Restaurant review: SmokeWorks II

We pay a visit to Station Road's new steampunk barbecue joint and bar

A lynchpin of Cambridge’s thriving food scene, the Cambscuisine group’s collection of well-loved local eateries includes the Chop Houses, MillWorks, the Crown and Punchbowl and SmokeWorks, and their march toward Cambridge domination shows zero signs of slowing. The latest addition to the family is SmokeWorks II, a sister restaurant to the Free School Lane outpost which has been delighting taste buds in the city centre since the summer of 2014. 

So, what’s new? The new location on Station Road (the building previously home to the Great Northern pub) is bigger, for starters, and they’ve amped up the steampunk-meets-Americana theme and got themselves some snazzy new neon accessories (just wait and see what happens when you twist the buzzer for service…), plus you can now book a table in advance unlike over at Free School Lane.

Also new is the cocktail bar – which occupies more than half the floor space and features a nifty stepped seating arrangement and moveable cubby holes stocked with Marvel comics to peruse while sipping on craft beers and cocktails. We can recommend the excellent espresso martinis for giving you a post-barbecue binge lift, or check out the Double Barrel, a SmokeWorks take on the classic Sazerac served on the rocks and billowing with smoke. Swing by for happy hour (Mon-Fri 3-7pm and Sat and Sun 12-7pm) and enjoy bargains including £5 cocktails and £6 for two glasses of fizz. 

The food continues very much in the mould of the original SmokeWorks mission of bringing the people of Cambridge ‘Slow Cooked. Fast’ classic barbecue treats, teamed with great craft beers, bourbon or milkshakes. They take their barbecuing seriously here, rubbing, brining and smoking meat in their own smokery in Cambridge for up to 14 hours to achieve maximum flavour and melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. It’s a winning formula which the foodies of Cambridge have enthusiastically embraced, evidenced by the restaurant’s constant throng of diners. It’s also received plaudits on a national level, with The Telegraph naming it as one of the top ten BBQ restaurants in the whole of the UK.

"I never thought I'd get excited about a dish of baked beans"

On our early evening visit, we start with the croquettes: mouth-wateringly moreish cylinders of crisp fried breadcrumb stuffed with smoky pulled pork shoulder and served with a swoosh of tart apple sauce. Curiosity got the better of us and we also shared a ‘bone marrow luge’, which arrived with shot of buffalo trace bourbon on the side – down it through the bone luge, get a photo and you too can be immortalised on the ‘bone yard’ board of fame in the bar. The roast bone marrow, buttery and rich, was paired with a decadent helping of tender pulled beef brisket, sweet red onion and toast.

Feeling gluttonous, we went for the Beefed Up Works for our mains. If you want a whistlestop tour of SmokeWorks’ best bits (final destination: food coma), then this platter of barbecued deliciousness is absolutely the menu choice for you. Groaning under the weight of meltingly tender beef ribs, chunky house-spiced sausage, lip-smacking marinated chicken wings and a squidgy brioche bun loaded with luscious pulled meat, plus fries and pickles, it’s meaty feast which really does take some beating. The tangy pickles cut through all the smokiness nicely but I could have done with a little more freshness or greenery in the mix – next time I’ll add in a house salad or bowl of SmokeWorks’ homemade cabbage slaw.

The Works also comes with a portion of the meaty beans I raved about in my review of the original SmokeWorks a couple of years back. They’re made using haricot, black turtle and black-eyed beans (which are soaked overnight and mixed with smoking juices, barbecue sauce and beef dripping butter), before lavish layers of low and slow cooked meat are added. I never thought I’d get excited about a dish of baked beans – but SmokeWorks manages to elevate them to show-stealing status. Order the Works and you’re turning your greed into a good deed, too, since they donate 25p from every Works to local homelessness charity Wintercomfort. 

We couldn’t manage one on this occasion – blame The Works! – but SmokeWorks’ old school shakes are the stuff of legend. Order the salted caramel and make it ‘hard’ with a shot of bourbon for max indulgence. We did make space for a creamy baked cheesecake though, especially enjoying the contrast provided by the juicy pineapple salsa with a hint of chilli.  

There’s never been more choice for diners in Cambridge, so a restaurant needs to have something special to get people through the doors and keep them coming back for more, but with its buzzy atmosphere, cool design, handy location and truly next-level barbecue food – I can see SmokeWorks II becoming a bona fide stalwart. It’s worth remembering too, that if you’ve got a hankering for some slow cooked meaty joy but can’t tear yourself away from Netflix, you can now order via Deliveroo…