I first started this blog in the summer of 2012. My aim then was exactly the same as it is today; to shout about London's amazing food, cool bars, thought-provoking art and random eccentricities from her lofty rooftops, to light a path and entice both newcomers and world-weary locals along it with me. In December of that year, I blogged a newcomer to the noodle scene in Soho, a rockin' ramen bar called Bone Daddies. We've both moved on a bit since then.
Ex-Zuma and Nobu chef Ross Shonhan seems to be a bit of a trailblazer. Bone Daddies was soon regularly bursting at the seams (reading back through the blog it did make me smile - those were the days when a 'no-reservation' policy was actually worth mentioning!) and the following summer saw the arrival of Flesh & Buns, the original steamed bao 'beer and buns' joint, in the style of an Izakaya - a kind of casual restaurant/local bar hybrid that is a common and popular post-work pitstop in Japan. I probably don't need to tell you that the concept was a hit.
Shackfuyu opened early in 2015 serving Western-inspired Japanese dishes. By the end of the year it had turned into the Pinocchio of pop-ups and become a real-life permanent bricks-and-mortar restaurant, alongside an ever-growing brood of Bone Daddies: Kensington, Bermondsey, Old Street and now James Street. There's even a little sibling on the way, planned for the new NOVA development in Victoria later this year. So, full circle, I find myself once again queueing on a bitingly cold London evening (so cold, in fact, that the staff came out with shots of warm sake to keep us going - much appreciated, thank you!) to see what's new.
First impressions: it's bigger than the original (James Street has an additional downstairs dining area) with a lower-volume version of their classic rock soundtrack and consequently has a slightly more grown-up feel. It's as if the experience has been dialled down just a notch from the full-on Soho version: roomier, lighter, quieter. This may not last, of course, as this was only day two of opening (and I confess I love the unapologetic in-your-face energy of the Soho bar) but it's good to have the choice.
The industrial-chic interior has a couple of seats at the bar (which has a small but perfectly-formed sake and whisky selection) and communal wooden tables with stools. If the madness of a first-come, first-served soft launch is anything to go by, the front of house staff will cope admirably with anything you can throw at them (props to the lovely Noemie and Julius, who got the whole thing bang on).
So, on to the food. We had starved ourselves in preparation (the sacrifices I make for you, dear reader) and so hit the bar snacks hard. First to arrive was the wild soft-shell crab with green chilli ginger sauce, and a dish of smashed cucumber. My initially cautious companion was converted by the tempura-style crab and the well-balanced spicy dip.
As we were seated at the bar, it seemed impolite not to order a cocktail or two to go with. We went for a Gini Hendrix (long and refreshing, with yuzu sake, gin, cucumber and oolong syrup) and a moreish lychee and pomegranate martini. A plate of the sweet and spicy edamame went down well; wonderfully messy to eat (you get a little wipe each with the bowl for empties) and more interesting than the usual salt or chilli options.
We then went for a prawn nama harumaki - a fresh spring roll (similar to the Vietnamese version but with pickles as well as the fresh vegetables) and a wasabi mayo dip. I really liked this; it was super-fresh, as it absolutely has to be for this to work, and the individual flavours all came through well.
I could happily have worked my way through the rest of the snacks menu (sweet spicy pig bones! Korean chicken wings!) but we wanted to try the offerings from the James Street site's new toy - a robata grill. Robata means 'fireside cooking' in Japanese and is a barbecue-style cooking method similar to an Argentinian asado, where food is placed at different heights over different sections of the grill to control heat and timings.
First was the chicken yakitori with shichimi pepper, well-flavoured and with just the right amount of crispy char-grill on the edges. If I sound as if I am damning this with faint praise, it's only because it arrived with the ox cheek kushiyaki (i.e. grilled skewer), which is like turning up to a party with Scarlett Johansson. This was my stand-out dish of the day, really showcasing the intense smoky flavour imparted by the grill. Padron peppers and kimchee butter were inspired companions and the soft, tender meat was utterly delicious.
We also tried the pork belly kushiyaki, which was my companion's favourite and really good in both texture and flavour; the fierce heat of the robata suits pork well, producing both juicy meat and crispy skin. If I hadn't already had the ox cheek I would probably be raving about this too.
It's kind of obligatory to order ramen at a classic ramen bar, so we did. It was everything we have come to expect from Bone Daddies: warming, soothing, tasty, with perfect Clarence Court eggs and a rich, creamy broth - 'a warm hug in a bowl' as my companion put it - and reassuringly, just as good as I remember. I notice that the 'cock scratchings' which caused such social media mirth nearly five years ago are now trademarked. How times change.
It occurs to me that I have only ever visited Bone Daddies in the depths of winter, when a big bowl of hot, comforting spicy noodles is a welcome escape from the icy streets. As I wandered off home, I found myself planning a summer trip for snacks, skewers and an ice-cold Asahi beer.
So - here we are wandering the backstreets of Hackney Wick on an ominously overcast Saturday afternoon, looking for the venue of choice for our Meat Lust Bare Bones tour. As it turns out, this isn't too difficult, as said venue is a London double-decker bus, painted bright pink and pimped into a mobile barbecue shack/ bar/party venue/kitchen. As you do, right?
The key themes of the day are meat and flavour: big, bold, inventive, uncompromising, assertive. For those of you unfamiliar with Meat Lust (at least in the culinary sense) they produce a range of street-food inspired sauces with, as they say, 'thug flavours that punch hard and don't apologise', including a Buffalo sauce with a smooth buttery flavour and a big cayenne kick, and a rather moreish fruity Chinese BBQ.
To showcase these they have assembled a seriously strong team, headed up by acclaimed chef Ben Spalding (ex Fat Duck, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Le Manoir, Roganic and John Salt to name but a few) and friends cooking on-board dishes on the top deck and each of the featured foodie stops creating a taster dish for the tour.
The Gipsy Hill Brewing Co. manned the downstairs bar, providing four beers apiece from a selection of six; after all, who doesn't love beer and barbecue? (In a fabulous touch, the labels on the beers feature staff members, with charming co-founder Sam McMeekin, left, in a starring role on the Beatnik beer.) A neon-lit interior and cool soundtrack set the mood and we were ready to go.
First stop, The Ribman. A street-food stalwart at Brick Lane, The Ribman is also well-known to hungry West Ham fans as he serves up his amazing ribs and rolls outside the Boleyn Tavern whenever they play at home. The Ribman has a pretty strong hot sauce game himself, with his Holy F**k sauce heading up a range of freshly-made (and similarly-named) sauces. We started off here with with some meltingly soft rib meat rolls - though smart money was already on going the bun-free route to leave room for later. If you are one of the lucky few to get a ticket for this, I strongly advise this option.
Back on the bus and off along the streets of East London to our next stop, and time for our first dish from Chef Ben Spalding. This extraordinarily talented young chef has a touch of the maverick about him; he is driven, knowledgeable, passionate and uncompromisingly creative. If you were trying to find a critically-lauded chef trained in a series of Michelin-starred kitchens willing to freeze his bits off on the top deck of an open-topped bright pink bus in February and prepare bespoke dishes in a six-foot-square space on a barbecue on a moving vehicle, he would be your guy. And boy, did he deliver.
Dish one was Bingo Wings - brined, poached and caramelised turkey and chicken wings in ML Buffalo sauce with apricot, blue cheese popcorn and creamed Blacksticks blue cheese. This balance of textures and bold, punchy flavours set the bar high for the rest of the day.
Our next stop was Clutch chicken and on came a tray of 'chicken lollipops' - succulent chicken with a satisfyingly crisp, crunchy coating flavoured with soy and garlic. We paired this with a Gipsy Hill Beatnik beer, a light and very drinkable pale ale with only 3.8% abv - perfect for pacing yourself without sacrificing taste.
But that wasn't all. The Clutch team came back with yet more goodies - trays of spicy wings and 'Love Me Tenders' - juicy chicken breast strips with a zingy parmesan and lemon coating. I'm planning a trip to nearby Columbia Road flower market in the spring and have earmarked this for a proper visit to check out their cocktails.
Back on the bus, our next dish from the chef was New Kid on the Block - one of the candidates for my standout dish of the day. Rack of kid was blasted on the barbecue and lightly flambéed in smoked black rum. A tartare was layered with crispy chicken skin and a delicate kid chop, served very rare, wobbly and delicious. The chicken skin was a perfect scoop for the wonderful tartare, lightened with a trace of pineapple and lemon thyme.
As if this wasn't enough, it was served on a block covered with set caramel, to be licked clean. I confess now that this has been my foodie equivalent of 'the one that got away'. I was one of the hordes that had booked months in advance for a chance to try Spalding's 'Chicken on a Brick' at John Salt several years ago before creative differences led to an early exit. It was everything I had hoped it would be. Closure feels so good.
Next stop, Foxlow. Head chef Jon Stewart arrived on the bus for a quick Q&A and bearing gifts - his favourite cut, Hanger steak, cooked medium-rare with shiitake mushrooms, whipped bone marrow and fried shallots. I was a particular fan of the bone marrow as this is such a rich and strongly-flavoured ingredient that I sometimes find it a little overpowering but this was beautifully balanced. By this time we had moved on to Gipsy Hill's Belgian dubbel, Les Gilles, a malt-based beer with a sour cherry finish (and weighing in at a hefty 6.5%) - our new favourite from the crew and a good match for the robust flavours of the steak.
By now the temperature was seriously dropping and I felt for the chefs upstairs. Our next dish to arrive was #Smokinduck - Gressingham duck leg brined and slow-cooked, served on a pancake topped with a barbecued cabbage leaf, creme fraiche, red plum, ML Chinese BBQ sauce and a velvet slap of flavour from umami king MSG. Again, the expert balance of flavours was incredible; each note distinct and at the same time a crucial part of the whole. On a more prosaic note, we were all grateful that this was small in size if not flavour, as we had all pretty much eaten our own bodyweight in meat.
Our final stop was Bleecker Burger; I love burgers as much as the next guy - more, probably - but its not the kind of thing you generally choose to eat when you are already full. Happy days, then, when we opened the full-sized carton to find a slider-sized burger - and testament to Bleecker and their delicious dry-aged beef that we all finished every bite, despite having just announced that we couldn't possibly eat another thing. (By we, I mean the entire lower deck of the bus, as we had by now all got to know each other and were having the best time. Fun events attract fun people, clearly.)
Homeward bound, but still two dishes to come from the chef and his hardworking team of two upstairs. The next was This Little Piggy - pig cheeks brined, grilled, braised and then glazed with ML sweet green chilli sauce, served with a smoked lychee, cream cheese, crispy rice and sour pomegranate. This was served on a swirl of crisp, puffy crackling and though I was about to slip into a meat coma, it was irresistible.
Last, but definitely not least - and my other contender for stand-out dish of the day - was Crack Rib. Before the major player arrived it was already a winner, courtesy of these highly addictive little numbers here. They were basically a kind of crack crouton infused with (I think) garlic and blue cheese. The incredible thing was the explosion of flavour when you put just one tiny cube in your mouth - I'm totally hooked! Ben gave these out in advance so we could taste a few and sprinkle the rest over the beef.
The main dish was aged Longhorn beef short rib, served on the bone, glazed in ML BBQ mop sauce, seasoned with smoked sel gris salt with Bramley apple, tom yum and crack crumbs. I cannot tell you how unbelievably good this was - silky-textured, incredible depth of flavour, with the intense apple tang to cut through it - it was perhaps a shame that it didn't get an earlier billing. I totally get that it is a real 'drop the mic' dish but we had all eaten so much we were struggling to breathe and couldn't do it anything like the justice it deserved.
We agreed that we would have been pretty happy to pay the ticket price for this alone and rolled off the bus feeling vaguely guilty at the quality and quantity of food and booze we had got for the money. (And on top of this, I won a selection of beers in the social media comp, so walked away with those too!) So, thank you Meat Lust, thank you Gipsy Hill Brewery, and most of all thank you chef Ben Spalding and the guys for a truly unforgettable dining experience. To create those dishes in a restaurant kitchen would have been impressive, but in those conditions - I humbly salute you all.