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March 2016

Blacklock, Soho

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The thing you might already know about Blacklock is that it does chops. That’s its Thing, and it’s probably the first restaurant to centre itself around that concept in London, despite the plethora of barrel-scraping gimmicks and idiosyncrasies across the restaurant scene.

I say ‘probably the first’ because I know that Whitechapel’s Tayyabs is famed for its chops, but I secretly suspect that the fervour fans have for its food is driven not by its quality but by the fact it hearkens from 1972, an era in London’s history when greasy spoons and pubs seem to have been responsible for most of the city’s eating out.

Blacklock does ‘skinny chops’ for £4 a go (mostly pork); and ‘fat chops’ starting at £5 per 100g (for a pork chop) and ending at £8 per 100g (for Porterhouse or prime rib of beef). When we went, it was ‘Butcher Price Monday’, which meant that all of these bigger fat chop pieces were cut to £5 per 100g, which is how much it would allegedly cost us at the butcher (or more precisely, their butcher, Philip Warren’s in Cornwall).

It also does a few snacks—little crackers, priced at £1 each, with something like duck rillettes with kimchi or anchovies and egg—£5 cocktails including a solid Old Fashioned, a take on the French 75, and an Aperol Negroni (sweeter and less bitter than the regular Campari version). The snacks are pretty good little bites, satisfying if unspectacular in flavour.

Snacks: dripping ham, cheese and pickle, egg and anchovy & duck rillette and apple kimchi
Snacks: dripping ham, cheese and pickle, egg and anchovy & duck rillette and apple kimchi

And it also does sides and special Sunday offerings that we didn’t try. The sides were all excellent. Kale and parmesan was a few soft dark green leaves with a bit of bite and covered in incredibly salty-savoury flavour. The blood orange and meat radish salad was crunchy, bitter and sweet. The 10-hour ash-roasted sweet potato was special: soft, mashed texture sweet potato on the inside with a crispy bark of a deep black ashy flavour; somehow it works. The chips were as good as beef dripping chips always are—why use anything else to fry your potato?

The blood orange salad and the kale with parmesan
The blood orange salad and the kale with parmesan

We got an 800g sirloin and a 1.2kg prime rib, for a total of £100 between five. It was about enough food for a regular person, combined with the sides, but perhaps not enough for someone as greedy as me. Given the weight taken up by the bone on each, I’d probably order somewhat more: this gave each person about four thick slices of beef. These slabs come detached from the bone (which itself has a good bit of meat for chewing) and in neat meaty slabs.

We had the sirloin medium rare and the prime rib medium. The rib was the better of the two, incredibly tender, light pink and with morsels and lines of melting near-liquid fat. The sirloin had a bit more beefiness but much less of the juicy fatty give, and took a little slicing.

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Rib of beef
Sirloin
Sirloin

In a city that’s getting ever more expensive, central Soho joints that offer affordable dinners are extremely welcome, and anywhere that offers a satisfying meal for £20-25 without drinks and service is to be lauded. Add in £5 cocktails and the place is special. Blacklock has a niche, rather than a gimmick—properly grilling and roasting nice bits of meat for a reasonable price—and it fills it really well. Gordon Ramsay was even there at the next table with his pals when we went along—he’s surprisingly tall and good-looking in person!

Rating: One medal. See a map of all the restaurants we recommend in Soho and elsewhere.

The Grey Horse, Kingston

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The Grey Horse is an unassuming pub a few minutes from Kingston train station that has been rebranded as a whiskey bar and barbecue restaurant. I was a little apprehensive about going, suffering from a sore throat and having had a pretty bad run of barbecue food over the past few weeks.

A bit like hamburgers, barbecue is a wonderful food type that has exploded in London in recent years, mostly for the best (Ben adored Soho’s Shotgun, and we both like Pitt Cue quite a lot) but producing more than its share of lazy cash-ins as well. The good barbecue places are good, but there is plenty of crap as well.

Happily, The Grey Horse falls into the former category, despite a few misfires. Its craft beer list is solid, though with perhaps a few too many basic IPA beers – if you have Sierra Nevada, there’s no need for Meantime IPA, Camden Pale and Goose Island as well. My Old Fashioned (£7) was nicely sweetened with a hint of maple from the rye whiskey.

Pumpkin chowder (£5) was creamy and rich, with big chunks of haddock and a generous pile of crispy fried leeks on top. It may be me, but I think chowder always needs hot sauce to give it a slightly vinegary taste at the back of your throat, but I have never seen this at a restaurant, so I can’t fault The Grey Horse.

The most serious failing of the meal was the chicken wings  (£6). Chicken wings are almost always done badly by British restaurants. It’s not hard: they should be crispy (cook them at a high temperature) and, if they are buffalo wings, coated in a mixture of melted butter and hot sauce (Frank’s or Crystal, for example). They should not be sugary, they should not be covered in a ketchup-like sauce, and they should absolutely not be soggy or slimy.

These weren’t the worst I’ve had, but they weren’t crispy and the ‘hot sauce’ was more like a sweet chilli sauce than I had expected or wanted. They were made with good chicken, though, so a few tweaks to the recipe could produce something special.

My Jacob’s Ladder beef rib (£16, but smaller, cheaper cuts were available), however, was superb. It was cooked perfectly: crispy on the outside, moist and pink inside, with thick veins of hot, melting fat that filled my mouth with flavour when I bit into them. The outside was only given a light coating of barbecue sauce, and none was provided for dipping, which proved to be a good thing. Such a good piece of meat deserves not to be overpowered by strong sauces. The side-dish of home-made pickles – red onions, cucumber and celery – was impressive too.

Macaroni and cheese is another dish that most restaurants mess up, usually by baking it for so long that all the moisture from the cheese sauce cooks into the macaroni. This was pleasantly creamy, if not quite gooey, but let down by not having any strong cheesy flavour. The sauce was apparently made with cheddar, Monterey jack and parmesan, but it needed something much sharper to give the kick that macaroni and cheese deserves. It had quite a nice truffley aftertaste, but I’m not sure why.

My companion had the 3 way smoked rib plate (£20), which as well as a slightly smaller beef rib had a small rack of pork ribs and an Iberico rib, and seemed like a generous serving. The Iberico rib was cured and coated in a sweet sauce that reminded me of a very succulent Christmas ham.

Deep-fried apple pie (£6) for dessert was basically a posh McDonald’s apple pie served with cinnamon ice cream. Since McDonald’s apple pies are close to perfection, it’s hard to say that this was an improvement on that, but its thick and soft pastry soaked up the ice cream and apple filling nicely.

I confess that I did not have high hopes for The Grey Horse, but it slowly won me over. Some of the menu needs work – chicken skin is a blessing, and a kitchen that does not cook it to crispness is committing a mortal sin. But in the main meat courses, where it really matters, it gets it right.

Rating: One medal.

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