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Ben Southwood has 22 articles published.

Review: Queen’s, Camberwell

in Restaurants by

Camberwell is having something of a moment, perhaps even more so than all of the other ‘up-and-coming’ South and East London hotspots. In the last year or so it’s gained the fantastic Camberwell Arms, Theo’s Pizza, which gives Franco Manca and Pizza Pilgrims a solid challenge, and now Queen’s (which replaces a nail bar by the same name).

This comes on top of the peerless Silk Road, the popular FM Mangal, and Angels & Gypsies, a pretty decent tapas place. And all of these lie on one short stretch of road between the green and where the town fades imperceptibly into the road to Peckham.

I am proud to say that I can personally claim some of the responsbility for Queen’s coming into being, because I crowd-funded it—to the tune of £100—on Kickstarter. I liked the vision and apparently 306 others did too, because it garnered £50,024 and many of us were there over the past weekend to enjoy an opening ‘feast’ with paired drinks, something Mike (half of co-founders Mike and Ollie) told me they intend to continue doing monthly. Otherwise, the menu will be focused on what they can do with their charcoal grill, a machine you can take a gander at in their open kitchen.

What is immediately obvious about the new Queen’s is that it is not a South London nail bar. It is almost like a big indoor climbing frame, the sort you might find at one of those farms you visit with your family on holiday in Dorset. This isn’t a bad thing: I think that the turn toward elegant simplicity in lots of the new wave of restaurants is something to be welcomed. The ceilings felt high and the tiling by the fireplace was very pretty (although the air coming in through the chimney was freezing).

As with so many other places I’ve been to recently, you dine fairly communally at Queen’s, on big wooden rectangular blocks of tables (unless you’re in the very cool four-man booth, which is cut away under the upstairs storage bit of the climbing frame, a little bit like the lower bunk of a bunk bed). Since all of the 30-odd covers were eating the same thing, we were also all served together on big dishes. I find this communal eating a bit wearing, but it’s probably also a factor in the reasonableness of the pricing, given the quality of what you’re getting.

As I said, I paid £100, and got dinner for two, with a drink for each of the four savoury courses. I think this is extremely reasonable, although I cannot promise this pricing will extend to future feasts.

The first course was a heavily-spiced, springy and chewy flatbread with a little broth of bacon, pearl barley, a thick grass-like vegetable whose name I’ve forgotten, and two mussels in their shells. The broth was savoury, the pearl barley had a satisfying sugar puff-like bite, and the mussels were cooked perfectly—they disintegrated into soft subsections with the lightest touch. It was served with a sloe gin cocktail that tasted like a soft drink.

Flatbread and soup
Flatbread and soup

Course two was raw cured sea bass (or possibly bream—who can tell) with charred fennel and some pomegranate seeds. The pomegranate seeds didn’t affect the dish much, but the fennel took on a mild cleansing flavour with the grilling, and I can never get enough of the delicate texture and flavour of raw sea bass. The accompanying drink was a shot of aquavit, the nordic spirit that tastes largely of pure alcohol, with a hint of aniseed.

Raw cured seabass
All about that bass

Sophie liked the third course best: ‘Turkish ravioli’ or Manti with cow’s cheese, beetroot sauce, and yoghurt. The slight firmness of the bottom of the pasta (was it pasta?) was great, but the best fun was mopping up the mix of sharp yoghurt with sweet beetroot sauce left behind. We got white wine (muscadet) as accompaniment.

Beetroot ravioli
Beetroot ravioli

To fill us up they brought a fourth course which was basically roast lamb. Well, sort of: the lamb was clearly slow-cooked for hours, to a point of extreme, almost sloppy tenderness; the mash was the almost-liquid creamy stuff I’ve never been served at my or anyone else’s house but like to have when I am out; and the veg was caramelised. It was very warming, homely and delicious nonetheless. It came with a glass of clean-tasting red wine.

Filling hunks of slow-cooked lamb
Filling hunks of slow-cooked lamb

Finally we had the lemon tart, which was a pretty impressive specimen: wobbly, how-does-it-stay-together topping, super thin pastry coating, blowtorched crust at the top, candied lemon peel, and sumac spice for contrast. Really excellent, especially after the travesty of a tart we ate at the otherwise recommended Casse-Croûte in Bermondsey.

A proper lemon tart
A proper lemon tart

Queen’s is an exciting new venture in Camberwell—absolutely everything they tried came off. I look forward to checking out their regular menu, and I hope Mike and Ollie’s joint is as popular as it deserves to be.

Score: 〶 – one medal (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

Review: Shotgun, Soho

in Restaurants by

London isn’t too badly off for barbecue these days. If you want a pile of tender, juicy smoked meat you can do a lot worse than Miss P’s; Smokestak has you sorted for giant hulking ribs; Pitt Cue handles the virtuoso experimentation side of things; I’ve heard great things about The Rib Man’s rolls at Euston station; Hot Box does very good pork ribs, albeit at a fairly high price; and Bodean’s will do an adequate chain version of all these things.

There are, of course, countless derivative and mediocre alternatives, and ‘pulled pork’ has become utterly ubiquitous on pub menus, and now even in McDonald’s. But I can’t really let these bother me, because they are just symptoms of the general success of this lovely, comforting cuisine, and it may be impossible to ditch them and retain the good. And maybe they help keep the queues at the good places tolerable.

But I’ll be blunt: Shotgun is the best of the lot, even edging the almighty Pitt Cue, situated only just around the corner in the Regent Street/Carnaby section of Soho near Oxford Circus tube station. A side project of the fancy/homely American restaurant Lockhart, Shotgun has got everything right, with perfect care over both ingredients and technique, as well as all the other details that make a restaurant excellent.

Cocktails: round one
Cocktails: round one

Even a Lidl pork shoulder tastes great after being rubbed in spices, smoked for the best part of a day, and served in a bun with slaw and sauce. Shotgun most certainly take preparation, cooking and serving very seriously, but what makes them special is they seem to focus almost as much on the ingredients. For example, they specify that their Boston butt (pork shoulder) is made from rare breed Middle White pigs.

Boiled peanuts: who could resist?
Boiled peanuts: who could resist?

We started with some ‘snacks’. I’ve been wanting to try boiled peanuts ever since I first heard of them and I wasn’t disappointed: they were boiled in the shell and came in their hot broth. You peeled apart the outer casing, like when you eat a monkey nut, but this time it was pliable rather than crunchy, ate the mushy nut from inside, then when you were finished drunk the liquid. The nuts were satisfying, but most of the flavour had seeped out into the soup, which had a deep marmitey savoury tang.

A beautiful pig's ear
A beautiful pig’s ear

The other snack was basically a main meal for £8: a whole smoked pig’s ear, topped with soured crunchy peanuts and spring onions, and served with two big buckwheat pancakes. Unlike crispy deep-fried bits of pig’s ear I’d eaten before, this one ran the whole gamut of textures: from rubbery calamari-esque at one end, to slightly bitey crunchy bits of cartilage in the middle, to unctuous fat and ultra-tender meat flesh at the base. We were advised to chop it up into bits so we could have a mix, which turned out to be a good idea. Overall I didn’t love the dish, but it’s one of those options you just can’t pass over.

These weren't even all of our mains
These weren’t even all of our mains

We ate these snacks, had a beer and a cocktail, paid up and went out to have a few more drinks, then came back for proper dinner at half nine. What had come before was good, but the mains were out of this world.

I tackled the pork first (120g for £9, a pleasant precision). It was not shredded—it seemed to be in the sort of lumps that it came apart in when you cut it. It was, of course, incredibly tender, but it still had the sort of bite that makes eating meat special and hard for humans to give up. We completely eschewed sauces for it, even though they offered an excellent variety of authentic options (Kansas City, KC Hot, Carolina, and so on)—the flavour of the meat stood well enough alone.

The brisket was incomparable. It comes in three varieties: lean, ‘wet’ (fatty), and burnt ends, all about £12. We went for wet at the behest of our server, and we were not disappointed. There is a tendency for cheap meat fat to taste ‘off’ somehow. A piercing, invasive dirty flavour. This was not like that. We once again avoided the sauces so we could focus on the beef, which was bulging with fat which somehow sat in a divine mid-point between solid and liquid, like a benign jelly.

The kid goat was a special. I haven’t eaten goat outside of bony, tough, meagre Notting Hill Carnival goat curries, and of course this was a totally different beast. It was the firmest of the lot, though by no means anything approaching ‘tough’. Its flavour was sort of gamey, but I haven’t really had anything like it to compare it to. Pairing chunks of meaty flesh with the smokey skin and bubbly soft fat was a very pleasant exercise.

The side was perhaps the best of all: unparalleled barbecue beans. When people think BBQ they tend to think of sticky sweetness but I gather that this is not really the case in many of the southern US states, with Texan sauces just as likely to be a more neutral tomato flavour. Here they definitely went a measured route, with a hint of sweetness but mostly tasting fruity, smokey and of the meat which bobbed in giants chunks. The beans were much harder than I am used to, without being exactly ‘hard’ per se.

Finally, we couldn’t bear to stop eating and ordered half a duck breast. As an expensive cut of meat, they didn’t smoke the duck long, and it came pink inside, on top of pickled green beans (as with every other course) and with a soft brioche bun (as had the pork and goat). It was about as nice as duck breast gets.

Shotgun really is a tremendous place, and for my money the best place to get barbecue in London. Go as soon as you can if you have even a passing interesting southern American food.

Score: 〶〶 – two medals (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

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