's certainly a hearty dish but one that has real refinement
along with a smack of flavour.
An extensive selection of craft beers accompanies the main menu. Guests often need some guidance with this, but that is forthcoming from the eager and
lively front of house team.
"We don't put descriptions on the menu," explains Rankin. "It engages the waiting staff to speak to the chefs so that they know more about the food, and then
when the customer asks they'll have the knowledge. It aids the interaction."
Sample dishes from the menu:
Burnt leeks with duck egg, girolles & Parmesan £6.00
Pig's cheek, Pecorino & pear £6.50
Peppered ox cheek with cauliflower cheese & gravy £16.50
Smoked pork rib eye with lardo & pancetta £16.00
Roasted cod & masala mussels £17.00
Krun chee nut £5.00
Sticky toffee apple cobbler £6.00
London N1 2DG
Tel: 020 7354 1144