Why is the City so indelibly associated with meat? That’s not a rhetorical question: if you have any idea, please write in and tell me. I spent an afternoon calling around to see if anyone knew – a local historian, the City of London Corporation – but nobody did. There are theories, some of them plausible, some of them less so, but nothing that puts the issue to bed.
The best I could come up with is the combination of concentrated wealth (meat is expensive), the vaguely macho connotations, the proximity to Smithfield market and, perhaps most convincingly of all, just because that’s how it’s always been. Meat begets meat.
Regardless, the result is a patch of London with an embarrassment of places to eat slices of cow, pig and sheep: Hawksmoor, M, Goodman, Gaucho, Omnino, New Street Grill. If I were paid by the word I would continue. Boisdale, Tavern Steak & Oyster. Seriously, there are dozens. The Don, Tramshed.
And now Blacklock, the second outpost of the Soho chop house, nestled within scorching distance of the Walkie Talkie. It sells chops. Pretty much only chops. It’s one of those single-item restaurants you’ve been hearing about, which are standard across large swathes of the world but nonetheless took London by surprise in mid-2014 (see also: Chicken Shop, Cereal Killer, Hipchips).
Now, a single-item restaurant rises or falls on its single item. Chicken Shop is great because it sells delicious rotisserie chicken. Hipchips is stupid because it only sells crisps. Blacklock falls somewhere between the two. You can’t geek out over lamb or pork chops like you can with, say, steak, eating it several times a week, studying the ageing process, inspecting the locker in which it’s hung, comparing tasting notes like carnivorous oenophiles (beef chops are, of course, sirloin or short loin steak, but they aren’t the star of the show here, they’re simply part of the chorus line).
For me, chops are something you pick up at the butchers because you’re having guests round and you’re not bloody well shelling out for monkfish. Not after they fed you nachos and cheese last time and had the cheek to call it Mexican.
The first Blacklock is in a former basement strip-club, done up in the style of the times with exposed brick and wooden banquet tables and dim lighting. It’s the kind of place you’d struggle to pick out of a line-up, but pleasant nonetheless. This one sticks to the script, right down to the 80s soundtrack, consisting of Pet Shop Boys and New Order and The Smiths.
It isn’t just chops: there are a few “starters” and “pre-chop bites”. Crackers topped with chicken and horseradish, or egg and anchovy, are pretty good. Scallop and black pudding is excellent, earthy blood pudding where the taste of animal hasn’t been overpowered by oatmeal and seasoning. Lamb belly ribs have the kind of caramelised fat that keeps me awake at night, in a good way. Charred courgettes, on the other hand were singed and inedibly bitter.
But who cares about any of that: all flim-flam and faff, a distracting prelude to the bacchanalian main event. We went for the “all in” option, which is all of the “skinny” chops heaped onto a single heaving platter, the flesh glistening in the dim cellar light. There was a pork loin the size of a continent, beef sirloin, lamb cutlet, lamb T-bone, pork rib. There may have been another lurking under those; there was no way we were getting through it.
They were fine chops. Good meat, well cooked; the lamb pink as a rosy cheek, the pork fat almost liquid beneath the crispy exterior. If you simply must eat chops, this is the place. But after about a chop and a half, I was done. Sure, you can order sides and sauce, but I craved a marinade and some carbs. Anything but more chops.
There are only two desserts, so we asked for them both.
The waitress returned with a bowl of bread and butter pudding, some sliced rhubarb, and a gigantic oven dish filled with cheesecake.
“I’m going to give you extra!” she said, plunging in a spoon.
“Please don’t,” I said, and meant it.
A gigantic mound of cream cheese flopped into the bowl, followed by a mountain of biscuit dredged from the bottom of the tray. Biscuit and cream cheese scattered across the table; it looked like one of the out-takes from Bake Off that Mel and Sue would swear over so it could never be broadcast.
How good a dessert looks tends to be inversely proportional to how it tastes, and this one was delicious. The bread and butter pudding wasn’t bad either, in a rustic, nostalgic kind of way. There was no indication which one the rhubarb was supposed to go with but we ate it anyway.
Maybe I’m missing something. Blacklock was started by three Hawksmoor alumni, and those guys know their meat. But compared to somewhere like Smokestak, where every dish is an unholy coupling of smoke and spice and beast, Blacklock feels austere and retiring
I can’t fault the food, I’m just not sure about the concept.
First published in City A.M.