Ask anyone with a modicum of knowledge about ‘clean eating’, and you’ll get the same old lecture about red meat: “It’s bad for you,” they’ll tut, dusting off their soapbox, “bad, bad, bad.”
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Don’t you know about the studies linking meat to cancer and heart disease, you carnivorous fool? The catastrophic impact of the global cattle trade on the environment? Can you imagine how much better you’d feel if you cut out all that needless steak? With a harumph, they’ll be off to a lunchtime yoga class, quicker than you can say “quinoa”. Fun crowd, great at parties… Truth is, though, it’s good to be bad, and I’ve found myself a new temple of sin.
Located in the recently revamped Old Spitalfields Market, chef Tom Griffiths has opened Flank – a no-nonsense meat joint, with a focus on nose-to-tail cooking, big flavours and filling bellies. Is it very 2018 to suggest such a culinary outlook feels like a throwback? The dining setup is anything but old school, mind. Occupying a corner stall in the market’s street-food-cum-restaurant hub (yeah, that), there’s the option of ‘roughing it’ on the benches next to the kitchen, or taking a pew on one of the countertop stools at the pass for a front-row seat to the action. Go with the latter: it’s not the luxury you might expect from some of the City’s finest restaurants, but this is a rare opportunity to see one of London’s rising culinary stars doing his thing up close and personal.
Either way, sitting down to a plate of buttery crumpets with smoked ham hock, grilled leeks and soft egg is to enjoy one of the most satisfying morsels I’ve eaten in months. It’s followed swiftly by another: homemade bacon, off the scale in its smokiness but reigned all the way back in by a tart and fruity plum ketchup. Two salty porcine hits in quick succession, with balance and poise – it’s the kind of assured cooking you pine for among the usual restaurant frippery.
Flank is a welcome reminder of why sating our carnivorous urges every now and then is an experience that one shouldn’t live without.
Hearty cooking – a reductive phrase for food that takes great skill to appear simple – persists throughout the menu. A nose-to-tail stew made from beef heart, lungs and whatever else your butcher would normally throw to the dogs is moreish to the point of sepia-toned memories of dishes “like what mother used to make” (except your mam used to cook you fish fingers, and burn the Sunday roast), while sticky beef cheek is glazed with Marmite, and beans on toast spiked with pig’s trotter. Dishes this tender and delicious require lovingly attended stocks and low, slow cooking. It does not happen by accident.
Vying for your audio and visual attention are also hunks of steak – Galician dairy cow, if you’re lucky – being licked by the open-flame grill upon which Griffiths works his best magic. They’re served rare, naturally, and come accompanied with the likes of melting pillows of bone marrow gnocchi, blackened gem lettuce and lightly pickled beetroot with the perfect astringency to cut through all that meat.
As we continue to grow in consciousness for what we can and should be eating, we all make occasional concessions to the meat-free brigade – it’s true, it is better for us, as much as it pains me to admit it – but Flank is a welcome reminder of why sating our carnivorous urges every now and then is an experience that one shouldn’t have to live without.