Food Safari

London’s on fire: the capital’s best places for smoky flavours

Take a tour through the cuisines, techniques and chefs that are stoking the flames of barbecue and grill restaurants.

26 September 2019
barbecuechefsmeatmiddle easternrestaurantsvegetables
image credit: St Leonards

For this month’s Food Safari, we’ve digested all you need to know about London’s grill masters and curated a selection of the capital’s finest flame dishes.

As well as breaking down the facts, we’ll take you to six standout spots, taking in Kings Cross, Shoreditch and the City, highlighting why they’re interesting and what you should try if you visit. They’re conveniently clustered together so you can easily hop from one to another, getting a charred taste of the good stuff.

You could take our word for it and discover these tried-and-tested gems on-screen. But it’s more fun, and a lot more satisfying, to taste the wares first-hand.

The big smoke

The UK has become infatuated with cooking over fire, extending far beyond traditional barbecue. Restaurants are designing their interiors around impressive grills; perfectly charred dishes are flooding Instagram accounts and festivals like Meatopia are feeding demand for this most primal style of cooking.

Grill virtuosos are fanatical about their approach, dedicated to impeccable sourcing and passionate about perfecting their trade. Meat is still a present on menus, but features far less heavily than it used to. We’re seeing more fish and plant-based dishes, expertly carbonised to impress even the most hardcore carnivore.

As autumn commences, it’s a perfect time to look at what sizzled over the summer, in preparation for next year. We’ve selected six London locations, all with different philosophies, approaches and mouth-watering menus, that represent the ultimate exploration of flame-licked flavours.

1st stop: Parrillan

Address: Coal Drops Yard, Stable St, Kings Cross, London N1C 4PW

Style: Spanish D.I.Y.

About: Parrillan is a tabletop-grill restaurant from the founders of Barrafina. Guests are given their own mini grills and choose from a selection of high-quality meats, seafood and vegetables to cook themselves. It’s not as labour intensive as it sounds; some ingredients are discreetly idiot-proofed (vegetables are blanched in advance) and staff are on hand to offer a little instruction to make sure dinner is edible. DIY concepts haven’t always hit the jackpot, but Parrillan has executed it perfectly.

What to order: The vegetable parrillada includes perfectly scorched calcot-style onions, asparagus and pepper. Red prawns are the juicy plump ones Barrafina is famous for and the pluma Iberica pork and 50-day-aged beef are of the highest, mouth-watering quality. Don’t miss out on the sauces: delicious, versatile accompaniment. 

Travel to 2nd stop: One minute on foot to Coal Office.

2nd stop: Coal Office

Address: 2 Bagley Walk, Kings Cross, London N1C 4PQ

Style: Middle Eastern over coals

About: Just a hop, skip and a jump away is Coal Office, linked to acclaimed Middle Eastern restaurants Palomar and The Barbary. The team, led by Head Chef Assaf Granit, has been serving a glorified menu of ‘modern Jerusalem’ favourites since last summer. A charcoal Josper grill plays a pivotal role in the contemporary Israeli menu, allowing the chefs to play with different levels of grilling.

What to order: The aubergine with green tahini and pistachio is the dish to order. Aubergine is cooked until the skin is crisp and paper-like and the insides are jammy. This sticky goodness creates the base of the dish, which is expertly plated and crowned with ruby pomegranate jewels. 

Travel to 3rd stop: Take the number 63 bus to Rosebery Avenue (Stop CG) and walk three minutes to Berber & Q Shawarma Bar (18 minutes total journey time).

3rd stop: Berber & Q Shawarma Bar

Address: 46 Exmouth Market, Farringdon, London EC1R 4QE

Style: Rotisserie & Grill, inspired by Tel Aviv

About: This Exmouth market hotspot is the relaxed younger sister of Berber & Q’s restaurant in Haggerston. The cuisine is similarly Middle Eastern in flavour, and the restaurant’s centrepiece is an impressive open grill. Like Parrillan, there’s an element of DIY. Deconstructed shawarmas are stunningly served to wrap up yourself. And there’s real attention given to sides and sauces such as the fiery green Yemenite Dynamite.

What to order: Slow-roasted lamb and rotisserie chicken are faultless, but we urge you to go off-piste and try the fire-up fish special. It changes daily, depending on the catch. On our visit it was the wild black bream, stuffed and grilled whole, that caught our eye.

Travel to 4th stop: Take the number 812 bus to Featherstone Street and walk six minutes to St Leonards (16 minutes total journey time).

4th stop: St Leonards

Address: 70 Leonard Street, Hackney, London EC2A 4QX

Style: As British as a wood-burning hearth

About: St Leonards is the brainchild of chefs Jackson Boxer and Andrew Clarke, from Brunswick House in Vauxhall. The restaurants have some similarities, with a heavy focus on quality sourcing and honouring ingredients. St Leonards focal point is an imposing wood-burning hearth, complete with bespoke ironmongery and hung with intricately butchered animal parts. Less than half of the menu features meat, however, so this isn’t just a place for carnivores.

What to order: The vegetable plate is more satisfying than it sounds. Made up of whatever’s in season, it’s grilled al dente and finished with a perfectly balanced salsa verde. For an epic shared feast, the 60-day aged sirloin won’t disappoint. But it’s the grilled hispi cabbage side that has grabbed the most attention: it’s doused in molten pork fat before being charred and sprinkled with pork-fat breadcrumbs. Not one for the vegetarians, then.

Travel to 5th stop: Walk 12 minutes to Ember.

5th stop: Ember

Address: 202 Brick Lane, London E1 6SA

Style: Small plates over embers 

About: Former Come Dine with Me winner Craig McAlpine opened Ember in May. It takes its name from the large ember grill that’s integral to a menu designed for sharing. Small plates are cooked over open coals and boast big bold flavours from the Med, Greece and the Levant. The menu is split into earth, sea and land, with dishes for vegetarians, vegans and free-from diners.

What to order: The ember-baked celeriac hummus, olive oil and hazelnuts has become a firm favourite. Then there’s the slow-cooked, grilled pork belly with beetroot puree and, you guessed it, smoked aubergine, which is a standout dish showcasing a number of expert grilling techniques.

Travel to 6th stop: Walk six minutes to Caboose.

6th stop: Caboose

Address: Ely's Yard (off Hanbury Street), Old Truman Brewery, Dray Walk, London E1 6QR

Style: British Smokehouse

About: Caboose opened in 2013 and has become an institution. Situated in Ely’s Yard, it’s a unique street food cabin serving Brick Lane locals with perfectly smoked plates. The founders use ethically sourced, free-range meat, cooked low and slow for the ultimate flavour and texture. Generous sandwiches and ‘naked’ bread-free boxes are served daily from a hatch, with classic sides such as dirty rice and homemade BBQ beans (if your appetite stretches that far).

What to order: The 3:10 to Yuma, consisting of beef brisket smoked over hickory wood chips with lettuce, homemade BBQ sauce, mustard and blue cheese. The sweet maple slaw with sugared pecans is as fine a slaw as you will taste in London.

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