Monday, 17 December 2012
The Meatwagon started it all off, then MeatEasy kicked it up into the stratosphere. I can hardly believe the date on my post about the place was only 12th January 2011 - so much has happened since then to Yianni and Scott and their merry band of burgerettes it feels like those boozy, grease-stained nights in New Cross happened a lifetime ago - but it was at MeatEasy that the gamble paid off, that London finally fell for the charms of the Dead Hippie and Chilli Cheese Fries and Bingo Wings, and the template was set.
Granted, MeatLiquor doesn't require the same kind of effort to get to as SE14, but it is hardly conspicuous with its anonymous frontage, tinted windows and position under an ugly car park tucked around the back of Debenhams. If it wasn't for the queues that regularly trail up Wellbeck St, in fact, you'd assume it was either abandoned, or a strip club, or both. For one of London's most popular restaurants, it's trying very hard not to be noticed - which of course is all part of the game. MeatEasy proved that having a bit of swagger, treating customers if not badly then certainly with irreverence, making them work just that little bit harder for their dinner, all these things helped create that aura of a place confident of its own importance and confidence in their ability to show you a good time. You may not like it, but by God it works, and no matter how many people grumble about it you can guarantee they'll be joining the back of that queue eventually.
MeatMission, then, arrives at a time when London pretty much knows what to expect from a Meat[wagon] restaurant. We know we won't be able to book a table (sort of - groups of 6 can book at certain times); we know pretty young waitresses will serve expertly-constructed US-inspired comfort food alongside punchy cocktails; we know there will be loud rock music and tinted windows and paper towels on every table. We know we will probably have to queue. None of these things will be a surprise. And yet MeatMission is a surprise, thanks partly to an expanded menu featuring an appearance of one of the best things I've had the pleasure of eating in a very long time, and an interior design that is genuinely impressive without resorting to any dive bar clichés.
If you're lucky enough to bag yourself a spot in one of the raised booths on the edge of the large dining room, you will have a commanding view not only of the incredible stained glass ceiling above but the rows of diners in the "bear pit" beneath. Original stone plaques of religious texts (this is a former Christian mission - hence the name) are sensitively restored in situ, and next door a slightly smaller room is decorated with more urban art, this time illuminated glass panels of strange hybrid creatures. I was never really a fan of the aggressive graffiti at MeatLiquor but here it's all a lot more easy and stylish, though I can't help feeling having the toilets downstairs and not at the top of the frightening spiral staircase overlooking the main atrium is a missed opportunity. I'd love to see people negotiating that after a few Peckham Negronis.
And the food. All the classics are here, and are better than ever - particularly the bacon cheeseburger which had a very generous layer of that crispy pressed bacon arrangement last night. Fries, too, seem to have overcome early inconsistencies at MeatLiquor to become some of the best of their kind in the city; just as well when they find their way into so many of the dishes in the 'Onna Plate' section of the menu. The £9 'Chilli Garbage Plate', I'm fairly sure, could feed six people.
But the star of the new dishes is something called Monkey Fingers. Battered, deep-fried strips of tender chicken soaked in buffalo sauce and served with a blue cheese dip, they are every bit as addictive as the classic MeatLiquor Bingo Wings but the lack of a bone to contend with means they are better value, and even more filthy fun to eat. One of my strongest memories of the launch night (although that's not saying much, given the amount of booze they were chucking at us) was waitresses carrying around canapé trays loaded with Currywurst and Greek Salad skewers and a sad patch of orange sauce where the Monkey Fingers used to be. They are my new obsession, and are only available in Shoreditch.
The booze menu is a riot as well. The Pinot Grinchio is a cocktail made with white wine, apple juice and God knows what else, served with an edible candy cane for extra seasonal jollity. An impressive rack of beer taps at the back of the bar serve a determinedly non-craft selection of decent ales, and there's a wonderfully profane wine list if you want to go down that route. No element of food or drink or service is over-thought or intrusively "cool", but the attitude is infectious - fun without being gimmicky, relaxed without being slapdash, with confidence just the right side of arrogance.
So yes, I liked it. And, I'm certain, so will you. After all the wannabes, proto-chains and imitators to follow in their wake, and God knows there's been enough of them, there still is nowhere that does this kind of thing better.