Shotgun: a tale of two menus

in Restaurants by

Shotgun was one of the first places we ever reviewed here. Ben loved its take on US-style barbecue food: pig’s ears, beef brisket, and kid goat that made me very jealous to read about. Since then, it has been trying out specialised menus, two of which I’ll review here: an all you can eat weekend lunch, and a fried chicken dinner menu.

My first trip to Shotgun was for the all you can eat. Like presumably most people reading, I have a special place in my heart for the words “all you can eat”. There is nothing quite as crushing as the feeling of still being a little hungry after a meal out, and the proliferation of tapas-style restaurants in London has made this threat a clear and present danger. (It doesn’t help that I often share meals with people with relatively small appetites who don’t really get my anxiety about this.)

But I’m also well aware that “all you can eat” is a byword for shit. Brazilian “steak” houses, Chinese buffets, fajitas done Old El Paso style, that sort of thing. I still enjoy them for making me gut-bustingly full but I’m not proud of myself about it. For Shotgun to do an all you can eat menu, surely, was some kind of terrible fall from grace?

Ribs, burnt ends, pork neck, pork belly

Happily, surprisingly, no. Without retreading over old ground, the brisket burnt ends were beautifully crisp and bursting with a rich, flavoursome juice; the slow-cooked piglet was the best-tasting pulled pork I’ve had since my trip to Auburn, Alabama; the pork belly was balanced nicely between sweet-tasting meat and layers of fat; and the sides (things like barbecue beans and pureed potatoes) were generous, if anything too much so (I kid, there’s no such thing as too big a portion). The cornbread in particularly was the best I’ve ever had, covered with golden syrup to give it a gorgeous sweet crust.

Cornbread
Cornbread

On top of all this, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon (which is quite nice, whatever Americans say) and glasses of prosecco were on sale for £2 each. The only “problem” with all this was that the first plate of food was so darn filling that I could barely finish a second. A very good problem to have, and even if £25/head is a bit steep for a normal lunch, for this I thought I was getting a good deal.

Our sides
Our sides

I cannot begin to understand what happened between that trip in September and my most recent visit, exactly a month later. This was to try Shotgun’s new “fried chicken dinner” menu, apparently introduced after the closure of The Lockhart, another restaurant from the same people with a slightly broader take on American cuisine. What could be more exciting – a proper competitor to Chick’n Sours, whose new Covent Garden branch (along with the unbeatable Good Friend Chicken) really might herald the penetration of excellent fried chicken into central London. (Disclosure: Shotgun invited me to review this meal; it did not invite me to review the earlier one.)

Pimento cheese
Pimento cheese

Things started with the same menu items as the weekend lunch. Devilled eggs were bland, but the pimento cheese was quite difficult to resist. It’s basically cheddar cheese mashed up with mayonnaise and bits of pimento pepper to a soft, spreadable spread served with little salted TUC biscuits. It won’t set the world on fire but it’s enjoyably trashy.

Dirty rice
Dirty rice

After that was the ‘dirty rice’, a bowl of rice made with ground chicken liver, chunks of andouille sausage, slices of spring onion and (allegedly) bits of crab meat, which I couldn’t detect but one of my fellow diners could. Apparently it was a soul food dish based on food given to slaves that used up leftovers and scraps.

It was a strangely offally dish to serve on a communal set menu: I quite like the taste of chicken liver, but at least a large minority of people don’t. I enjoyed the dish well enough, but it wasn’t anything special. It was strange to serve this as a course in its own right, along with the cornbread, but perhaps that’s the custom in America.

Then things started to go badly wrong. The fried chicken bits certainly looked good: they were big and golden and crispy, and came piled high in two bowls. But they tasted of, well, nothing. The batter had seemingly no seasoning or flavouring at all, tasting more like fish and chip batter than fried chicken coating. It was, in the end, far too crispy and over-battered. But just flavourless, boring, bland, pointless. The chicken was served with the Shotgun house barbecue sauces, which go well with beef and pork but were completely inappropriate for fried chicken (which, if it needs a sauce, needs gravy) at the best of times, and just did not work at all with these flavourless chunks in front of me.

The “mac and cheese” was even worse. Christ, the mac and cheese. The photo above might not capture the grim disappointment of this dish well enough, but what came out to us was small conchiglie pasta shells in a sort of orange sauce that may have turned into cheese if we’d left it long enough, but certainly didn’t seem to have ever been near the stuff before then. Shot through that sauce was at least a cupful of breadcrumbs, as if the thing that can rescue pasta-in-flavourless-orange-sauce is a great big fistful of bread. A dish made with Sainsbury’s Oven Baked Macaroni Cheese Sauce would have been better than this monstrosity.

The sides of a salad, potato puree and coleslaw were fine. But there’s another thing that bothered me: all the portions were really quite small. For a set menu like this, you hope that the standardisation means they’ll be able to give you a lot of food, but our rice and mac and cheese bowls were half as large as I’d have expected for the number of people we had, and two pieces of fried chicken each plus what are really just a lot of side dishes is terrible value for £20/head, even if the food had been half decent.

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I fear Shotgun is falling on hard times. It has a pricey-looking location just off Regent Street and upscale barbecue might not be the cash cow that it needs to be. It was busy on the Saturday afternoon we went, but almost deserted throughout the Monday evening. I felt quite sad looking seeing the handful of other diners eating their mac and cheese as I left. Maybe that explains the experimentation with different menus.

But if anyone from Shotgun is reading this: please, please consider scrapping the fried chicken menu. It was one of the worst, most disappointing meals I have had in a restaurant that I can remember having. If someone came here on the basis of one of our reviews I’d be embarrassed and suspect they would never listen to us again. I dearly hope Shotgun gets its act together soon, because doing barbecue it deserves to thrive. Doing the stuff of this fried chicken menu, it deserves to die.

Rating: Avoid, if it’s the fried chicken. If meat’s back on the menu, I think Ben’s two medals still apply, and that £25 weekend lunch is great fun.

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