I have fond memories of sitting in front of a stage on a verdant grass lawn in Wyoming, working my way through a seemingly unending heap of cumin-spiced ribs, the sound of loping twelve-bar blues reverberating from a nearby stage.
The blues festival was always a highlight of my childhood holidays to the United States, listening to the roaring guitars and syncopated, snapped beats of the drummer cutting through a warm, hazy afternoon.
A key component of the American blues festival is the selection of grizzled, impressively bearded men tending to their colossal repurposed oil-drums, sucking down a series of sudsy Budweiser’s and discussing the finer points of which specific wood they use in their smoker, which particular chili’s they like to mix into their hot sauce. It’s part art-form, part religion, a cult of joyfully disintegrating meat.
The newly opened branch of the Big Easy in Covent Garden is the latest attempt to bring a hazy slice of those warm, American afternoons to a British location. Sequestered in the underworld heart of a historic power station, the entire venue is a tribute to the slightly barbarous nature of this style of cooking. Hulking ironwork cages are stacked high with endless cords of (we assume) cooking wood. The toilet is three staircases down into the bowels of the earth, following a twisting path through black lacquered steelwork and along ringing metal stairs. The walls are shrouded in various totems to Americana – battered cocktail tomes, tungsten and sodium lamps with glowing filaments, and colossal chalkboards with a high-score board of today’s lobster sizes. The long, gleaming wooden bar is supported by a pantheon of bottled amber backing singers, hundreds of liquor bottles stacked row upon row towards the ceiling.
Our waiter dashes over with a smile after we’re seated, projecting an aura of American-family friendliness before setting off at a canter to collect our drinks. I settle on the Miami Vice, the mafia-boss of the Big Easy’s slushie cocktails. Essentially a frozen strawberry daiquiri stacked on top of a frozen pina colada, I find it a little bit overwhelming. Were I draped on a deck chair by a pool, it might be more palatable, but the entire contraption is too busy, too sweet. My partner settles for a beer from the extensive grog menu. I envy his choice.
We’re not only here for the food. The Big Easy also serves as a music venue, and the Grammy-winning Jonny Lang blows us away with a series of rip-roaring blues solos, his bashful awkwardness at being sequestered into the corner of a London restaurant endearing. He meekly professes it’s the first time he’s played a barbeque joint, but you can see the logic – the basement has an intimacy which amplifies the intensity of the music.
We begin with chicken wings slathered in a sharp hot-sauce that assaults all the right parts of my mouth, requiring a judicious dousing of sour-cream to calm it down. My partner is presented with a bowl of hush puppies – savoury doughnuts paired with a small ramekin of chilli jam. The combination is a bit too filling for something meant to stoke the appetite, and the jam overpowers the lightly herbed batter of the doughnut.
Both of us are drawn to the same main course, the imposingly named BBQ-O-Rama. It takes an orchestra of waiting staff to bring out our behemoth portions, served atop a slightly burnt wooden platter in a variety of cast iron dishes. The St Louis ribs have a pink tinge to the meat that can only come from hours of diligent smoking. The meat pulls away from the bone with a reluctant moan. Unlike poor imitations of barbeque it doesn’t slough off, a consequence of when the animal is boiled till well done before being finished off on the grill. Sweet and sticky, there’s an appropriate veneer of fat that gives it a depth of rich flavour. My partner loves the barbeque chicken, succulent, juicy and wonderfully delicate. It tumbles apart easily at his gentle assault. The rub penetrates into the meat, suffusing the darker muscle with its tangy flavour.
The dish that really sells me the idea that Big Easy know their smoking from their slow-cooking is the North Carolina pulled pork, one of food-obsessed London’s most commonly flagellated dishes. It feels like every person, venture capitalist and their dog has found a convenient roof-shack, restaurant or repurposed ambulance from which to serve their own ‘unique version’ of a specific cultural delicacy, and pulled pork is currently the flavour of the month. I walked down Tottenham Court Road recently and saw six different signs professing their expertise at boiling a hunk of pig shoulder into nothingness before slathering it with an over-sugared sauce. It’s becoming something of a staple dish in the modern gastro-pub-wagon-hovercraft era, yet so often it is done poorly. Countless hopeful brioche buns have made their way to my plate loaded with a smeared mass of once-porcine flesh, oozing with an oversaturated sauce.
The pork here is nothing like this. There’s a textural pageant going on in my mouth with the first bite. As opposed to the greasy mass often served, I’m treated to a royal rumble of caramelized charred crust, crispy inner flesh and muscular, succulent centre. The meat is non-uniform, less pulled than torn by some demonic creature hidden in a dark vault somewhere beneath us. The dry rub adds punch and flavour, and the classic vinegar baste gives it a delightful tang that keeps stodginess from setting in. Every mouthful is different; an absolute triumph.
A stainless steel jug of barbeque sauce accompanies this carnivore’s wet dream, and while flavorsome, and certainly more complex than many over-sweet competitors, I don’t find it necessary. The quality of the meat is more than sufficient on its own. The attached potato salad and baked beans were both admirable dishes, the smoked beans in particular a more complex dish than their traditional Heinz representative.
Half an hour in and I collapse, unable to finish. My partner smirks at me, still hacking away at his near unending pile of food, but I am beaten. With a remorseful, slightly ashamed wave, I catch my waiter’s attention, and at the finish, the Big Easy has one last surprise; they’re happy to put it in a takeaway bag for me. And once again, my childhood memories of American barbeques come rushing back.
Big Easy Restaurant 12 Maiden Lane, London WC2 (020 3728 4888). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £80
words Will Squires