A Big Ode…
This article has taken a little longer than expected. What started out as a straightforward review, a slightly late to the party account of a recent meal at the newly reopened Pitt Cue in East London, has morphed into something else entirely. As time went by and I delved into the ethos of the restaurant and my own history with it as a consumer, it became clear to me that this food, these restaurateurs, deserved more than that. There are many places in London where one can eat exceptionally well, but few that defy categorization. Pitt Cue is one of them. From humble beginnings it has evolved into an extraordinary beast, a carefully curated dining experience guided not by market trends but by unwavering principles and a refusal to compromise. It is serious, thoughtful, accessible food, and us Londoners are very lucky to have it right here on our doorstep. Here, then, is my tribute to the vision, artistry and spirit of the Pitt Cue Company, arguably the most exciting restaurant in London right now.
It’s now universally accepted that the original Pitt Cue co., an endearingly ramshackle aluminium trailer imported from the highways of a Springsteen song to the clattering underbelly of Hungerford Bridge, changed the face of barbecue forever in the UK. It seems crazy to think that until 2011 people actually got excited, every summer, by the prospect of the same limp sausages they always ate being burnt to a cinder over synthetic lumps of charcoal (or worse, gas), forced into joyless penetration of weary cotton baps and drowned in ketchup and Carling to compensate for the crusty dryness of the whole affair. It was a loveless marriage, one that we endured because we didn’t know any better, but deep down we all wanted something wild and filthy to slap us around until we cried and then make us beg for more.
Enter Tom Adams and Jamie Berger, who tapped into our seediest culinary desires with food that was so wrong (deep fried mac ‘n’ cheese in a sandwich?) but such a complete shake up of everything you thought you knew about barbecue that it was impossible to resist. It was sweet. It was hot. It was rich. It was fresh. It was everything a summer fling should be.
Only we couldn’t let go, because it was so much more, so much deeper than lust. This wasn’t a couple of mates pulling up by the side of the road with a grill and some patties, these were missionaries of a kind, their food the result of days of lovingly slow cooking and months if not years of research into the science, geography and culture behind cooking with charcoal and wood. Word got around, the affair got serious and the trailer became a basement on Newburgh Street. Industry heavyweights Richard Turner and Simon Anderson got involved. There was no doubt they were in it for the long haul, pushing the old if-you-want-a-job-done-properly adage to perverted extremes by actually rearing their very own animals to serve to customers, as though nothing currently available on the market were good enough. The fact that Turner is the man responsible for Hawksmoor shows just how high their standards were set. It became clear that two main qualities defined Pitt Cue: perfectionism and patience.
The question was, were we prepared to wait as well? The Soho restaurant did less than thirty covers, necessitating a no bookings policy which meant that getting a table was the restaurant equivalent of queueing for day tickets at Wimbledon. It was simultaneously the most welcoming and the most exclusive restaurant in London, one from which this writer was charmingly turned away on a number of occasions. You either had to be prepared to eat at a time normally reserved for toddlers or starve yourself until it was practically last orders, by which point you were most likely too inebriated to actually taste anything. Those who were foolish enough to arrive at primetime were faced with waits of almost two hours. But when you did manage to get in, oh my…genre busting food, as though The Rolling Stones had scrapped the tapes and decided to put Exile on Main Street out as a three course meal instead. You left approximately one hour later shoved in, shaken up and kicked out, never the same again. I still dream about the smoked lamb rump I had on my 27th birthday at 6:15pm, served on a scratched metal tray that brought to mind every prison film you’ve ever seen and made you half expect to go back to tarring the roof with Andy Dufresne when break was over, or find Paul Newman shoveling eggs (pickled, of course) into his mouth in the cupboard that served as a kitchen. It was a mischievous nod to the constraints of the venue that belied the sophistication of the flavours and techniques being juggled. That lamb was delicate. Refined. Not words you’d usually associate with barbecue, but by then the word barbecue was clearly too basic to do justice to the complexity of the cooking. The original trailer classics were still available – sometimes you just want something loud – but every so often a dish would appear on the menu that made it clear Tom Adams was pushing boundaries, even if you never got to taste any of it first-hand. Most of us had to make do with Twitter feeds of Whole Ducks to share (each cut given the bespoke treatment, naturally), salivating mournfully over daily specials we would never get to try in this lifetime.
And then the whispers started, whispers that Pitt Cue was going to be relocating, expanding. Where would it be? When would it open? How the blazing charcoals of hell do I get a table? Constant checks on Hot Dinners for updates yielded no information, ditto Facebook and Twitter. Was this real or just a pipe dream, the wishful thinking of a hopeless admirer? A trip to the South Bank in 2012 sought confirmation from the horse’s mouth. As he piled up a Big Ode Jamie Berger confirmed to me that something was in the pipeline, but as yet they hadn’t found the right venue. Watch this space.
A glimmer of hope, then nothing.
But as with anything Pitt Cue, you just had to be patient. Finally, in early 2016, came the news that it was actually happening. Pitt Cue Newburgh was closing, and Pitt Cue Devonshire Square would take its place. It would take reservations. As soon as the system was open, a table was booked.
And so to Pitt Cue mark 3.0.
It’s fair to say that I’ve been waiting for this one for a while. It’s been agony at times. But it must be nothing compared to how long Tom Adams and co have been waiting to take things up a level. An article in Big Hospitality gives an insight into the limitations of the Newburgh Street venue; it’s fascinating and amusing stuff, tinged with optimism for the future, but reading between the lines there must have been days before Devonshire Square was confirmed when it felt like the building was slowly suffocating them, physically and creatively. Why has it taken this long? I can but speculate. No doubt countless premises have come up over the past few years that didn’t quite make the grade. At the same time Jamie Berger confirmed to me that a new place was happening I suggested that he look around Clapham. At that point SW4 was a gasping wilderness of lamentable dining options, seemingly incapable of moving beyond bargain Thai and leathery pizza despite being full of people who could clearly fork out for good food if it would only have the decency to serve itself nearby. I was thinking of one place in particular, a large pub ripe for renewal where the lease had been up for years and only ever seemed to attract clueless idiots without even the most piddling inkling of what diners wanted to eat. The suggestion was dismissed with customary politeness and I walked away feeling slightly disillusioned, not with Pitt Cue as such, but rather with an industry that seemed to be letting its preconceptions get in the way of the chance to spearhead a culinary movement in a starved and ravenous market.
(No doubt Jamie Berger will have no recollection of this meeting – I was one of many customers in the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon in July. Since then Clapham has finally started to realise its potential, though the pub in question remains in the hands of hopeless boobs.)
Clearly, he had his reasons, and now of course it all makes sense. Reading about the new restaurant, browsing its menus, gave an inkling of what to expect, but a spectacular meal on a thunderous Friday night in June made two things clear. First of all, there is no way this restaurant could be anywhere but here. Second, Pitt Cue is the most exciting restaurant in London right now.
Bold statements both, I know. Let’s start with the venue. If Newburgh Street was the very embodiment of compromise, Devonshire Square is its antithesis; a beautiful, contemporary, warm, bespoke palace of a restaurant that seemingly houses everything a chef could need short of an actual farm (that would be Tom Adams’ latest venture with April Bloomfield, the recently opened Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall), most notably an in–house brewery and a tailor made £61,000 grill shipped over from Michigan. The whole Devonshire Square campus is a smart, modern, purpose built development, and it’s hard to imagine any existing Edwardian terrace premises, particularly a grotty ground floor pub in Clapham, being able to offer the same options to house such equipment.
And it’s this same equipment which leads us neatly onto the next point. In the Big Hospitality article, Simon Anderson makes the point that too many craft beers on the market are too strong flavoured and simply not suited to being served with food. The solution? Brew their own. It sounds simple enough, and they’re not the first place to do it, but to my mind they’re the first where it’s not a gimmick, or a justification for substandard food. The beer is given as much weight as food or wine. It’s indicative of an ongoing commitment to a dining ideal, a full package, that goes all the way back to the research and care that went into the original menu at the trailer and continued with the move into husbandry. Most of all, it’s indicative of a relentless quest to improve, to be a better version of itself. Many of the restaurants that came to prominence around the same time as the original Pitt Cue and were lumped into the same bracket – MEATLiquor, Burger and Lobster, Turner’s own Hawksmoor – have expanded into franchises, but most have simply copied and pasted a successful formula and left it at that. Pitt Cue, as ever, has taken its time, refusing to expand until the facilities could match their ambitions, until they could offer something new.
So what of the food? On my visit I ate divine pork scratchings, shoestring thin and served with apple ketchup. I had fresh oysters with the fermented kick of kimchi. There was a potato cake, a crispy mille-feuille of a potato fondant like Masterchef always tells us laymen is nigh-on impossible to pull off. Chicken sausage came as a lovable, plump looking patty that dissolved on the tongue, accompanied with a deep jus and an unadvertised spoonful of broad beans and braised baby gem. It was summery and seasonal, descended from comfort food but infinitely more sophisticated. Seared ox tongue was rich and caramelized with a spiced carrot puree to cut through the fattiness, bone marrow bread was as decadent as you’d expect and the octopus with kimchi ketchup (is there a sea dwelling organism more suited to the low smoke/charcoal blast method of cooking?) was meaty, tangy and fresh. Asparagus and ricotta, as they should be. That was just the starters; for mains we went pork heavy: two Mangalitza loins (there were five of us) and a cured and smoked Jowl. They may as well have been different animals, such was the difference in flavour. The loin was nutty and delicate, the jowl salty and deep. A thoroughly respectable piece of monkfish offered a half-hearted gesture of compensation to our arteries.
It was all very, very good. Some of it – the chicken sausage, the ox tongue, the Mangalitza, the octopus – was exceptional. But what shone through was the simplicity and restraint of it all, total faith in the quality of the ingredients. Accompaniments were there to balance, not bolster. Puddings were restricted to three on our night – a chocolate, a sponge and a fruit. No need for anything more. We went for the bourbon cola pudding (rich, surprisingly savoury) and strawberries and vanilla (light, pleasantly sweet). Again, balance. As for the drinks? Well, the beer was so good we almost forgot to move on to wine, but when we did the list was decent and reasonable, starting at £20 for a Jumilla (we had an exceptional Prioriat Grenache at £44 a bottle). I had two of the Eagle Rare 10 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon. They slipped down.
Service was good, too. Unpretentious. Attentive. Relaxed, but knowledgeable. There’s a very well regarded and ever expanding group of restaurants on my doorstep that serves interesting, unusual food with obnoxiously laid back service. Waiters call you “dude” and “bro”. They serve a “badass” brunch. It’s like a twelve-year-old trying to fit in with the big boys, but then when you ask for a piece of actual information nobody has a clue what they’re talking about. It puts you off, like a crude tattoo on the face of a great beauty. At Pitt Cue we took forever to choose everything, but our waitress was always on hand to go through the menu, dish by dish, in painstaking and no doubt infuriating detail. It may take me an hour to get to rather than five minutes, but I know which one I’ll be going back to.
If I had to pick holes, which I’m loathe to do, it would be that the sides (mushroom and bone marrow mash, green chilli slaw) didn’t quite display the verve and flare of some of the recipes in their book. There weren’t as many exciting things being done with funky pickles (pomegranate, watermelon) as I might have hoped. That said, there were others on offer that we didn’t try, and I suspect it’ll happen in due course. The restaurant only opened in April; clearly, they’re just getting started.
And that’s what makes it such an exciting place; some of these dishes are so far removed from the days of the South Bank as to be unrecognizable. There’s a thrilling sense of experimentation, a playful plunge into the unknown; let’s just see what happens if we smoke this/pickle that/leave this to rest in a barrel shall we? It’s hard to imagine this kind of attitude would be possible in a high end establishment with the burden of diners’ expectations weighing down upon a kitchen. There’s no front to maintain, and you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that things will have moved on each time you go.
A brief word on legacy. Obviously, the original restaurant kick started a trend in long, slow, indirect cooking over charcoal. It showed others there was a market for this kind of food and put pulled pork on the menu of just about every pub in London, for better or worse. It gave rise to many, many copycats, most of them relentlessy mediocre (Duke’s Brew and Que. Eurggh.), as well as some genuinely original takes on the method they popularized (Smoking Goat, Berber and Q). The recipe book convinced many home chefs, myself included, to ditch the gas barbecue and give real hardwood charcoal a go. To spend hours in the sun firing up one chimney starter after another, agonizing over thermometers and using meat monitoring as an excuse to avoid parent duties and get quietly pissed on craft beer instead. At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, several friends told me those ribs were the best they’d ever eaten.
But I don’t think the legacy matters. Yes, it’s a remarkable achievement, but one gets the sense that it’s never been about that. In Pitt Cue co: The Cookbook, in TheMEATLiquor Chronicles, in pretty much any interview with Tom Adams you can manage to find online, it always boils down to one thing: create great food with great ingredients. It doesn’t matter what anybody else is doing. If any comparison springs to mind, for me it’s David Chang’s New York franchise, Momofuku, which started life as a simple but exceptional noodle bar and has now widened its remit beyond recognition, covering everything from lively Asian-American fusion diners to a tiny two-star fine dining outlet. Everything on the menu feels fresh, new, passionate. It’s the same feeling you get with Pitt Cue. It may well get a Michelin star, but one suspects they wouldn’t care. The only benchmark by which they judge themselves is their own. So much the better.
On a recent wine tasting expedition to the Loire Valley I was greatly affected by seeing the realities of the life of the small producer first hand. So much time, so much painstaking physical effort goes into the winemaking process, with so many critical variables beyond human control. And for what? For most, there’s very little money in it. It’s all in pursuit of that one sip of one perfect vintage that makes blood, sweat and financial ruin a mere trifle of a price to pay. With its unparalleled dedication to nurturing the food it serves from plain to plate, Pitt Cue is no different. It has moved way, way beyond barbecue into a peerless mongrel hybrid of techniques and ingredients, driven only by a search for perfection. I’m aware that this is the sort of hyperbole people reserve for great artists rather than restaurants, but it’s not accidental. True artists have vision, integrity, and a constant need to reinvent themselves. Bowie, for example. I challenge anyone to claim that Pitt Cue doesn’t possess the same. And in the year the world lost that brightest of stars, I like to think that a little of his magic has enchanted the smoky fires of a charcoal pit in East London, where least you might expect it. Ashes to Ashes, if you will.
So there you have it, the Bowie of the London restaurant scene. The best part? We have no idea what they’ll do next. In the meantime, here’s some David for you.
UPDATE: The original Newburgh Street venue has now reopened as Little Pitt. It is predictably excellent.
 As documented in the excellent Pitt Cue co: The Cookbook.
 Which I have no problem with, so long as the soul of the place is kept going. A good MEATLiquor is one of our greatest earthly pleasures, right up there with shagging.
 I’m assuming this is how it was done. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.
 I’m sure the other place is totally chilled about that.
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Saturday 5:30pm – 11pm
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