Pigging out - on the trail of the smokiest barbecued ribs

Finding proper sticky ribs is a major operation - Live celebrates the return of the rack

London is a fine eating city, arguably the greatest in the world. Paris might sneer, New York harrumph and Hong Kong dismiss with a wave of the hand, but nowhere else on Earth is the global culinary diaspora so concentrated in one place. You could eat your way around the world without crossing the M25; Georgian spiced aubergine, Portuguese tripe stew, Nigerian stewed land snails, Iranian aash, Laotian larb salad, Mexican street food – they’re all there, patiently awaiting your order.

Spare ribs

Grilled spare ribs with rosemary

From this cast of thousands, though, there’s one glaring omission: a decent barbecued rib.

I don’t mean that depressingly British ritual, where entirely blameless sausages are ritually abused on a rusty alfresco grill.

Real barbecue is an American art form, where tough cuts of pig, cow and sheep are transformed by low and slow cooking into tender butts, briskets and ribs, beautifully infused with smoke.

Travel around the South (or Kansas City, or Chicago) and you enter a whole new world of pleasure, where the merits of pig butt versus whole hog, or wet versus dry, are debated as fiercely as anything on Capitol Hill. Try to get a decent rib in London, though, and you’re fresh out of luck. Arkansas Café, in Old Spitalfields Market, used to be a bastion of decent ’cue, but owner Bubba has doused his pit for the last time.

And Bodean’s, despite an admirable pulled-pork roll, disappoints with its baby backs – they err on the dry side and the meat lacks flavour.

So news that The Chicago Rib Shack, which was my favourite restaurant until it closed ten years ago, was due to open again with new owners offered hope for the rabid rib fiend. My only worry was whether it could live up to the sauce-drenched perfection of my youth. My memories of good ribs and sticky fingers were as vivid as ever as I entered the new site, a few hundred yards from the Knightsbridge original.

It’s modern, light and airy, part New York brasserie, part modern London steakhouse. Dark wood predominates, with solid, manly tables, tiled floors and a stained-glass window proclaiming, ‘Dans chaque homme sommeille un cochon’ or, ‘There’s a pig in everyone’.

Pigs dominate the walls, too, but the effect is charming rather than cloying. You don’t go to rib restaurants for the minimalist feel. You go for the ribs.

In the US, most barbecue restaurants are little more than shacks with rickety tables and paper plates. Here, provenance is everything, with the pork coming from Eastbrook organic farm and the beef from Jody Scheckter’s biodynamic Laverstoke Park.

Finding sticky ribs is a major operation

Finding sticky ribs is a major operation

‘We are aiming at the top end of mainstream,’ says Jon Yantin, one of the founders. ‘We’ve given the restaurant a 2008 spring-clean, but the backbone is still excellent food.’

Sly is the head chef and cooked at the original restaurant for ten years. ‘There’s nothing he doesn’t know about ribs,’ says Jon.

Thanks to recent legislation, a huge charcoal pit is no longer allowed. In its place sit four industrial smokers, which smoke the ribs using apple-wood and cherry-wood chips.

First, the ribs (either baby back or St Louis-style from the belly) are rubbed with a secret mix of herbs and spices, then put into the smoker.

Once cooked, they’re coated in their own barbecue sauce, then chilled, before being glazed with a concentrated sauce and put under a nuclear-heat broiler to achieve that perfect crust.

I like to think I’m a decent judge of ribs, having once trained to be a judge for the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), the governing body of competitive US barbecue.

Properly cooked, the meat should come off the bone with a small tug of the teeth – not flop off in one piece, but come free with slight pressure. It shouldn’t be dried out, but pert and yielding, with an underlying tang of smoke, spice and sauce.

Jon was so sure as to the quality of his ribs that he insisted I try a St Louis without sauce, so the flavour had ‘nothing to hide behind’.

And it was as fine a rib as I’d had for months. Good porky tang and wonderful texture, with a hint of the dry rub.

One bite and the meat peeled from the bone. The sauced version was equally impressive – sweet meat with a whisper of smoke beneath a divine crust of cooked barbecue sauce.

These were the real thing, the sort of bones that would have my fellow KCBS judges emitting gasps of delight.

I’ll have to go back a few times more, but if they’re consistently this good, all is well on Earth. I did have a few quibbles – the coleslaw was too mild, lacking that crucial vinegar kick. And the pulled pork wasn’t as silken and melt-in-the-mouth as it should be.

But these are minor points. My advice is to get down there and rejoice. At long last, the rib lovers of Britain have somewhere worthy of their devotion.


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