Anthony Finn is a name that is synonymous with the Leeds dining scene. Starting with his eponymous fine dining restaurant he has now expanded across the city with a patisserie, all day restaurant, canteen, champagne bar, bakery, fromagerie and now a Southern BBQ joint. The last six are all housed in The Corn Exchange, ... The Piazza cafe/restaurant in the light and open central area downstairs, the various other concessions tucked into the arches of the building.
On our recent trip North, to see family for Easter we visited the Exchange with my Uncle to buy some pungent cheeses for my Aunt. While browsing around the various little craft stalls set up there on Saturdays we noticed the Rib Shakk signs and stopped to check out the meaty menu. Ordinarily I don't get to experience too much of the local cuisine scene, being kept very well fed by my family of excellent cooks, but this trip we had a spare morning before driving home; a perfect opportunity to hit the place up for a final protein overload.
Being hidden away in the bowels of the building suits the dark, smoky atmosphere of the Rib Shakk, although it does make it somewhat difficult to negotiate. While customers waiting for the Piazza are lead to their tables by smartly waistcoated waiters, patrons of the Rib Shakk seem more likely to be wandering around, rather aimlessly, looking for the t-shirt clad staff. The concept is based on a simple, Nandosesque model; seat yourself, order and pay at the counter, grab your cutlery sauce etc. But lack of signage/visible staff on our visit made it all rather confusing at first.
The menu has all the usual suspects; baby backs and St Louis pork ribs; beef short ribs and dandy ribs; BBQ chicken wings; and sharing and combo platters, including a Boston butt with mustard BBQ sauce. There is even a Wall of Flames challenge. If you manage to finish a rack of ribs coated in an incendiary hot sauce then your bravery/stupidity will be rewarded by gratis food and drink and your photo posted on their wall.
Most interesting was the rib burger section; the 'burgers' are made from chunks of their slow cooked BBQ beef ribs and garnished with various sauces, salads and cheeses. Tempted as I was, the Ewing wanted ribs, so we decided to share a triple combo to get a sample of all three types.
The Ewing embraced the spirit by imbibing not one but two floats. The first was a classic Coke version; pretty good, if a metal beaker of fizzy, creamy froth does it for you. The second, made with cream soda, was ridiculously sweet and artificial tasting. Needless to say the Ewing loved it.
I stuck to PBR, refreshing blue collar workers and hipsters everywhere. The beer list has a fair selection; Dixie, Lone Star, Miller and the ubiquitous Bud. Hardly ground-breaking, but points for choice, being cold and being cheap.
The triple rib combo; an unholy mess of St Louis and baby back pork ribs, beef rib, BBQ beans, fries, coleslaw, corn and salad. Despite being sat at a table for four, the giant wooden board, plus our drinks took up most the available table space. This meant precariously balancing our little saucer-sized plates in one corner and attempting to eat at a strange diagonal angle. Quite tricky if your gnawing on a sauce-smothered bone.
The food was fair to middling; the meat had been slow cooked but not smoked, meaning, while it was nicely tender, there was no real depth of flavour beyond the lake of sweet, generic BBQ sauce smothered over everything (they didn't ask me to specify a sauce, from the four available on the menu, when I ordered, but I assume this was the 'Classic Kansas City' version).
Surprisingly my favourite ribs were the baby backs, reminding me as they did of childhood trips up to Knightsbridge in the 80's, where we would don plastic bibs and eat racks of pork at the original Chicago Rib Shack. Nostalgia aside they were enjoyable, if nothing special.
The St Louis version were meatier, but also much fattier too. Now I'm a big fan when it comes to pork grease, but even I found it a little too much. The 'ribs' were also very hard to separate, meaning we ended up shredding the meat like pulled pork. Served in a bun it could have made a nice porcine version of the rib burger concept.
The beef short rib; although she had her reservations the Ewing ended up eating most of this, despite being pretty saturated with meat and sugar at that point. After being slow cooked for seven hours the meat was meltingly soft, with a decent 'beefiness', but the sauce was too sweet and it lacked any penetrating smoke flavour to cut through the rich swathes of fat. Again it would have been good to see it showcased in a bun, with the crunch of salad, and a good shake of Cholula to really lift the flavours.
Sides were a mixed bag; fries were decent, and the corn and salad a nice change of pace after all the meat and potatoes. The coleslaw was good; decent chunks of crunchy cabbage in a rich, slightly cheesy (?), dressing, but the BBQ beans were disappointing. Huge piles of dry, mealy butter beans served in a thin BBQ sauce. Eating them seemed more like a relentless chore than a culinary experience. To be fair the Ewing bravely attempted to make inroads into them, even calling them 'quite nice', but they weren't.
From the pile of bare bones left at the end of our lunch you can see the Rib Shakk wasn't all bad, it just wasn't particularly good either. While the surroundings are nice, prices fair and the service (if a little unsure) friendly, the food was merely average. While it would be ideal for a lunch stop, or to meet with mates for some meat, underneath the sugary sauce coating it's sadly lacking the smoky soul of real 'cue.