Thursday, 22 October 2015
When was it, do you think, that pulled pork jumped the shark? When it began appearing on every lazy pub menu in London? When Eat started selling a pulled pork bun (that tastes, since you ask, of wet cotton wool soaked in vinegar)? Or how about now, that McDonalds (I shit you not) are selling a pulled pork wrap? At some point, it went from an interesting soul food novelty made with care and attention by the likes of Pitt Cue Co., to a handy way of charging credulous trend-chasers, bored of burgers, £15 for cheap, mushy, overcooked pork shoulder.
So I thought I was so over pulled pork. I'd wince when I saw it on menus, moan about it on Twitter, and generally avoid it like the plague. And yet it took a fantastic competition BBQ pork round at Grillstock Walthamstow back in September to remind me that, actually, when it's done well, with good pig and with the correct rub and by someone that knows their way around a proper hot smoker, it really can be worth the effort. And so it is at Shotgun, a brand-spanking-new restaurant from the very talented team behind Lockhart in Marylebone, where pulled pork is given the care and attention it deserves, and the results are extraordinary.
The attention to detail at Shotgun borders somewhat on the obsessive. A chalkboard on the all lists not anything as ordinary as daily specials or lunch offers, but what specific kind of wood chips they were using to smoke with that day (a mix of apple and cherry on my last visit, apparently). The meat itself is sourced from wherever is best for the purpose, so we have black-legged chicken from Norfolk, duck breast from SW France, Iberico ribs from the West of Spain, and the world's finest brisket beef, USDA from America. Each supplier was (I'm told) settled on after extensive taste testing, but is not set in stone - they can change from day to day, depending on what's best for purpose.
And the results speak for themselves. The pulled pork (or Boston Butt if you prefer) is moist and tender, with the occasional crunch of rendered fat and with a beguiling spice mix that lingers beautifully after each bite. It's good enough to banish the memory of any nasty cheap version from your local Wetherspoons forever - or at least until you're trapped in Gatwick North terminal again forced to order another one. The USDA brisket is so unbelievably tender with its rich seams of fat and sticky sweet bark that it's closer to the texture of finest salt beef than the shoe leather that passes as brisket in most London BBQ joints. And the belly bacon that also comes as part of the £12 combo plate melts in the mouth, with a clear pork flavour sweetened by another delicate glaze. It's all very, very good.
But don't ignore the starters. Devilled eggs are as good here as in the Lockhart, fresh and light and presented on a bed of puffed pork skin (think piggy rice crispies) too good to leave as mere garnish (so I didn't). And you may argue that pimento cheese is just chilli cheese spread on Ritz crackers. Which it is. But if you don't enjoy chilli cheese spread on Ritz crackers then there's just absolutely no hope for you because chilli cheese spread on Ritz crackers is one of the greatest things in the world. So there.
On a second visit, I tried the ox tongue with oyster mayo sandwich, and if there are any weaknesses to be found at Shotgun its in their experimental takes on the Southern US style sandwiches. Because beef and oyster mayo is a lovely thing when the Clove Club or the Ocean restaurant in Jersey do it, it just becomes faintly distressing in a soft potato roll covered in fried onions. Such unusual flavour combinations need just the right balance, a balance that's going to be impossible to achieve in a sandwich no matter how good you are.
So Shotgun isn't perfect. Their BBQ baked beans were bullet-like in a thin sauce, albeit one with a good flavour, and sweet potato "fondant" was sickly sweet (though to be honest I wouldn't have ordered it at all had I known "potato" meant "sweet potato", the horrid orange bastard things that should be BANNED) but another side of cheesy baked potato purée was just lovely - a comfort food mash, way too addictive - and even with the dishes that didn't work you could still see what they were trying to achieve; I have every faith they'll eventually get there, too.
I loved Shotgun, as you'll have probably guessed by now; the food is mainly superb, the attention to detail occasionally startling, and service, headed by Jon Cannon ex- of l'Enclume, Roganic and Restaurant Story, is faultless. But as well as being enjoyable in its own right, Shotgun is important, because it reminds us there's more to Southern US soul food than cheap chain pub ripoffs or fried chicken, and that low'n'slow BBQ can be just as subtle, skilled and rewarding as any branch of haute cuisine. Brad McDonald, smoker-in-chief, and everyone at Shotgun, thank you for saving London from bad pulled pork.
Shotgun is going in the 2016 version of the app. I know this because I've already written it. Meantime, see where else is good in Soho.