Regardless of the fact that Jamie Oliver was instrumental in making my generation’s school dinner’s inexplicably bleak, I’ve always respected the chef’s devil-may-care approach to cooking. Still, I’d trade all of the champagne and caviar in the world for just one last turkey Twizzler, no matter how disgusting they really were, on reflection.
When he The Naked Chef was first broadcast, almost 20 years ago, I was too young to understand the appeal. But when I first began to cook at home, I would work my way through the recipes bound within ‘Cook With Jamie’. To this day, I still attest most of my home cooking skills to the simple recipes printed within that particular book. Furthermore, it was after a visit to the original Barbecoa, near St Paul’s, that I developed a taste for writing about restaurants. As soon as I got home that evening, I hammered out an article about the meal, and come morning – I’d written my first ever restaurant review.
Since then, as well as closing a number of restaurants, Jamie Oliver has recently opened a brand new shiny Barbecoa on Piccadilly, a few doors along from Fortnum & Mason. As expected, the new venue is suitably bold and glamorous: it’s a quintessentially British take on the New York-style steakhouses that have sprung up across London. Past the beef-hanging chambers and bar with its titanic selection of American whiskeys, the underground dining space is all plush velvet and leather blanquettes, vintage wall-tiles in a pie and mash shop green, and numerous art deco features such as heavy chandeliers that bring just a touch of light to the venue.
Elsewhere, the open kitchen is one of London’s best equipped. Alongside a charcoal grill and Japanese robata, the kitchen boasts a Tandoor oven, Spanish Mibrasa and a Texan smoker. On the opposite side of the room, there is also a cold seafood bar, which is brand new to Barbecoa. As for the menu, the main focus here is on steaks and smoked meats, with a few surprises in between. A pre-dinner snack of luscious slowly-braised short rib croquettes (£4) are slick with more oil than ideal, but they taste phenomenal. This is next-level comfort food, even better with the generous dollop of well-balanced Gochujang mayonnaise. The sourdough (£5) is nothing to write home about, but the butter whipped with chicken butter and the daintiest, most flavoursome shards of crispy chicken skin are just enough to forgive the slate that the dish is served on.
Sticky creole ribs are a definitive example of the “home of smoke and fire” slogan that’s adopted here. A half-rack of pork ribs (£9) is cooked remarkably and soft enough to be eaten without the need of any teeth. Jouissance with rich barbecue sauce, however, the outer bark from the fire gives the ribs an almost astringent bitterness of burnt pepper. Far better is a dish of wild prawns (£15) the size of sausages. These are served in the shell with the heads that demand to be taken in hand to slurp all of the cooking juice, much to the disgust of everybody within a three table radius. The prawns are cooked perfectly in the Tandoor, while the addition of smoked tomatoes and roasted garlic lend a Mediterranean slant to the dish, before lingering spice of ancho chilli launches the dish into South American quicker than you can say “chiles en nogada”.
To visit a restaurant and order a steak is a subterfuge. For the most part, it is a tasteless action that makes the whole experience of eating out completely futile. It is an exercise in showcasing one’s bland insipidity. But the steaks at Barbecoa really are the main draw, we’re constantly reassured, so we give in and order a rib-eye. First though, the coal-grilled lobster thermidor. “Lobster! That’s just as boring as ordering a steak”, you scream from behind your keyboard. But this isn’t just any lobster, I promise. And the chips – they’re “ultimate”, seriously. This is not one of the spindly £20 lobsters on offer at Burger & Lobster; by which it is actually quite enjoyable.
A whole lobster is halved and served with all manner of tools to extract as much of the meat as possible (which you would expect for £45). Cooked exceptionally well, the lobster is accompanied by a decadent sauce of cream and cheese that works surprisingly well with the char from the aggressive cooking method generally associated with large hunks of meat. As for the chips: these are thick enough to exclude draughts, piling paper-thin slices of potato and frying them to produce something quite delightful – almost like a slab of deep-fried dauphinoise sans cream. They’re a refreshing change of pace from the triple-cooked chips that appear on just about every menu in central London.
Naturally, there’s only so much that can be written about the steak. It’s cooked properly (medium-rare, as requested) with a great degree of fat that’s been rendered just enough to rid the meat of any wanton flabbiness, yet preserving an explosion of ambrosial flavour that’s heightened by a deep caramelised bark. It doesn’t take a butcher to realise that the quality of the beef is exceptional, and the pricing is fairly reasonable at £36 for 140z (around 400 grams). That’s marginally more expensive, per ounce, than a similar cut at Hawksmoor just across the road, but considerably cheaper than the rib-eye at Mash, which costs £34 for 300 grams (approximately £3.24 per ounce, juxtaposed to the £2.57 here). Bafflingly, the steak is also less expensive than one of the only British cuts served at the slate that the dish is served on.
We finish with a ‘snickersphere’ (£9) – a dressed-up dish that combines the key ingredients of a Snickers bar – and a custard panna cotta (£8). Unsurprisingly, the custard panna cotta is astonishingly dense, almost overbearingly so, but strands of rhubarb are tart enough to save this dish and cut through the panna cotta’s toothsome sweetness, restoring balance. My advice, however, would be to forego dessert entirely, in favour of a Barbecoa blazer cocktail (£13). This is prepared table side with a helping of theatre that gets our adrenaline racing. The bartender pours flaming apple and cinnamon-infused bourbon from one tankard to another, then into a brandy balloon washed with heavily-peated Laphroaig. The drink is unsurprisingly delightful.
The food served here is a complete far-cry from the style that Jamie Oliver has become so renowned for – it’s largely refined with meticulous detail. Moreover, the service is excellent: friendly, efficient and refreshingly casual, and the room is attractive. Though the newest branch of Barbecoa is not necessarily central London’s best steakhouse, and the menu has its imperfections, the food that’s done well is absolutely “pukka”.
Barbecoa Piccadilly can be found at 194 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9EX.