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.
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.
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.
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.
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).