Harden’s review of the reviews

It’s National Barbecue Week, so that means hunching over the rusty old Webber in your back garden with an umbrella – right? Not according to Giles Coren. He reviews Shoreditch’s Rök and Smokestak with such enthusiasm that he implores readers to visit one of these two smokehouses, rather than light the barbie in their own backyard…

“If you’re looking for barbecuing advice from me, I say this: go to Rök or Smokestak.

“At the former, in a small Victorian building in Shoreditch that is spookily dwarfed by the empty spaces of the vast towers soon to be erected all around it, you will find possibly the only Swedish barbecue in London. It is odourless, white-washed and woody in a Scandi-meets-hipster way and its new summer menu is quite delightful.

“Then Smokestak’s famous brisket with a tangle of pickled red chilli slices. The best in the world: two strips, blackened at the rim, with a sugary snap to it and yet every cell retaining its fat so no dryness at all – that perfect balance that almost no barbecue joints or middle-aged men at their Cotswolds barns ever manage to get right.

“Rök is good but Smokestak is great, truly great and a wondrous thing to have found. Because this stuff, as I believe I might have already said, is not easy to do.”

At Zobler’s – inside the City’s £200 million collaboration between club operators The Soho House group and hotel specialists Sydell, The Ned, – The Observer’s Jay Rayner enjoys a bowl of chicken matzo ball soup, and has to bid farewell to the notion that a glitzy former banking hall, in a multi-million pound development can’t produce authentic, Jewish food…

“It proclaims itself a New York Jewish deli in the tradition of the famous Katz’s. Yeah, right. Because what exactly would these people know about proper chicken soup? As my Great Aunt Muriel might have said, but didn’t. Plus, we already have a new one of these. By coincidence Monty’s Deli recently opened its first full-scale restaurant in Hoxton after years in a railway arch near Tower Bridge, where they perfected their salt beef and pastrami. Not that I can mention Monty’s as it is co-owned by the partner of an Observer colleague. So I haven’t said a word. Except that it exists. And it’s excellent.

“At Zobler’s there’s a menu written like the Hudson River is nearby and the locals want to shout at you in fluent Sopranos. There’s a list of sandwiches and that chicken soup and the weird mood of the rest of the Ned, full of air kissing and swagger and bars shaking ludicrous cocktails. Except the soup is bloody brilliant and costs just £3. The broth is deep and insistent, and bellows of a chicken sacrificed to a noble cause. There are soft, sweet vegetables and, in the middle, a large matzo ball of ineffable lightness which is nothing like the ones my grandmother made, because she was a lousy cook. Follow that with a quarter of their crisp-skinned roast chicken, stuffed with challah, schmaltz – that’s chicken fat; do keep up – and onions, with gravy and salad. It costs £6. That’s a serious meal inside the Ned, for less than a tenner. It’s life-affirming food. It’s the sort of food that reminds you to laugh in the face of quinoa, often.”

Meanwhile The Guardian’s Marian O’Laughlin is in Oxford sampling a new tapas offering, Arbequina, from Rufus Thurston (Oli’s Thai) and Ben Whyles (Door 74), when she has an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu…

“When you get past the entrance, which, due to happy serendipity while stripping off the old Door 74 signage, looks exactly like the vintage chemist it once was, things start to look very familiar. The long, thin room, the handful of wooden stool-fringed rough tables, the bar for dining, the tiles. And then – goodness – the menu: the short, typed list, the bread basket complete with picos and oily flatbread, the shallow earthenware dish with its little heaps of seasalt, sumac, smoked paprika and dukkah. Then the dead giveaway: beetroot borani. We’re only in bloody Morito on Exmouth Market, London, transported to the colourful Cowley Road.

“But then the albariño arrives, recommended by our saturnine but supremely helpful Galician waiter, and, well, we couldn’t care less. This little restaurant, like its Thai sibling, takes the odd cliche and, through excellent provenance (bottles of fine, fruity olive oil on every table; arbequina olives, of course), smart buying (some of the spices come from as far away as the excellent Maroc Deli a few doors down) and a clued-up kitchen, delivers the kind of lunchtime pleasure that sees you (OK, me) ordering a second bottle, hunkering down on a stool and signing up for the chocolate salami. No, that’s not a terrible euphemism.”

At Xu, from the folks behind the wildly popular Taiwanese bun outfit Bao, The Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler finds a bit of a mixed bag. The critic admits this just-opened Soho spot would benefit from a longer settling in period, and says she has ‘no doubt’ it will soon coax a four star review from her, rather than the three it managed this week…

“This review is based on two meals at Xu, a dinner during a preview period, which I probably shouldn’t comment on but will. There remains quite a lot on a list that strikes me as both bold in authenticity and a bit bashful (angled towards Western appetites) that I’d love to try. 

“Among xiao tsai (their spelling), the snacks that serve as bar food or starters, chicken extremities come as feet braised in soy but not for long enough — the skin clings like tight gloves on a dowager’s bony hands — or a lollipopped wing sanbei (a glaze of sesame oil, soy sauce and cooking wine) topped cheekily with a tiny mound of caviar. Chicken wings strike again with unexpected potency.

“Numbing beef tendon presents as paper-thin slices of a jellied terrine floating in punchy chilli vinaigrette. It is less thrillingly vengeful than the title implies. Tomato and smoked eel is a thing of beauty and joy for as long as it lasts (not long). Smoked eel devotees — I am your leader — don’t miss this. 

“At present Xu offers no desserts, which will speed turnover of tables somewhat. Clever cocktails and teas and cocktails incorporating teas enhance the drinks list. Three stars? Four stars? It soon will be four, of that I am sure. Sometimes a bit of waiting is a good thing.”

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