My favourite shipping container experience of recent memory.
49 Brixton Station Road
London SW9 8PQ
Malcom Purcell Mclean is a name that sounds like it belongs to a twentieth-century American captain of industry. This is because it does. In the mid-nineteen-fifties, Malcolm P. Mclean revolutionised the maritime industry by inventing the modern shipping container. Containerisation meant that cargo no longer needed to be loaded individually, saving, as you can imagine, untold money and labour. Ninety percent of all cargo is still transported in shipping containers, making Mr Purcell a fairly important gentleman.
I mention this as I seem to be spending a disproportionate amount of my time in or around shipping containers these days. Every time I go out to get slaughtered it seems that I spend a large portion of the night in a shipping container, or in a courtyard surrounded by shipping containers. I went to a bar a few weeks back that was inside a legitimate stone building, and yet even then there were shipping containers within the building; the owners had secured a bona fide premises, which had real, actual bars in it, but for some reason there were also shipping containers inside – like it would be remiss not to have them there. And they don’t just house bars these days, but restaurants too. Whole restaurants within shipping containers. What I’m saying is that there are a lot of shipping containers about at the moment.
And I’m not complaining. I love a good shipping container. Season two of The Wire was my favourite season precisely for that reason. Wall to wall containers in almost every shot; loved it. I maintain that if Season Two of The Wire was actually Season One of The Wire, then the show wouldn’t be called The Wire at all, it would be called The Shipping Container.
“The seasoning running through it turns what was essentially bread and butter into one of the nicest things I’ve eaten in a long time.”
This is all relevant (if not particularly interesting or amusing) because today I’ll be reviewing Smoke & Salt, and, spoiler alert, it’s in a shipping container. A shipping container amidst many shipping containers in Pop Brixton, to be precise. You may think that all of this shit chat about containers is here because I have little of interest to say about the restaurant – you would be wrong.
Aaron and Remi are the two lads behind Smoke & Smoke. They are the owners, chefs, kitchen porters, front of the house (with a bit of help in the evening), and all other positions. They work out of a kitchen that is smaller than many domestic operations, with a little restaurant attached that seats about twenty-five and they are churning out modern British food of unbelievable quality.
I visited on a lunch time, when they offer a slightly truncated menu, along with some more lunchy options, like a few open sandwiches. Remi greeted me as I walked in; he asked if I had any allergies, informed me of some changes to the day’s menu, and brought me some tap water.
I ordered four things from the menu: Sourdough & Butter, Panelles, Wiltshire beef, and London Mess. I am now going to talk you through what each of them was, and why they were Just. Absolutely. Delicious.
Sourdough & Butter. You know what both of these things are so let me elaborate. The butter was whipped “everything” butter; Remy explained to me that this is in reference to the “Everything Bagel” loved by New Yorkers. It is a bagel topped with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, onion, garlic, and salt (although here they have emitted the garlic). What arrived was a linen drawstring bag full of warm sourdough, and a coaster sized black slate. On top of the slate was the butter; it looked like a little snow-covered mountain and the different seeds like so many little mountain houses. I’ve had whipped butter before and found it meh, completely meh. Remy told me that one of the reasons they whip it is to make it lighter and easier to season. He was bang on the money. I honestly don’t know why butter isn’t always served this way; the seasoning running through it turns what was essentially bread and butter into one of the nicest things I’ve eaten in a long time.
“The little slithers of heart were as tender as fillet but with much more flavour, more richness.”
The Panelles arrived next, appearing to be the best fat-chips you’re ever going to eat. In reality, they were a deep fried chickpea dough; crispy on the outside and blindsiding light within. They looked in danger of being stodgy but instead just melted away. A homemade ketchup was their accompaniment – I haven’t eaten anything so deeply savoury and addictive since a maiden trip to the original Pitt Cue Co. many years ago. It was the nicest thing I’d tasted since the whipped butter two minutes previous.
The beef in the Wiltshire Beef, it transpired, was the heart of the animal – grilled and served rare. Aaron delivered it to me and explained that they refrained from writing beef heart on the menu as they were worried about scaring people off, which is fair enough. Eating anything’s heart feels a bit Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom. “I want people to try new things, it’s such a beautiful, underused cut!” he told me, with the earnest enthusiasm of a man still in love with his craft. The little slithers of heart were as tender as fillet but with much more flavour, more richness. It was served with deep fried new potatoes – essentially sauté potatoes, the best sauté potatoes I’ve had since my dad’s (high praise, my old man’s no wizard in the kitchen but he knows his way around a sauté potato.) Two sauces came with it: gorgonzola and chimichurri. Both yummy, obvs.
The London Mess, which finished things off, was named so for the London Honey that runs throughout the dessert. Only a few drops of the stuff was drizzled on to the beautiful mess, but it suffused the whole dish with that wonderful, pastoral sweetness unique to honey.
The whole thing, with a beer thrown in, cost me twenty-five quid. I don’t possess the sufficient literary capabilities to explain to you quite how much of a bargain that is. Some Chicken Cottage “meals” cost eight quid so, there, there’s your barometer.
Best is a ridiculous word in matters of food and art. Favourite, however, is not; Smoke & Smoke is my new favourite restaurant in London.
On the morning of Malcom Mclean’s death in 2001, container ships around the world blew their whistles in honour to the man. If I’d have known then that sixteen years later I’d be walking into one of his containers to eat the food which I was served up at Smoke & Salt, then I would have been blowing my whistle too – whatever that means.