There are tens of thousands of restaurants in London. Even if you spend an outsized fraction of your disposable income on eating out—as I do—it’s impossible to keep up with more than a sliver of the ones you want to go to most.
I have four or five lists on my phone of the places I want to visit most. And when I discover somewhere particularly good (as Kiln, Smokestak, and Temper all are) I want to go back—not just because it’s a good meal and eating out is a great pleasure, but also because I haven’t tried everything on the menu yet. How can I have reliable opinion if there’s something they cook I have yet to eat.
A huge number of widely-hyped restaurants opened in 2016. I have yet to visit Perilla, Ellory, either iteration of Bao, the new (or any) Barrafina, The Laughing Heart, Padella, Som Saa’s permanent location, Sardine, The Frog, Anglo, The Woodford, or Frenchie, let alone dozens of other, less exciting, but still interesting openings. By next year, I’ll be even further behind.
But I did manage to get to three of those I most wanted to visit, and hopefully you are less obsessively completist than me, and you can simply enjoy these lovely places without worrying you’re missing out on the others.
I was super excited about Kiln. I don’t know what it was that made it so obvious it was going to be great. It’s from people behind the Smoking Goat, which I love, but it wasn’t just that. I was so excited I queued up to go on their first night, when they were offering a free set menu.
Everything was excellent—we started with lamb skewers that were actually better than those at the almighty Silk Road in Camberwell—and it maintained that standard. The fat is jammed together with incredibly tender pieces of protein, grilled above charcoal, and rubbed with cumin and chilli powder. And you pay £2.90 for two of them.
I don’t quite understand how they achieve such reasonable prices (dishes that are basically small mains go in the range £6 to £8, unless they’re using some expensive seafood ingredient). Perhaps it’s the fact there are only a few tables (reservable for parties of 4+) and most everyone else sits at the bar.
They operate a queueing system where you don’t actually have to be there: put your name down and they give you a link to an online counter, showing you how far you are from the front. We went off to have a drink somewhere else in the two hours we had to kill.
Even more challenging dishes work well. River fish is in a gritty, intensely-flavoured broth that somehow tastes like the soily edge of a riverbed… in a good way. You think that the pork belly and brown crab rice noodles—warmly savoury—are good as they are but they come with a sweet and refreshing green sauce (whose provenance I can’t divine) that’s so good you just have to lick its serving bowl clean.
Everything is fantastic. The place is buzzing. Staff are effective and not overbearing. The menu is a delight, changing regularly. Did I say that the pricing is rather competitive. Go asap. (Two medals.)
Apparently, everyone else has and had heard of Neil Rankin, the man behind Temper, but I had not. So I did not realise that I was chatting with the proprietor—wearing a red trucker hat—when I ate at Temper. Either way, I’m glad I told him that his eatery was my favourite opening of the year, because it is. It ticks every box that I’ve asked for in a restaurant.
Meat is sold by the 100g, and they tell you the (rare) breed. They put MSG in their ketchup. You can sprinkle bits of fried and ground up pork scratching on your food. They grill large slabs of flesh over basically open fires, in an open kitchen right in the middle of the room. They use animal fats in their vegetable dishes. Their menu fits (easily) on one page. They even base their cocktails around mezcal.
The theme is flatbreads and meat. Basically you buy (smoked, medium rare, tender, extremely meaty) bits of meat, then add sauces and “sprinkles”, sort-of wrap them up, and eat. This, alone, would be enough. But there are also sides—beef fat potatoes utterly covered in raclette cheese was one of the highlights—and in keeping with the theme, starter tacos which range even further (e.g. blowtorched mackerel).
Eating dinner in a restaurant is nearly always a pleasure, but sometimes it’s a glorious all-out reminder of why life is good. My meal at Temper was one of those. (Two medals.)
Smokestak is an opening in the same vein as Kiln and Temper: long pedigree of previous ventures (in this case, years running a street food stall); widely hyped by the London food crowd; and in possession of a sort-of gimmick. In Smokestak’s case it’s the gigantic, gleaming, smoker in the middle of the room.
I think others have said that Smokestak is London barbecue food coming of age, and I agree. I remember a time when I’d never heard of pulled pork—when I was eighteen and I stumbled into a colonial canteen in the middle of nowhere in Virginia—and totally bowled over by the food. Now, it’s ubiquitous and usually shit. But you can get excellent barbecue in Shotgun, Pitt Cue, and many non-specialist restaurants have smokers and know how to use them.
Smokestak possibly doesn’t do the best brisket in London (although it comes very close, and will serve you a reasonable portion for £8) but it is a very solid all round addition to the scene. Sweet sticky smoky bbq pig tails were crunchy goodness, but my absolute favourite dish was smoked girolles on beef dripping toast. It came in a jus whose deep powerful flavour must have come from litres of stock, reduced to almost nothing. I will go back. (One medal.)