The omens were not good. A dismal Sunday in a deserted part of town. A long-suffering girlfriend in tow mewing about things we could be doing at home. Dreary grey skies casting forlorn shadows on empty gum-and-concrete streets. Reviews online, not the best (“Mediocre…lousy…overpriced”, “should have gone to Nando’s”, “Barbecoa? wouldn’t goa”).
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Square Mile on a weekend but Ye Gods* it’s a dismal place. While I concede there’s a few reasons to stray east of the Olde Cheshire Cheese on the high holy day (to pretend you’re in 28 Days Later, to look round the Museum of London’s cute Fire Of London exhibit with no-one else around) it’s not really somewhere to linger.
In the absence of TS Eliot’s zombies it’s a surreal place, bereft of most human life except tourists making the most of cheap hotel deals and then wondering why London has shut up shop. Into this void One New Change, the Jean Nouvel-designed “stealth bomber” emporium of multinational moneymaking: such unique and characterful additions to St Paul’s back yard as Topshop, Next, and Hugo Boss. Quirky little boutique places like H & M and charming tailors TM Lewin. A bold move keeping a shopping centre open seven days a week in an empty part of town. It was empty.
Into this, Jamie Oliver and Adam Perry Lang’s (American BBQ dude) project Barbecoa. Now I know what you’re thinking. Jamie Oliver? Jamie Oliver MBE? Chef, celebrity, family man, rock star drummer, travel show host, author, philanthropist, man of great social reform, food revolutionary, all-round geezer of all trades, has found time to create another restaurant?
Yep. According to Barbecoa’s website, “the two chefs used a napkin to map out an idea for a new restaurant concept” and just like that the place was born. Diverting some of the profits from his ’30 Minute Meals’ (one was sold every seven seconds before Christmas) J-Ol and A-Lang bought a load of devices for cooking flesh from around the world (Japanese robata grills, tandoor ovens, fire pits and Texan smokers) and created a carnivore’s paradise. The only problem is they seem to have inadvertantly thrown that napkin in the wash with a pair of Jamie’s jeans, because the whole concept doesn’t quite live up to its premise.
I like Jamie. I like his enthusiasm, his tour of Greece was fun, his lamb burgers pretty pukka tucker. Quite why he’s gone from failing to make Americans healthy to teaching stupid UK kids is beyond me. The other night he was enlisting Rolf Harris to teach drawing in his utopian comprehensive. He ought to have been checking up on some of his other projects.
First impressions of Barbecoa aren’t bad. You’re in a shopping centre, in the middle of a ghost town, opposite an empty Ramsay restaurant, and a sole ‘B’ draws you into an impressively kitted out dining room. There’s wicker cages for groups of eight, Playmobil plastic seats in groups of two or four, and a low-slung maze of tessellated sofas for laid-back munching. There’s a mammoth wall of wine, waitresses in leather aprons and of course that view of the arse end of St Pauls.
The food, when it arrived, wasn’t exactly terrible per se, but it was a bit of a let down. While a roast baby veg salad yielded some expertly cooked beetroot, velvety and dotted with cumin seeds, slathered in just enough sauce and surrounded by carrots, avocado, curd cheese and fiery rocket, pigs cheeks were too fussy. Small discs of stringy meat encased in breadcrumbs and pan-fried, they’d been manhandled and lemon-tinted to within an inch of their life while the accompanying piccalilli was pretty much just cauliflower that had had a brief roll in some spices.
Pulled pork came out too dry (a cardinal sin) and with its barbecue flavour turned up to 11. It hit you before you got it anywhere near your mouth and it tasted so smokey it was like dining on a chimney with Mary Poppins. Pork belly was better, but not much tastier than your run-of-the-mill gastropub. There’s plenty of other choices (rump steak, ribs, spatchcooked chicken) but I deeply suspect they’d suffer the same problems – a combination of overly eager cooking techniques and little management from the true geniuses that created the place.
Jamie’s stretched himself too thin, that much is obvious. However, the place is so popular they had to expand by 50 covers and reports just surfaced that it’s pulling in £140k a week, so his devotees don’t seem to care. And in all honesty I don’t really mind him having too much on his plate – I’ll just fill my own elsewhere. And anything that keeps him from reforming Scarlet Division is A-OK by me.
Price per head: £28.50 (no booze)
Clientele: Tourist central
Pictures of chicken coke can buggery at Skinny Bib
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