Review: The Blues Kitchen at Camden
Published 10 January 2010
Soul food and a blues stage put Camden on the map
Jamie’s American Road Trip, which began airing in the fall of 2009, had hundreds of Londoners licking their lips each Friday night as they watched beloved British chef Jamie Oliver embark on a search for soul food across America. Meanwhile, on a high street in the belly of Camden, a new restaurant was getting ready to unveil a menu anchored by southern staples such as jambalaya, seafood gumbo and Louisiana crab cakes. It’s called The Blues Kitchen, and as the name suggests, it’s as much about the food as it is the music.
More than a month after opening night, the restaurant/live music venue has two claims to fame: the best breakfast and the best blues in Camden. So far, both are true. Don’t forget, however, The Blues Kitchen is the only place you can get both these things under the same roof in the borough.
Blues first. If a jam night house band is the barometer for such bars, The Blues Kitchen is on course. Sunday nights are jam nights, and it’s not just for musicians. The house band, with raw talent and welcome, lead the music and the mood along. The rest of the week, the stage belongs to some of the best blues acts in town. Helpfully, there is a full listing of upcoming acts on The Blues Kitchen website with a list of highlights over the coming weeks.
The stage area is at the back of the restaurant, situated in front of a handful of tiny tables and stools where self-serving guests who are only drinking can get closer to the action. The bar itself is a popular gathering place for couples and individuals. Booths and tables for two to 10 surround the rest of the restaurant.
The food. Driven to give Londoners a true taste of the American south, The Blues Kitchen menu has all the cornerstones: cornbread, crawfish, and Cajun stew. It also incorporates the “Po’Boy” – submarine sandwiches filled with spicy chicken, sausage or steak – a native of Louisiana. If one was from this part of the world, this would be your comfort food, the dishes your mom might make on a Sunday. They call for a lot of spice, for tender meat, and for those two things to soak together for hours.
The corn fritters (£4.50), a deep-fried corn-dough concoction garnished with a homemade guacamole were perfect. The batter was subtle, warm and inflated, a sign of good timing and freshness. The grilled goat’s cheese salad (£8.00) was a goat’s cheese-lovers delight. The cheese was presented like a pie on a bed of fresh greens, pine nuts and sundried tomato, dressed in an original, lovely honey and raspberry vinaigrette. This dish is definitely for those with a sweet tooth. It looks bigger than it appears, too, and shouldn’t be ordered alone unless you’re a light eater.
Having a distaste for seafood (which is unfortunate as several dishes incorporate it, and they are probably the pride of the kitchen), the roasted pork belly with rice and red kidney beans (£10.50) was chosen as the main. Adorned with authentic pork rinds and shoots, the rice was cooked perfectly and the sauce surrounding the beans offered a warming, lively spice. The pork itself, cooked with a layer of fat in the middle and underneath in search of tenderness, was simply tough for the reviewer’s taste. A slow-cooked piece of pork should fall apart at its seams, and the central fat layer was distracting. The pork belly was average on its own, but nice in a spoonful with the beans and sauce.
The drinks menu is extensive, including a range of Kentucky bourbon and American whiskeys, cocktails, milkshakes and a standard set of beer as well as wine.
A food genre largely unknown to most of its eaters, the soul food of the Blues Kitchen leaves a little to be desired to those who know it well, but so much else about the place – the music, the people, the drinks, the wide open spaces, the ambience – is really likable and worth coming back for.
The owners clearly want to give the impression that the restaurant has been there a lot longer than a few months. Faux time-worn wood and peeling concert posters intended to give the walls a past somehow don’t appear kitsch. There’s a warmth to The Blues Kitchen that is both generated and genuine. Candle lighting and leather booths, dark wood and neutral fabrics give it a cosy feel.
Service is seamless. Servers (to whom a 12.5% “discretionary surcharge” is paid) are friendly enough and visit tables with an acceptable frequency.
On the whole and judging only on the three dishes tested on a Sunday night, The Blues Kitchen has the right ingredients for the restaurant it wants to be, but at the moment its strength lies more in the blues than the kitchen.
Address: The Blues Kitchen, 111-113 Camden High Street, London NW1 7JN (Google Map)
Telephone bookings: 020 7387 5277
Article written by Natalie Appleton.