Sunday, 1 March 2015

Restaurant Review: Bierrex Smoke and Tap House, Newcastle upon Tyne

This write-up completes a personal trilogy of Newcastle's current line-up of American-style barbecue-focussed outfits. First there was Hop and Cleaver, then Bierrex opened its doors in September, followed, more recently, by Longhorns on Mosley Street. From zero to treble-smoked inside of just a few short months; aside from snidey observations about trendy bandwagons, this seems to me to be A Good Thing. People are surely likely to find something to enjoy within at least one of these joints, and it all adds to the variety and gaiety of Newcastle's fodder scene. But would Bierrex complete the triumverate triumphantly or atrociously? Would it be Last Crusade or Matrix Revolutions?

THAT'S a knife
It was a bit weird walking into Bierrex and it not being Popolos. Popolos was where, as students, we first sussed out what decent cocktails were, and where we came on many a jolly eve for a couple of pre-Worldies sharpeners. It was a reliable choice for a solid libation, long before the current craft beer thing started happening, and it felt like a minor personal loss when it closed. All that said, I like what they've done in turning it into what now greets patrons. The downstairs bit has been opened up by way of removing some of the tables. The centre bar remains, but is now a study in austere minimalism, with rows of taps but no bottles on display. Light woods and pale paints make for an airy feel. There's a whiff of meat-related kitch on the walls, provided by a fullsome collection of cleavers. You wouldn't want a bar fight to break out, that's all.

Lots going on
The menus, both for food and drinks are very busy. The variety of beer on offer is pretty bloody impressive, with some excellent breweries, local and otherwise, represented by the keg offering, and a dizzying array more coming by the bottle. I settled on a pint of Allendale's cracking Fermata, which does a superb job of packing flavour into a low ABV IPA-syle brew. The three of us each went for a plate of meat from the smoker, all of which came with either one large or two small sides. We also ordered extra pork crackling because, you just do, don't you?

And then we waited. For quite a long time. I reckon it was well over half an hour before the food rocked up, which perhaps lays bare the problems of having such a big menu, and not doing starters: everything comes at once with nothing to snack on while you wait. The place was full of BBC 6Music Festival-goers taking on pre-gig sustenance at a unusually early hour; I got the sense the kitchen weren't expecting to be what is known in the industry as "in the shit" at that time of day.

Glenarm brisket, Collard greens, Beef dripping chip, garlic toast. Pork crackling and Skinny fries lurk at stage right.
When the food did rock up, everything was in good order. My brisket was excellent, and plentiful. It makes a really nice change to have hunks of slow cooked beef that haven't been pulled into a bit of a mush. The charred bits were completely delicious while the balance of smoke and meat flavours through the slabs of brisket was good, and the texture was bang on: requiring some proper maw-work, but sufficiently moist. Collard greens were initially enjoyable, but became too salty even for my sodium-deadened palette. The "pickled jalapenos" which came with the brisket was actually a single, unpickled jalapeno. I mentioned it and was offered some dill pickles, which provided the requisite acid to cut through the mountain of protein. The Garlic toast had been treated to a scant scrape of butter, which made it a bit pointless.

In the valley of the chip, Bierrex's dripping-fried chunky offering is king; these were the real no-bloody-prisoners deal. Rustlingly crisp, and fluffy inside, I'll happily return for a pint and a portion of these. The skinny fries were perfectly good too. PRO TIP: we were being indecisive about the sides when our waitress said we could sub out one of the sides for a portion of the fries, which, sneakily, aren't listed in the sides options, but have their own section on the menu. You're welcome.

A quick mention for the pork crackling- it was really, really good, which is just as well as I continued to enjoy it for some time after the meal ended. I could bloody swear that never used to happen.

Pulled pork, mac and cheese, more dud toast
Elsewhere, pulled pork was a solid example of the form, avoiding the regular crime of being overly sweet. "Mama's mac and cheese" was a minor let down. It allegedly contained scamorza, fontina, taleggio and montgomery cheddar, so I was expecting some some serious lactic tang from an auspicious line up of fromage. It was fine, but that's all, and not even especially cheesy. 

Hot link sausages, multi-slaw
"Hot link sausage" was a winner, full of fennel and a judicious pop of chilli set against an ample tang of smoke. Bit of an order error though, as we weren't told it came with slaw, and so had ordered a side of, admittedly very good, other slaw. 

Smoked banana blondie
I couldn't detect any smoke on the banana blondie, which may have been a good thing? It was nice enough.

On the whole, Bierrex did us rather proud. The brisket, sausage and dripping fries were all really excellent. A couple of slight bum notes didn't obscure the overall effect, which was a very pleasant one. The wait for food was on the verge of becoming an issue. Thankfully, there was sufficient wit and bonhomie among our number to ride this out. 

They make some pretty enthusiastic claims about the provenance of their meat and their smoker on the menu. Himalayan salt chambers and Fast Eddy FEC 120's are spoken of in excited and reverential tones. It all sounds very impressive, but here's the rub- I've had meat feasts I've enjoyed every bit as much of this using free range chicken from Morrisons, a decent marinade, and our own fifty quid Argos BBQ, all of which opens up one of a number of possibilities. Perhaps I have a heathens pallete and just can't pick up the complexities the smoke has imparted upon these meats over the best part of two days. Maybe, dare I suggest, the kit isn't quite being used to it's maximum capabilities? Or, finally - and most likely if you ask me - there is actually a glass ceiling on how great this kind of food can be, which is slightly out of kilter with the obsessive, Adam Richman inspired fuss that gets made in its honour. I await the epiphany that convinces me otherwise with no little anticipation

Which leads me say that having tried all three, I liked Longhorns the best out of the three Novocastrian smokehouses, to a large extent because it's the cheapest, and they serve you fast, even when they're heaving. This kind of stuff should, I think, be unfussy and shorn of as much fetishism and fanfare as possible. Nonetheless, Bierrex is doing some excellent things and is well worth a look.


Bierrex, 82 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6JN
0191 447 7720


  1. Interesting thoughts on the 'glass ceiling'. I'm always filled with anticipation that the next 'smoker' meal I have will be the one where I get what all the fuss is about but I'm always a little underwhelmed. I'm no bbq expert but, as you said, stick a decent bit of meat on a bbq and you have something at least as good as these guys get from their fancy kit! Let me know if you find the answer to the hype! Great review, as always.

    1. I read "Cooked" by Michael Pollan. The first chapter is all about barbecue. I want to eat something that does some justice to how fantastically he writes about it. Hasn't happened yet; I'll keep you posted!

    2. I found that the ribs at Duke's were a cut above those of the average BBQ restaurant.

  2. I really fancy a trip (esp for the pork crackling)

  3. Loving the decor, those knives of the walls look fab. The food looks tasty as well, going to have to give this a try. I loved longhorns as well

    1. I'm glad that both are around. There's a tonne of decent "casual" places to eat well in Newcastle now. T'was not ever this.


All comments gratefully received. Sorry about the word verification thing, but I've started getting bombed by spam.

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