Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Barbecoa, St Pauls
Before we begin, a disclaimer of sorts. I was originally booked into Barbecoa, Saint Jamie's latest vanity project (I think I'm allowed to be rude and call it a vanity project if he never cooks there, aren't I?) a couple of weeks back. But the day before I was due to visit, a very nice woman called up and said would I consider shifting my booking back a bit in return for 50% off the bill? Common sense prevailed over any geeky blogger desire to get my review out before anyone else's, and I agreed. It turns out that, unhappy with shaky service in the first few days and the subsequent slew of mediocre reviews, the brains behind Barbecoa (reportedly Oliver himself but who knows) decided to slow things down a bit, call it a soft opening, and try and get everything, in the words of their PR people, "perfect". Which all sounds very sensible.
Except, despite the extra two weeks bedding-in period, my meal last night wasn't perfect. In fact, in the end, it was pretty damn far from perfect, despite excellent service and a very assured front of house who are presumably the only people to have really benefitted from the delay. A cheery welcome, friendly banter and a charming waitress got everything off to the right track, and believe it or not, and I can see why you may not, both I and my companion last night were very much looking forward to our dinner. For a couple of hopeless carnivores like us, a restaurant themed around the proper application of fire to protein sounded like heaven - the one thing that London desperately needs is somewhere that even vaguely mimics the best American BBQ; properly cooked ribs, pulled pork, corn bread, slaw - great meat, roasted over charcoal. Imagine if somewhere, finally, got it right? We were nothing if not hopeful. Until the food arrived.
The house bread was the first depressing indication things weren't going quite to plan. Served weirdly (and very annoyingly) threaded onto a wooden spike were a dense, unseasoned pumpernickel, a similarly dull sourdough, a rather nice garlic bread and a very good indeed flatbread (naan?) of some kind. Not all awful, but inconsistent, and the butter was unsalted and boring. And if you're going to call something "Amazing pickled vegetables" then they better had be, not just overwhelmingly sour and soggy.
Baby back ribs were when things really went downhill. Over-marinated, sickly sweet outside and dry within, with no discernable porky flavour, these were hardly any better than anything you could get from TGI Fridays. Without knowing exactly what went into their preparation I can only say that they certainly tasted pre-cooked then reheated over the grill, and if they weren't then they wasted their time. One day someone in this country will decide that having stringy meat fall limply off soft bones isn't the sole aim when preparing baby back ribs, but we're not there yet. A terrible disappointment. Hardly any better was a starter of "crispy" (their words, definitely not ours) pig's cheek, which was lukewarm, grey and flavourless.
The theme continued with the mains. For £30 you might expect a 400g bone-in strip steak to be at least biting at the heels of the offerings from Goodman and Hawksmoor, but this, despite being nicely charred and looking the part, was underseasoned, dry and dreadfully bland. A pub steak masquerading as a premium offering, the poor quality of the beef was shocking - you can call me spoiled if you like, but I am only spoiled by much better meat from much better restaurants, and the best advice I can offer Barbecoa is to go and have a steak at one of these other places and work out what they're doing wrong. Because this really was awful. Pulled pork was OK, I suppose - rather sweet, not very porky, just about edible, but accompanying corn bread was distressingly oily and mealy.
With a bottle of Languedoc Syrah (£21) and a beer, the bill for two before discount came to £114, and even with 50% off I couldn't help feeling robbed. I'd hesitate to dismiss the whole operation, as the front of house staff were really doing a great job and can't be held responsible for sourcing decisions made further up the chain, but I left Barbecoa with the impression that this was cheap food, cooked easily, marked up for a credulous city crowd, and served with the ever-present crutch of Oliver's popular branding. That the end product tasted no better than anything from a nationwide chain is perhaps even deliberate - the ground floor is taken up by a Jamie Oliver merchandise store, the kind of thing you see attached to a Hard Rock Café or Planet Hollywood, and both his and Adam "who?" Perry Lang's cookbooks are available on the restaurant menu if you're desperate to recreate the soul-less corporate food in the comfort of your own home. As for me, I'm happy not to have a reason to visit One New Change again, which after all is a horrible mini-Westfield, charmless and ugly and irritating, and (as I spotted on the way out) the prospect of yet another knock-off celebrity cash-in (opening Spring 2011) will not change my mind. God help us.
Apologies for the lack of photos - it was very dark in there, presumably to shield us from the full horror of the food