As Cambridge slowly gives up even pretending not to be a London suburb, the accretion of restaurants you might actually want to eat in goes hand in hand with the complete inability to afford houses you might actually want to live in. A mixed bag, to put it mildly. But when I heard that we were getting a BBQ joint in that Bodeans/Pitt Cue style, I was excited.
The horrifyingly distorted economics of my hometown are somewhat beyond the scope of a paean to pulled pork. You could mutter darkly about gentrification or something, but in the centre of Cambridge that’s taking the piss. Plus, I suspect the tears shed for the demise of the Eraina actually fall more from nostalgia for greasy 1970s moussaka than any understanding of how food is meant to work.
No, the vaguely-Greek-if-you-squint trip around the Med in a deep fat fryer has been replaced with SmokeWorks, and I could not be happier about it.
(There’s a great set of photos here from the opening night, by Karohemd)
The food, of course, is the important part. And the short version is: it’s great.
Let’s get a bit more detailed.
We all ended up ordering the smoked pulled beef, and had it with a selection of sides: sweet potato fries, pickles, scrumpets, and beef dripping mash. We didn’t get to the ribs or the wings, an omission which must absolutely be corrected.
The beef was deep, rich, and not at all dry, even without the slavering of BBQ mayo and delicious, fine-sliced pickle. It had been slow-cooked to fall-apart tenderness, and then shredded generously into a soft, slightly sweet bun. A long hot smoking, I’m guessing, prepared first with a little simple dry rub. There was a sweetness to it, and the occasional bite of a well roasted coriander seed. It’s a simple flavour, not trying any pyrotechnics with the rub. They’ve just let the smoked beef do the talking.
They’ve not gone to town on the sugar, either. It’s sweet, but not in that up front and confrontational way you can sometimes find. Pickles cut through what sugar there is, and they are a particular joy. You can see from the colour and tell from the delicacy that they’re fresh. The dill and vinegar aren’t overpowering, and you can still pick out a clear, refreshing cucumber flavour. They’re sliced in fine little shreds that complement the beef delightfully.
It seems daft, I know, to go to a barbecue restaurant and get rhapsodic about the bloody pickles, but they’re a great expression of attention to detail and flavour composition.
The sweet potato fries are good sweet potato fries, and the regular ones are tasty too. I’m afraid I wasn’t really paying them my full attention. You see, they were sat right next to a little pot of mashed potato that brought me the kind of joy you really shouldn’t be able to achieve with just a tub of starches. I am not ashamed to say that I was using it as a dip for the fries. Or shovelling it into my face with a fork. Or dunking the sweet pickled chilies. This stuff is tasty. It’s incredibly smooth, insanely rich, and worked through with enough butter and beef dripping to harden your arteries at fifty paces. It’s probably for the best that they serve it in a small tub, as I’d have gleefully stuck a straw in mine and brazened it out as a milkshake.
I’d leave it there and tell you to just go and eat the mash, but we really do need to talk about scrumpets. I’ll confess, I didn’t know what they were, and looking them up has sent me down an interesting little rabbit hole involving Elizabeth David, and some Latin poetry.
In their incarnation at SmokeWorks, scrumpets are a kind of pulled pork croquette, fried super crispy with what seemed like crackling or pork scratching in the breadcrumb mix. They’re tasty, crunchy, and rich. I think there’s a bit of shared ancestry with scrapple, although you can find broadly the same thing in David’s French Provincial Cooking (p359 in the cute little grey hardback), as “épigrammes d’agneau” made with slow cooked lamb breast. The idea of an edible epigram tickles me rather, and I’m not the first. In fact, you might argue there’s a recursive example in the Food Urchin blog’s “Epigrams. Who the hell has ever heard of epigrams?”
I’ll have to make them some time, but word play is a poor basis for recipe choices, and I’m drifting rather. The scrumpets at SmokeWorks are dense and meaty, and worth trying. They come on the “wings and things” side of the menu that you could use to work up a mighty sharing platter or a lighter lunch. Generally, in fact, the menu feels well balanced.
When we visited, it was fairly early on a Thursday, and it was quiet but still had a whiff of atmosphere. When full (and I hope it generally is) there’s a risk of altogether too much – that space could easily get loud and cramped. It goes with the style, and it’s what they’re shooting for, I think – quick turnaround, loud flavour, and a slightly grungy feel. They’ve nailed it, although I’m unconvinced by the bicycle seat bar stools.
The bar itself is packed to the gills with exciting bourbon, and if that’s not your poison, will make you a salt caramel milkshake that I’m told is a borderline ecstatic experience. I’m not a milkshake fan, and I’m kicking myself for not ordering one. If you made a list of, objectively, just the best ten things in the universe, surely salt caramel would be on there.
I need to go back and try more of the menu, but in general, I’m calling SmokeWorks a success. It’s fun, the food is tasty, and it’s a massively welcome addition to Cambridge’s restaurant scene. Now, if you can somehow pry your fancy London friends away from the capital to sneer at us in the fens, you can impress them with the fact that we too have gussied-up fast food joints you have to queue for.
Seriously though, try the SmokeWorks. It’s actually big enough that you may not have to queue (we didn’t, but it was quite early), it’s got a fun ambience, the smoked pulled beef is the right kind of sticky/rich/tender, and the dripping mash is just the best dirty fun.
Update: I tried the ribs. they are sticky, smoky and fantastic.