The opening of Big Easy in Covent Garden couldn’t have come at a better time. A sister site to the King’s Road original, which has been keeping Sloane Rangers well fed on Nova Scotia lobsters and pit-smoked ribs since 1991, the cavernous Covent Garden crabshack is perfectly poised to capitalise on the capital’s insatiable appetite for Southern American cuisine.
Named after the pet name for New Orleans, the restaurant is housed in a former Victorian power station on Maiden Lane. Its industrial size crosses over into the interiors, with its exposed brickwork, low-hung filament blubs and gritty, stripped back style mirroring MeatLiquor.
Set across two floors, at 300 covers Big Easy vies with Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly for the title of London’s largest dining room. Visiting on a Thursday evening, the place was fizzing with atmosphere, attracting a diverse crowd running the gamut from cosy couples tackling stubborn claws in plastic bibs to boisterous bankers blowing their pay packets on prime beef to a blues heavy soundtrack.
the downstairs bar
As the name suggests, Big Easy doesn’t do things in small measures. The place pulses with braggadocio and transports you deep into the dirty South. The bar, which specialises in brown spirits, carries 500 different brands, allowing for a dizzying array of cocktails to be offered.
The bar’s mastermind, Nathan Merriman, comes by way of The Club at The Ivy, meaning drinks are taken very seriously, with not a cocktail umbrella or a splash of Blue Curacao in sight.
But while base spirits are top drawer quality, cocktails are fun and irreverent, with New Orleans’ signature sip, the Sazerac, served as a pale pink slushie. Made with Bulleit Rye, its fine grain texture and rosy hue lulls you into thinking the drink will be soft in nature, but with absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters in the mix, it packs a serious punch – to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, two at the most or I’d be under my host.
Also on pour is an Old Fashioned using a Bulleit Bourbon base and the Vieux Carré. The former is intensely sweet due to the addition of smoked maple syrup made in house on wood burning smokers jetted in from Texas, which adds an alluring layer of complexity and a peaty finish that balances out the sweetness. Named after New Orleans’ French quarter, the Vieux Carré meanwhile, is a twist on a Manhattan, with Merriman’s version blending Bulleit Rye with Martel VS Cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine and Peychaud’s bitters. At £8.50 a pop, both of the classic cocktails are served on tap, though you’d never know it.
With such an enticing drinks offering, the food almost appears like an afterthought. Served by a smiley waitress with a “Love will tear us apart” tattoo snaking up her left arm, we begin with deep fried voodoo shrimp.
Fat as a swollen thumb and slathered in hot sauce and blue cheese, the juicy critters turned out to be the tastiest thing on the menu. Pit-smoked barbeque chicken wings also hit the spot with their sweet, sticky glaze and tender flesh.
The main event, a Crabshack Combo composed of peel ‘n’ eat shrimp, crab claws, mussels, clams and new potatoes in a hot ‘n’ spicy sauce was perfectly serviceable though failed to ignite my taste buds. Served in a giant dish better suited to paella, the highlight of the platter was the sweet meat hiding deep inside the crab claws. Knee-deep in mussel and claw, a band jolts into action inches from me, the lead singer sounding uncannily like Elvis Costello though looking more like Meatloaf.
Jumbo BBQ shrimp
On the wine front, a glass of Au Bon Climat Wild Boy Chardonnay 2011 made by California wine maverick Jim Clendenen was rich and buttery in nature, though showed perfect poise, with hints of vanilla and butterscotch balanced by notes of green apple and peach.
Deflated by the uninspiring main, spirits were revived by a delicious sticky toffee pudding. Served in what looked like a mini bathtub, the combination of the moist sponge and warm toffee sauce was more satisfying than a crackling fire on a cold afternoon.
Defeated, though the lure of the X-rated shakes was strong, with the Bourbon, banana and peanut butter-filled Colonel Parker holding particular appeal, for once I erred on the side of caution and abstained.
While the food may be unspectacular, Big Easy has much to recommend it. From its brazen, buzzy atmosphere and friendly service to its cracking cocktail offering, a night within its clutches is fast, furious and fun. To get the best out of the place, pull up a stool at the bar, order a Sazerac slushy and chow down on a basket of voodoo shrimp.
Big Easy Covent Garden, 12 Maiden Lane, London WC2E 7NA; Tel: +44 (0)20 3728 4888.