A couple of hot rib dishes aside, Jamie Oliver’s collaboration with a top New York barbecue chef is underwhelming
Sun 8 May 2011 00.05 BSTFirst published on Sun 8 May 2011 00.05 BST
Barbecoa – jamie oliver restaurant
More relish, please: the new Barbecoa, near St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Observer
20 New Change Passage, London EC4 (020 3005 8555). Meal for two, including wine and service, £120
On the wall at Barbecoa, the new US-style barbecue and steak restaurant backed by Jamie Oliver, is a sign. It reads: “Pardon our dust whilst we build a better Barbecoa.” What, then, might a better Barbecoa be like? Certainly it would not have the harassed woman at the ground-floor entrance who refuses to make eye contact while barking into her headset her need for tables. It would not be the kind of place that leaves you waiting in the bar for 15 minutes past the time of your booking without any explanation. It would not have a kitchen that uses cold, greasy fried onions as a garnish on bar snacks.
What it would have is a menu that delivers on its promise. For at the moment Barbecoa, on a new-build site by St Paul’s Cathedral, is an opportunity missed. The restaurant is a co-production with Adam Perry Lang, a New York chef famed for his way with barbecue. It is about long, slow cooking and the alchemy of smoke. It is about sticky marinades and seriously hot hand-on-meat action.
The pre-publicity for Barbecoa promised barbecue heaven. The space looks the part, up to a point. It makes a virtue of hefty materials. It is all metal and stone and big, blunt bits of wood. What it has failed to do, curiously, is make a feature of fire and flame. The kitchen is hidden away when it should be a central piece of theatre. And the same is true of the barbecued meats. In a recent interview Perry Lang said it was refreshing to be setting up in London, where nobody had any preconceptions about what such a restaurant should be. That sounds horribly like shorthand for a license to be slapdash. And it underestimates the British audience.
Sign up for Word of Mouth: the best of Guardian Food every week
The bizarre thing is that Barbecoa clearly could get it right because the two bits of proper ribbery on the menu are very good indeed. A starter of baby back ribs spoke of that long, slow cooking and came dressed in a fabulously boisterous chilli-bashed marinade that made my lips tingle. A long, equally slow-cooked beef short rib, with the sort of dark sticky outside I dream of, had me tearing at the bone. But that was it. Just those two dishes. I wanted the menu to be dominated by a roll call of great barbecue cuts and options, by outrageous sizes and marinades and burnt ends and hot links. Instead it was a few mediocre starters and a bunch of steaks. A crab salad boasted lots of white meat but, like a good Kylie video, was completely underdressed. Crispy calamari wasn’t. It was soggy. Two huge squid bodies, sliced, but not all the way through, arrived in a flabby batter.
A main-course fillet steak was cooked perfectly and served with a terrific béarnaise – as it should be at £35 a pop – but was nothing that could not be found elsewhere in London. Grilled chicken came with far too much of an admittedly good beurre blanc. Sides were mixed. Curly kale with anchovy and garlic was great when hot, but cooled quickly and became rather sickly. Creamed spinach came under a dusty crust. We barely started the chips, let alone finished them, which speaks volumes. Other than the ribs, the high point was dessert: a very good baked lime cheesecake under thrilling peaks of soft, burnished meringue, and a vin santo cake topped with a crunchy caramel dust.
If this restaurant opened in New York, its shortcomings would see it laughed out of town. I wish the presiding chef’s home city really had been a huge influence. Still, they do at least claim to be building a better Barbecoa. I hope they succeed.