The Smoke Haus.
Surely it couldn’t be as bad as the last time I ate alleged ‘barbecue’ in the city centre? Could lightning strike twice in the same postcode? (NB I haven’t checked this bit- don’t bother correcting me).
To whit: could The Smoke Haus serve ‘barbecue’ as bad, as scrotum-shrinkingly awful, as the meal we endured at Coyote Ugly- without doubt the single most depressing meal I’ve eaten? (No wonder the menu is laminated: the hot salt tears of self-loathing shed by anyone serving food like that would make everything a little soggy. Rare indeed is the kind of meal which has you pondering whether you’d rather auction your loved ones to a vivisectionist than ever eat there again; it’s food which should come with a side of Fluoxetine and a complimentary course of therapy. If I want to sit there feeling morally appalled and having my intelligence insulted in equal measure, I’ll ask Katie Hopkins out to dinner, ta).
After that slow-motion car-crash, with its betrayal of the promise, the heart, of genuine ‘American BBQ’, would The Smoke Haus give new cause for hope? It couldn’t be that bad, could it?
Well, without wanting to administer a swift kick to the kidneys of that still-twitching corpse on St Mary St, no. It couldn’t. That was grim, and earned the distinction of being (fanfare alert) The Worst Meal I Have Ever Been Served. Full details are available here- though I should warn you to have a bottle of mind bleach on standby.
This hasn’t been the place to garner much blogger attention, despite its bums-on-seats popularity and the love of barbecue which courses through the city’s veins. Is it that they’ve been tried, found wanting, but no one has wanted to stick the boot in? Had they tried it and found it wanting, but were too nice to say anything? Because if there’s one thing you can say about Cardiff’s restaurant bloggers – and there are fewer than you think (six or so at most)- it’s that they are a loyal, constructive bunch, supportive of new local enterprise, who want good things to succeed. (I mean the genuine ones who don’t just blather on about ‘supporting local businesses’ but who actually put their money where their mouth is; not the ones whose gimlet eyes get even greedily beadier when a freebie is dangled in front of them, who think they’ve ‘made it’ when they stand around feeling smug with a free cocktail.
You can live with the statutory ersatz Americana- hey! it’s Batman and Robin! It’s the Green Bay Packers! It’s a chopper! It’s Eminem! We like American things! They’re big on branding: their website promises ‘big portions and bold flavours.’
We’ll stick with classics, then: the staples of any place which knows its way around a smoker.
Throughout, service is a strength. It is warm, personable, efficient and a highlight of our visit. Their chips have a attractive home-cooked look about them (they’re far too substantial to be mere ‘fries’) and are groovy. Well, grooved, anyway, with a distinctive lengthways recess for loading dips and sauces.
A good crisp outer, a light fluff in the centre (bonus points for the Sarson’s on the table- it may not be a ‘authentic’ smokehouse touch but it’s a solid performer with chips), these are one of the better things we eat. Rather good, too, are the onion rings: proper, thick slices in a crisp batter which never feels heavy.
Baby back ribs are a disappointment. They certainly look the part: it’s a huge portion. Sadly, there’s little evidence we can detect of any grill work and the wide strip of cartilage across the top – which rather shrinks the edible area- is downright unpleasant. When our table is cleared, no one asks why half the meal is uneaten.
The texture is tender- too tender, which means an initial bite renders it mushy. Pappy. My friend, veteran of many a service in many a kitchen, wonders if their texture means they have been cooked sous-vide, which I am pretty sure isn’t part of a smokehouse’s repertoire. There’s little I can detect in the way of smokiness beyond the over-sweet sauce. The portion is large- very large- but it makes working your way through it less attractive than it might.
Rib meat should slide from the bone with the slightest encouragement, but still feel like flesh in the mouth. (Sound the Pseud’s Corner klaxon…) It should reawaken some distant race memory, something deep in the human genome, something about the triumph of man in the evolutionary struggle and the power of fire as you tear apart singed animal parts with busy hands and teeth.
This was just pappy, though, with little to offer in the way of texture. It’s Fisher Price ‘My First ‘Cue, for the very young/very old/dentally challenged. I find my interest palling quickly, bored with the lack of variety.
The Big Bertha burger is a decent effort. It’s a substantial puck of a patty, without being over-dense, and cooked with some understanding.
Although there’s no suggestion of pink, as per cockamamie gusset-bunching regulations, it is still juicy enough. It has been properly seasoned and allowed to develop a palpable crust on the grill. Toppings (jalapenos) are generous and interesting, bacon and oozing Swiss cheese to the fore. All in all, it’s the best thing we eat. You’ve had plenty worse ones in the city centre, I’ll bet.
It’s obviously better than The Smoke Haus’ notorious (and recently closed) Bristol branch, although you might argue it’s harder to impress diners in Bristol. My main issue would be one of low ambitions. Take Hang Fire Southern Kitchen.
They are on a mission to educate the UK, to share the subtle alchemy worked by smoke, which spins gold out of the humblest cuts. They have enjoyed huge public acclaim by doing what they do with care and commitment to high standards. I dare say there could be corners to cut, yet they maintain their original brief.
The Smoke Haus is better than I had feared, not as good as I had hoped. It’s not terrible: if that sounds like faint praise then it has to be considered in context. The obvious question is to see how it compared to our experience at The Bad Place, where tastebuds go to die. No, for the truly wretched you need to suffer the horrors of Coyote and their ‘We put the ‘Ugh!’ in Ugly’ menu.
Is The Smoke Haus better than the travesty ‘American barbecue’ at Coyote Ugly? Well, yes, clearly. There’s a gulf between ‘meh’ and ‘actively unpleasant’, between ‘this is a missed opportunity’ and ‘Hello? Police? I’d like to report a hate crime against my taste buds.’ This isn’t ‘the worst’. That trophy belongs to Coyote Ugly, with room to spare: there’s a palpable difference between a meal which is ‘merely ok’ and onewhich was just a drably-coloured ‘f*ck you’ on a platter. This is…ok. I guess. It’s uninspiring and a little bland. And that’s as enthusiastic as I can force myself to be.
My problem for The Smoke Haus is that they are not Hang Fire. They have educated people about what this type of cooking can be, how time and patience and the subtle alchemy of smoke can work wonders. They have set new expectations using timeworn principles. Why The Smoke Haus hasn’t accepted the challenge and tried at least to match their standard, is something only they can know. They certainly have the resources, spread across three cities: and striving for something distinctive, surely, is why we are all here. They certainly have their fans- their Trip Advisor page has people rhapsodising about the ‘incredible’, ‘outstanding’ or ‘amazing’ food they ate. Perhaps they had an off day. Perhaps I just don’t ‘get’ it. Perhaps I’m getting too picky. And I haven’t even mentioned the in-house playlist which meant someone inflicted 25 minutes of non-stop U2 on me on my first visit.
Big portions? Sure. But bold flavours? It’s a case of ‘could try harder’.
The Smoke Haus
Mary Ann Street,
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