I’ve written before about how Brixton sits a little uncomfortably when it comes to food and drink. It’s really not great considering how many options there are – it does the basics fine but it has none of the variety or spark of Dalston or the homeliness of Tooting. It’s miles ahead of Clapham, but I tend to think that people try to imagine that Brixton is something more than it truly is.
Pop Brixton, a container park that opened around the same time I moved here in 2015, has improved things quite a bit. I raved about Kricket when it was based there (and which is even better at its new home in Piccadilly), Koi Ramen is for my money the best ramen I’ve had outside of Asia and jaw-droppingly cheap at £6.50 for a bowl of tonkotsu, and I’m told the Ghanaian and Basque restaurants are very good too.
Smoke and Salt has moved in to Kricket’s old container and pitches itself as doing modern British food using ancient techniques – pickling, curing, smoking and roasting. After our run-in with failing chef Neil Rankin, some of Smoke and Salt’s fans suggested we try them out for a more generously portioned meal.
The whole place is crammed into a single shipping container, kitchen and all, and on a rainy day could only seat about eighteen people until the sun came out. As ever, I appreciated the bottles of tap water already set out at the tables. Drinks were priced reasonably (cocktails £7.50, beers and wine £4.50-5) and our Boston sours (whiskey sours with extra egg white) were well flavoured.
Whipped miso-infused butter was salty and savoury, if slightly underportioned for the five large slices of warm sourdough we were served (£2.50). The bread was decent but denser than I like – probably not left to rise for long enough prior to baking. But the fried plantain (£4) was the first real sign that this meal would be a treat. Crispy spears were sprinkled with chili flakes and salt, which offset the sweetness of the fruit, and served with an onion jam for dipping that wasn’t far off a sweetened, condensed French onion soup in flavour. Little leaves of fresh oregano gave the dish a wonderful smell and showed an admirable attention to detail.
We went for the beef heart slices supplement to the the new potatoes with chimichurri and gorgonzola (£4 plus £3 for the beef). This heaping mound of fried potato, meat, cheese sauce and herbs was the size of some main courses I’ve had recently. The potatoes had the earthy, creamy flavour of good Jersey Royals, and combining a sharp chimichurri with a rich blue cheese sauce balanced the flavours perfectly. Beef heart is not to everyone’s taste – it’s slightly rubbery and easily overcooked – but this was sliced thinly enough that small bits added meatiness to each mouthful. This might have been a summer dish but on a cold, rainy evening it was the ideal comfort food.
Cold grilled courgettes (£6), served with a thick dressing and sprinkled with seeds and walnuts, did not work as well. Texturally it was interesting enough, but after the flavours of the first two dishes, it fell short.
Never mind – the charred coley (£8) afterwards made up for it. This was slow-cooked in olive oil and done to perfection – to just the point of being cooked, without losing any moisture or firmness at all. This came with a crust of toasted hazelnuts and in a thin green sauce, which I guess from the menu was made from toasted garlic, but was indeterminately flavoured to me. Well-cooked fish is ridiculously hard to find, and I savoured every little bite. And it was a pretty decent sized bit of fish for eight quid too!
Miso and honey glazed lamb belly (£10) was, again, cooked perfectly with melting fat and falling-apart meat that was cut through by the sharp lemony pea salad served alongside. In some ways this summed up the meal – delicately-cooked meat with carefully-balanced flavours that complimented each other without being boring or unoriginal. The one misfire of the meal was the grilled hispi cabbage (£6) which came with a ‘smoky tofu dressing’ that more resembled Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and dominated all the other Asian-inflected elements of the dish, even the tasty little pickled peanuts.
By that point, though, both my companion and I were full anyway. And I don’t mind at all a weird, experimental dish that doesn’t work out if it only adds six pounds to the bill. How could you, in a place like Smoke and Salt? It’s innovative, generously-portioned food that manages to win on flavour and treats good ingredients with the careful cooking they deserve. And at £65 for two, including cocktails and service, it makes Smoke and Salt an immediate favourite of mine, and a jewel in Brixton’s restaurant scene.
Rating: Two medals.