34 King Street, Covent Garden Tel: 020 7240 4008
FOOD Three Stars
VALUE Three Stars
ATMOSPHERE Three Stars
Cost for two without drinks: £45
Restaurant critics are like Eskimos: we lead isolated lives and are prone to eating seal blubber. No, that’s not it. We’re like Eskimos because we both have 20 words for the thing we’re surrounded by. With Eskimos it is snow*. With critics, it’s rubbish food. There are a handful of ways to say something tastes, you know, pretty good but we could happily grow old dreaming up ways to describe something stomach-churningly diabolical. Joe’s Southern Kitchen & Bar sounded like the kind of place I might get to use all 20.
It’s located at tourist ground zero, right next to Covent Garden, where bewildered day-trippers compete to see whose navigation skills are the most ineffectual. A group had congregated outside of Joe’s, neither moving in nor out, content to loiter, their faces frozen in the blank, cheerless masks of those who have recently witnessed some kind of atrocity.
Joe’s isn’t exactly a theme restaurant, but it’s pretty close: it has a giant Coca Cola sign on the wall and pictures of dollar bills and inter-state highways and other things we associate with our rotund cousins. Beyond that, it looks like every other restaurant in the world, with exposed brickwork and oversized hanging lights and food served on chopping boards for no reason at all. The only thing that stands out is that the waiting staff wear beige trousers, and I’m not sure that’s worth mentioning.
Anyway, I was all set to have a lovely time hating it, inwardly smiling at the prospect of inedible course followed by inedible course; picturing the Chinese I’d grab on the way home as I mentally composed pithy one-liners about food that makes Nando’s look like ElBulli**.
Then the starters arrived and ruined it. Maybe it was the absolute dearth of expectation, but they were astonishingly good. I went for softshell crab with tempura vegetables, which I expected to come swimming in an umber lake of oil but were in fact crispy and light and full of flavour: a sprinkle too much salt away from perfection.
The devilled eggs were just as good – four halved globes filled with delicious, heart-clogging, yolky mayonnaise. A side of jalapeños in batter stuffed with cream cheese further knocked the wind out of my sails, with their zingy kick and delicate batter. Then came the coq ‘n’ balls, which broke the spell. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d had to say a dish based on a joke a school-boy would have deemed below him had been worth eating. Thankfully they were mealy, insipid lumps of reconstituted meat, from which I pulled various lumps of what may have been cartilage or bone or beak or face.
Joe’s’ signature dish is beer can chicken. I didn’t order it but the table next to me did and I’m happy to report that it looks like a sad, burned drunk. The fowl arrives standing upright, a can of Kronenburg 1664 lodged firmly up its rear end, as if it’s laying a particularly brutal egg. This is not how chickens dream of ending up. “If I must be cooked, at least let me be served with dignity, on a bed of new potatoes and maybe some red onions.” No such luck.
I went for the half fried chicken, which looks like someone has put the contents of a KFC bargain bucket under a microscope. It’s humongous and terrifying; scarred like the surface of Mars. It was also overcooked, rendering the meat on the smaller pieces offensively dry. The thicker breast and thigh meat, though, was still moist and surprisingly good. There’s enough of it that you won’t miss the bits that you have to cut off; what there isn’t enough of is plate – it’s served on a dish the size of a saucer, upon which you’re expected to build a kind of chicken carcass Jenga – a game you’re destined to lose.
El Pye went for the catfish, which the waiter warned would be spicy. She asked if it could be made less so; it couldn’t. You will eat what you get and damn well like it, OK? Well, she didn’t, and I didn’t think much of it either. Whatever tortuous process this catfish had been subjected to had turned it into a kind of nondescript paste that was, at any rate, completely overpowered by the dollop of cajun mustard it was wearing like a party hat.
The potatoes, though, were the low point. Not of the meal: of my life – a hateful little basket of drab, overcooked carbs. You don’t need them, anyway: the portions are massive.
So I didn’t exactly hate it. I liked some of it. I didn’t have to get a Chinese on the way home, and I didn’t get to use all 20 words for awful food (only about a dozen of them). I did, however, leave with a feeling of nameless dread. Maybe it was the overwhelming fried-ness of everything that brought a sense of my own mortality into sharp and horrible focus.
But you don’t go to Joe’s Southern Kitchen & Bar for your health, nor for some kind of transcendental dining experience. You go for... Well... Actually, I have no idea why you’d go there. Because you were lost, I suppose, or because you’d just got your Mac fixed and realised that you needed to consume a jaw-dropping number of calories in a very short space of time. Or because you’re a tourist and have no idea where the good restaurants are. If this is the case, you should head over to Leicester Square next – it’s a hoot.
* This isn’t actually true, they have the same amount of words for snow as we do.
** I’ve never been to ElBulli. Nobody has. I’m not convinced it ever existed.