Lunchtime put me in the mood for some faux-Americana culture and a cholesterol injection straight to the arteries, so I headed to The Smoke Haus on St Augustine’s Parade for the biggest burger I could get my greasy mitts on.
On its first official day after a soft launch weekend, the large two-floor restaurant beneath Bambalan had attracted a few dining couples, but lacked atmosphere despite the best efforts of the designers.
Naked bulbs were strung across the exposed concrete ceiling and pipes and the raw brick interior walls were covered in graffiti. A motorbike was slapped against one wall, as if they weren’t sure where else to put it.
The effect was somewhere between trendy outdoor market and grotty New York alleyway – though this was strangely offset by the mismatching dark wood pub furniture that looked like relics from a Wetherspoons that had gone into administration. So far, it was Farage 1, Trump 0 in the transatlantic interior decor battle.
Mid-noughties American rock tunes were playing at a low level, and a replay of a basketball match showed on the TV screens above the bar. The waitresses were all dressed in blue jeans and chunky desert boots, just to make sure we had guessed the gimmicky theme.
The menu offered plenty of choice for the carnivore, although you’d need big pockets along with your elasticated waistband for some of the food: a rib eye steak will set you back a whopping £26.95. No delicious animal has been spared in the development of the menu – from ribs to steaks, pulled pork to roast chicken, this certainly isn’t the place to come and dine with a vegetarian.
My order of a New Orleans burger (£13.95) was taken swiftly and arrived a while later, towering over the skin-on fries and slaw on the metal tray. I was devouring it with my eyes, salivating at the thought of imbibing enough calories to sustain a small child for a week. But the excitement was frankly short-lived.
Upon opening the bun, which was smeared with something called ‘dirty sauce’ that tasted like the 1970s, the burger was topped by a breeze block of brisket, which was dry to the point of being inedible. If the meat had ever had any flavour, it was drowned by the artificial-tasting spice mix it had been hosed down with.
The patty, swaddled in Swiss cheese, was better: moist and tender, and generous enough to satisfy a real American appetite. But aside from looking like a burger and tasting like a burger, there was very little else to it.
The sweet brioche bun transported me back to the cheap white rolls that burnt hotdogs were served in at my primary school’s summer fête, that I’d take two gluey bites of and then surreptitiously try to dispose of. It wasn’t unpleasant per se, but it wasn’t something I’d ever choose to eat again as an adult.
The roll of kitchen towel on the table only added to the unfortunate cheap barbecue vibe. I fleetingly wondered if Mr Freeman might pop up in a sunhat, jokingly armed with a squeezy ketchup bottle in each hand.
If anything was going to emerge from the wreckage of the meal and lift it from crushing disappointment, it wasn’t to be the fries. They toed a middle-ground plainness between soggy and overdone that they couldn’t be pulled out from. Their only redeeming feature was that they were cut into shovel shapes, which helped when digging the final bit of slaw from the pot. But then again, you can do that with your finger if you’re not worried about table manners.
Bristol is the fourth location that The Smoke Haus chain has made home since being founded in Swansea in 2012, but it remains to be seen whether they will fit in and flourish here, in a city so in touch with real, gourmet, home-cooked food.
It’s also not the only place in town to exploit the fake-edgy graffiti look (Meat Liquor, I’m looking at you) and in a city that claims to be the home of street art before street art was even a thing, it seems a strange and disingenuous choice of decor.
If my honky-tonk woman done left me, it’s not the bar I’d prop myself up at to drown my sorrows. But if I wanted to go the same way as Elvis, or at the very least give myself indigestion fit for The King, I could probably do it comfortably with a couple of foot-long hotdogs at The Smoke Haus.
The Smoke Haus, Colston Tower, Bristol, BS1 4UX
Read more: Moroccan Corner – restaurant review