First published Canberra Times 3 August 2011.
It’s a drizzly, windy Friday evening and we’re perched on tall stools close to the bar, in one of London’s popular South Kensington’s Gastro pubs. The place is packed with groups of suits, gathered for end of week drinks, debating the week that was. It’s still early and the crush of people at the bar is still ordering drinks and bar snacks. They look hungrily at our table.
From it’s pressed tin ceiling to the huge umbrella stand at the etched glass doors, this traditional old pub, exudes old British aristocracy. These popular London Gastro pubs, generally serve high quality bistro fare, rustically presented in a pub atmosphere, with a whisper of restaurant level service. The menu here is simple, and includes the usual suspects; farmhouse pies, lamb shanks, risotto and the meal we choose, spicy beef cheeks.
We order and settle in with a Cabernet to enjoy what are to be our last few days away, as more and more people squeeze into the busy bar. It seems like no time at all that the meals are brought to the table. There’s no mucking around here with fussy chefy presentation either, the beef cheeks are served with green beans sitting aside a large dollop of creamy buttery mashed potato. The adept waiter brings everything to the table together on a tray, including the two full plates, cutlery and condiments. This is exactly what we need.
Just as I am about to take my first mouthful, a hand is placed on my shoulder and a dishevelled suit from the adjacent group strikes up a semi inebriated conversation with us about the fabulous food served here. In his thick Irish accent, he asks us where we’re from. He hoots loudly when he finds out we are Australian and tells us about his upcoming Sydney holiday in three weeks time. He shares a toast to Australia with us.
He leaves us to enjoy our food, but drops by our table again on his numerous trips to the bar, to share stories and his infectious good humour. This is nothing short of entertaining, but the food is definitely the star. Our beef cheeks are meltingly tender and covered in rich, sweet gravy, perfectly set off by the creamy, buttery mash. There is no match for the flavour of European butter enhancing the soft, rounded potato flavours. The cheeks have evidently been slow-cooked as the meat falls apart and has a slightly, sticky gelatinous texture to it.
The beef cheeks are a reasonably inexpensive cut of meat, although you might need to ask your butcher to order them in. Don’t overdo it - a little bit goes a long way, as the beef cheeks are incredibly rich. I served them with nutty oven roasted baby brussel sprouts. Quantity serves 4.
Spicy beef cheeks
4 tbsp olive oil
sea salt and black pepper
2 tbsp butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery sticks, chopped
3 star anise
1 tsp ground cloves
2 tbsp tomato puree
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
500ml hot chicken stock
Preheat oven to 150C. Trim away any large areas of fat from the beef cheeks and slice each cheek into three smaller pieces. Season the cheeks with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large fry pan and fry the cheeks for about two minutes on each side. Add a little butter to brown. Remove from the pan.
Add the onion, carrots and celery to the same fry pan and cooking for about eight minutes until golden and caramelised. Stir in the tomato puree and fry for a further minute. Add the honey, star anise and cloves and increase the heat a little. When just bubbling, remove from the heat and pour the contents into a casserole dish.
Add the browned cheeks and juices, the herbs, and the heated chicken stock to cover. Place the lid on the casserole dish and cook in the oven for 2 to 2 ½ hours. The meat should be starting to fall apart and very tender.
When cooked, remove the cheeks from the casserole with tongs or a slotted spoon to a dish and set aside. Pour the remaining vegetables and sauce into a sieve and place over a medium saucepan. Push down on the vegetables to squeeze out all the juices. Boil the extracted juice over a medium heat until reduced by about two thirds. The sauce should be a thick, syrupy consistency. Taste for seasoning. Return the beef cheeks to the saucepan and reheat gently. Serve with potatoes and roasted brussel sprouts.
Roasted brussel sprouts
350g brussel sprouts
3 tbsp olive oil
sea salt and black pepper
Preheat oven to 170C. Remove outer leaves from brussel sprouts and if the sprouts are large, slice each one in half. Combine all ingredients into a small oven tray and mix with your hands until the sprouts are coated. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes until lightly golden and just tender. If you plan to have the roasted brussel sprouts with a dish that isn’t as sweet as the cheeks, such as a roast, including a drizzle of maple syrup to the sprouts before roasting is a great addition.
Photos by Steve Shanahan.