If you’re a vegetarian you may want to look away right now. There’s a new place to eat in Leamington, and it’s safe to say it’s a carnivore’s dream. Leamington is blessed with an array of fabulous restaurants, many of which I’m still yet to get to, but Smowkhaus is one of the latest and brought with it a buzz and chatter than you don’t always get without the help of huge PR machines, stunts and events.
Instead, the buzz around Smowkhaus is essentially down to the sheer excitement of a food-focused local community eager to get their chops around some brilliant barbecue food. The proof of that statement can be seen when we visit on a Monday night to find it pretty much full.
Yes, it’s only been open a matter of weeks, but small towns aren’t like big cities. In many you struggle to even find a restaurat that opens on a Monday because there just isn’t the trade, yet the interest in Smowkhaus is clearly enduring beyond its soft opening period, enduring in time in the same way its flavours do when you tuck in.
Smowkhaus’ home is, in fact, the former Libertine Burger unit on Warwick Street (Libertine has now moved to bigger premises across the road). Don’t be fooled by the cool music and street art on the walls.
There may be a casual feel here, but the things that matter – the quality of both the food and service – are as good as anywhere else. Including those who serve up a la carte meals on tables draped in white cloths by staff wearing shirts and ties.
The concept is simple. It’s an American smokehouse, serving up the quality grass fed beef, prepared with Smowkhaus’ own spice blends, smoked over British Oak, then doled out for us lot to devour as we return to our caveman days.
The menu offers all the traditional meats you’d expert, from brisket and shortrib to pulled pork and sausage. There are wings in abundance, burgers and hot dogs. And of course sides. Never forget the sides.
They say themselves that feasting is the focus, which it should be with food like this. I know some people like to firmly keep their own food away from wandering hands, but chunks of meat, piles of wings and trays of filthy fries deserve to be dug into in the kind of shared conviviality that I could go on about for as long as some of these creations spend in the smoker and still not have finished making my point.
There’s a tempting Smowkhaus platter that provides a fair bit of everything, but Jamie and I spy several things that need to be prioritised, so instead order half the menu knowing we’ll have to take it home.
We started with wings – fat, free range chicken wings tossed in gram flour to give just the right amount of crispiness, then drenched in our choice of buffalo sauce. The rich blue cheese dip works perfectly – as all tried and tested combinations do – but I somehow think the alternative coatings on offer could be just as good. Agent Orange and Fatalii Fire, I’m coming for you next time.
The portion is hefty – 14-15 wings – and it’s devoured by us in minutes, leaving us in silence as we try to clear up every last bit of that buffalo coating from our fingers, faces and in Jamie’s case, t-shirt, only speaking to admit that all Monday nights should be like this.
The slab of short rib here is the reason we didn’t order the Platter. While pretty much everything else is on it, this isn’t, and to visit Smowkhaus and not try this is probably somewhat of a travesty. As with so many things, the fat brings flavour, and in the hands of people who aren’t afraid to season it right, it’s a joy to eat, falling off the bone and sitting at the perfect point of a slight crust on the outside without losing any of the tenderness that the right kind of cooking yields.
Each item from the smoker comes with house slaw, Sauerkraut, dusted fries, pickles and Smowkhaus barbecue sauce. You can upgrade to filthy fries if you like, but when you’re ordering as much meat as us, you’re better sticking with the savoury, simple, standard fries that will give you a bit of a reprieve from the richness you’ve committed to.
The house slaw is crisp and refreshing – forget that mayonnaise-loaded poor relative you get served up in pants places, this is the real deal. Meanwhile, Jamie declares the Sauerkraut – another crunchy hit of freshness that’s somewhat sweeter than others we’ve had elsewhere, including Germany and Austria – the best he’s ever had.
The shortrib comes with the addition of a portion of mac’n’cheese, which isn’t as cheesy as some I’ve had, but I get a feeling that’s a deliberate move to avoid killing people off with saturated fats before they can get to the dessert menu.
You quite simply can’t go to a barbecue restaurant without ordering brisket, so our second main is Smowkhaus’ 16-hour brisket. It falls apart with the lightest touch, and is perfectly smoked to allow the flavour of the meat to sing – something I’ve never quite experienced before at barbecue festivals or other places. It’s the best I’ve had, and while I’m no expert, I think it’s the hallmark of showing that these guys know what they’re doing.
Never ones to take things easy, we go heavy on the sides. As well as everything we get with our mains, we try some pitt beans and smoked mash. They’re good, but somewhat overshadowed by how impressive the meat is. Or perhaps we were just full.
We managed to resist smoked marrow and the cornbread that was calling out to me, which was maybe an error, but there’s always next time, right?
If this is all too much meat for you, you’ll be pleased to know there are options of corn, Caesar salad, another salad and even buttered greens, not to mention cauliflower ‘wings’ instead of chicken and a few meat-free burgers and hot dogs, so there’s plenty to keep you happy, even if you’ll be missing out on some of the best bits.
By best bits, I mean the aforementioned brisket and short rib, but also the burnt ends luxuriating in a sweet, sticky barbecue sauce that creates the kind of sexy flavours you have dreams about afterwards. Never have I ever been a bit jealous of food before, but I wouldn’t mind bathing in this sauce in the same way these chunks of meat are.
It’s a feast that feels far too decadent for a Monday night, but we enjoy every moment of it. The food is big in flavour and size, but refined in execution with an attention to detail that gives away the passion behind it. Smowkhaus may appear bold and brash, but don’t be fooled.
There’s a decent choice of wines and some fizz, some great craft beers, and all the little things that show that they get it, from the decent wine glasses to the ever-observant staff who are more on the ball than many places far more settled than this newcomer, from checking in to noticing when you need more napkins but your mouth’s too full to ask (yes, I speak from experience).
There are a lot of reasons to like Smowkhaus. From the meat-laden menu to the relaxed atmosphere, the fact you don’t have to book – which means you can tip up on a Monday night and fill your face, or the on-the-ball service, it seems to have it all. Another coup for Leamington I’d say.
[Disclosure: we paid in full at Smowkhaus. They didn’t know I’m a blogger]