As much as I enjoy living in St Albans, I do have the occasional moan about it. Recently we're getting better restaurants, but for the longest time it's been really quite samey. It's not a big town centre, but you can't walk two feet without tripping over an Italian or Indian restaurant - both of which I love, but you really don't need that many of them, especially when there's so many other cuisines that you could be trying!
What I decided we need - as I have declared myself the spokesperson for the hungry people of St Albans - is a good Mexican and a good BBQ place. The need for a good Mexican is something I've been complaining about for around ten years (pretty much ever since I tried good Mexican for the first time), and I even know where it should be (look, I ranted about it in September! And the Cursed Restaurant is still bloody empty!) but my prayers have been 2/3rds answered by Craft & Cleaver.
Craft & Cleaver is a new restaurant that has taken over Bar 62 on Catherine Street. As you might have guessed from the name, they specialise in Craft Beer and, er, things you might need a cleaver for. Like MEAT.
They invited Matt and I along to try out their new menu just before they opened on the 29th May and to say we were keen was an understatement. It's easy to take over-enthusiastic restaurant reviews with a pinch of salt, but when I sound this enthusiastic, I promise you it's genuine. Plus, when they're in my town, I feel even more invested than for a London restaurant because I know how likely it is that I'll be returning time and time again. And when they're THAT good, like Tabure, Relish and now Craft & Cleaver, I want them to do well. The menu at C&C is just everything I like. Amazing meat, amazing sides, amazing cocktails and an amazing brunch menu (which we were already plotting our trip back to try before we left). And there's even burritos on there! See? That's my Mexican rant dealt with, at least for a little bit (I'm gonna need more than burritos at some point, guys).
You wanna know what we ate, right? I get it. I need to relive the experience, too. To start we had smoked duck pancakes and burnt ends. The duck pancakes were good - they came fully made up, surrounded by a drizzle of honey and a scattering of parsley (as did most dishes) - but I must confess they paled in significance to the burnt ends. They were just SO full of flavour, and the blue cheese mixed through really worked. I had to physically stop myself from licking the bowl! By far the best thing I ate all night - and everything was pretty epic.
For our mains we shared the ribs and brisket plate and the Mother Clucker burger. The burger was really unusual - buttermilk fried chicken in between two waffles. The waffles had herbs mixed into them so were full of flavour, and I think the buttermilk crust on the chicken was herbed, too. Then it was topped with bacon, cheddar, spring onion, rocket, maple syrup and mustard sauce. It was really tasty, but I felt it would have been better with the addition of a thicker, creamier sauce. And maybe more cheese, but there's not enough cheese in the world for me. I loved the waffles though, way more than I thought I would - they were savoury (in case you're confused) and super fresh, but crucially they had great structural integrity. This wasn't a burger that fell apart on the first bite, which always drives me crazy.
The ribs and brisket plate was the main event, and it didn't disappoint. As standard you're given a big sharp knife to cut your meat with, but it was so tender that it wasn't needed. The ribs were covered in brown sugar and were unbelievably moist and the brisket was smokey and full of flavour. I preferred the ribs, but that's just personal preference - this was proper brisket, done in a proper smoker, and they know what they're doing.
For our sides we had chilli-butter roasted sweetcorn, which we both devoured (SO buttery), 50/50 fries (you know when you don't want to choose between sweet potato fries and regular fries? You don't have to! They give you a mix of both AS DEFAULT and you don't have to pay that ridiculous sweet potato fry tax of an extra £2 or whatever. So good!) and BBQ pit beans, which they make actually in their smoker, so all the juices from the meat drip down into the beans and little niblets of meat too. They were amazing. AMAZING. As brisket is traditionally served sauceless, the beans were the perfect accompaniment. There are also three homemade sauces on the table too to try, which all went really well with the meat. There's a beer bbq sauce, a sweet and sour bbq sauce and a tangy hot sauce. I love dips and sauces, so I was in my element.
To drink, I had a Dark 'n' Stormy (YUM) and a glass of Penotage red wine, and Matt sampled the Einstock Pale Ale and Weird Beard on draught and gave them both a resounding thumbs up. We'd decided early on that we would get milkshakes for pudding, but when it came to it we were both too full. So I'm going to need to go back to try their peanut butter milkshake... and maybe the key lime pie, too.
What really struck me about Craft & Cleaver was how fully formed it was. They'd really thought about the styling of the restaurant and the menu was so comprehensive. And they're doing barbeque PROPERLY - in the weeks leading up to launch, they were posting photos of their smoker (at one point containing a whole pig). They're not just popping a joint in a slow cooker and calling themselves a BBQ place because they serve pulled pork (which they actually don't serve). I loved my evening there and will be back. A lot.
I know I've said 'I'll be back' more times than the Terminator in this post so I felt like I should give you my reasoning. Here's what I still want to try:
- Filthy Animal burrito - BBQ pit beans, dirty rice, fries, guacamole, iceberg, cajun sour cream, cheese and jalepenos with dirty fried chicken or smoked brisket
- Hanger steak - Aged in Red Squirrel ink stout.
- New Yorker burger - Topped with homemade pastrami, emmental, avocado and French's Mustard
- Strawberry Waffles - Fresh strawberries, buttermilk waffles, maple syrup and marscapone
- Halloumi & sweetcorn fritters - With crispy bacon, maple syrup and a poached egg
Can you tell that I'm excited about this restaurant? And only 15 minutes walk from my flat... this could be very bad for the diet.
PS - Since writing this post, I've actually already been back once for brunch, on Sunday. It. Was. Awesome. I am so here for the strawberry waffles. And on my recommendation, they're going to start selling BBQ pit beans on toast for brunch, so I will be needing to go back to get those in my face. I've also got at least two dinners here planned in June. New favourite restaurant alert.