During a one-week adventure in London with our daughter, Sarah, and her family, I was of course interested in checking out some barbecue and Londoners’ thoughts on the subject.
I asked several Londoners at random if they like barbecue. Responses ranged from one “What is it?” to many passionate affirmations, mostly with reference to backyard grilling.
Random quotes aside, my go-to authority on the subject was Tom Parker Bowles, a barbecue buddy from several years back when he judged at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue. One of his many hats today is food editor for UK’s Esquire.
And if that last name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his mother is Camilla Parker Bowles, who is married to Prince Charles, who is next in line to be king of England.
Although “London has the world on a plate,” with an enormous variety of cuisine from many countries and cultures, barbecue as we know it in Kansas City — wood smoked in barbecue pits — is beginning to turn heads and fire up Londoners’ primal palates.
The best-known London barbecue with a Kansas City accent is Bodean’s. The dream child of Canadian-who-fell-in-love-with-Kansas City-BBQ Andrew Blaise, it resonates so well with Londoners today that Bodean’s has eight locations plus a catering service.
Last October’s UK edition of Esquire listed “London’s Best American BBQ Restaurants,” according to authors Nick Pope and Finlay Renwick. Bodean’s didn’t make their cut, nor did Smokestak in East London, where our family rendezvoused with Tom Parker Bowles for a fantastic variety of smoke-roasted meats and vegetables, draft ale, and a sticky toffee pudding topped with clotted ice cream for dessert.
While there is no place like Smokestak in KC, the ambiance had the welcoming feel of a Kansas City establishment like Jack Stack. The dimly lit interior smoked walls and windows are reminiscent of barbecue shrines Louie Mueller in Taylor, Texas, and the front entrance to Smitty’s in Lockhart, Texas. It instantly felt like home to me.
When I spied the Ole Hickory pit from Cape Girardeau, Mo., I knew we’d soon be feasting on barbecue with a taste like home.
We started with crispy cubed ox cheek croquettes with a creamy sauce for dipping. One bite chased with a sip of ale was a perfect starter.
We followed with beef brisket, dry aged beef rib, double-cut pork ribs, house-brined and smoked pastrami, salt baked beetroot garnished with goat cheese and hazelnuts, coal roasted eggplant seasoned with red miso, chopped scallions, goat cheese and toasted cashews, plus a jacket potato/smoked rarebit.
With each bite our palates exclaimed, “Oh yeah. This place knows barbecue!” Although David has benefited from his barbecue research throughout the US, Smokestak’s flavor profiles are his own.
The pork ribs, sourced from Phillip Warrens & Sons, Cornwall, are layered with a kiss of smoke, a touch of sour marinade and a slather of sweet glaze with a delicious, melt-in-your-mouth charred finish.
The beef ribs, also from Phillip Warrens & Sons, are dry aged for 30 days, which David says, “gives a bit more umami in flavor.” It was one of the best tender, flavorful beef ribs I’ve ever eaten.
The brisket, kissed with kiln-dried English oak smoke and extra tender, is top quality Black Angus processed in a Temple Grandin-approved plant in Arkansas City, Kan., by Creekstone Farms.
Gretchen, a true eggplant aficionado, pronounced Smokestak’s eggplant “the absolute best I have ever eaten.” It bumped my own stir-fried Asian eggplant with toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar and rice vinegar to second or third place!
The cheesy jacket potato/smoked rarebit was hearty enough for a delicious solo standout feast.
Our daughter, Sarah — a sticky pudding fan — gave a hearty thumbs-up for Smokestak’s sticky toffee pudding with clotted ice cream. Alan, Zachary, Henry, Emma, Gretchen and I agreed.
Discussing barbecue, London’s cuisine scene, soccer, cookbooks and much more with Tom Parker Bowles was a memorable highlight of the trip for the entire family.
The next day we loved seeing Tom’s new book, The Cook Book, on prominent display at London’s iconic department store, Fortnum & Mason. The book is a first in Fortnum & Mason’s 309-year history. Reflecting the past and in step with today, it’s a treasure and a keeper.
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. He is author/co-author of 11 published barbecue books and is a 2016 inductee into the Barbecue Hall of Fame.