An annoyed review of Craft & Cleaver at The Hub, Milton Keynes

There have been a few times in my life that I am enthused no, compelled to write a blog post. In my previous blogging life it led to a month of eating on benefits and more recently Jamie’s Italian has rightly felt my wrath. Twice. Craft and Cleaver wasn’t quite a Carluccio’s because let me say from the off that there were several things things that I liked about the place, the problem is that they were totally, horribly and completely over-shadowed by the things that I didn’t.

Craft and Cleaver opened their second site here in the Hub Milton Keynes a week or so ago with a bit of a fanfare. A new player in town looking to roll out some good barbecue and tasty beer naturally brings joy and happiness to my world. Or it would have done, if they had been able to deliver on the promise. The site itself looks just the ticket sat in a commanding place in the hub, with the bare tables, neon lights and comfy booths giving a very attractive front to the square. On the night we visited, the weather was showing us some love and the bar was going great guns.

Craft _cleaver_sign

Craft _cleaver_table

Craft _cleaver_peanut_butter

So we sat and received our menus and let’s start with that menu. It’s not often I feel affronted so quickly but this got my back up right away. World famous? World famous? Come on guys. There is ambition and then there’s Star Wars Death Star mega level ambition. I mean, it could work but there is always a strategically placed air vent waiting to blow the whole thing up from the inside. In this case, that small but inevitably fatal flaw was that the drink was utterly horrid. Tasting like 25ml of peanut infused water rather than a tequila powered punch of peanut butter, our dining companion took one sip and asked me if mine actually had some tequila in it. I reassured him that he was not alone in his view that we had dropped 4 quid on what was essentially a glass of peanut juice.

Craft _cleaver_shots

Craft _cleaver_vegge

It’s fair to say then that things didn’t start well. We moved on to our veggie sharing platter. This was a much clearer affair, padron peppers had a decent char and unusually but ever-so-slightly pretentious sounding cheese-y artichoke seemed to go down well with everyone at the table. The sweet potato fries were disconcertingly limp but I simply bypassed those and moved on to the nachos. The nachos weren’t seasoned which surprised me and I was left dipping them into the dips that had been served in McDonald paper cups presumably for ‘authenticity’. The dips themselves were disappointingly generic with the red onion and coriander pot being the highlight*. It was the corn cakes though that picked up the pace of this tray as they were genuinely delicious. Easily the best thing I ate all evening.

Craft _cleaver_burger

Then we come to the main event. Between the four of us we ordered two burgers, a plate of ribs and a brisket with chicken wing combo plate. Let’s start with the burgers and give credit where it’s due. These were good burgers. They were fine, no drama, solid nice burgers. In terms of value, again they’re OK. The portions are good and if you go for these you’ll be happy. Our friends were certainly pleased with their choices and I have to say that I was a bit envious.

Craft _cleaver_ribs

Craft _cleaver_sauce

Mrs P. was happy if not exactly ecstatic with her ribs too. For me though they didn’t hit much of a mark, they were better than your average Harvester option but then for an actual BBQ restaurant I would have hoped they would be. Meaty, with the right amount of chew these were mainly let down by the sauce. Unfortunately generic, it wasn’t particularly fruity, smokey, spicy or vinegary. The main taste was sweetness and while I’m sure it won’t be the cause of any complaints for them but I was hoping for something more authentic. I ended up putting some of the table Buffalo wing hot sauce on top to pep the whole thing up a little.

Craft _cleaver_brisket

Now, if you are wondering where my issue with Craft and Cleaver was because I’ve been quite polite so far then don’t worry my friends because you’re here. My plate of XXL chicken wings and beef brisket. It’s true that I was running a risk in ordering the brisket but I wanted to see exactly what they were made of, afterall if The Binn can do it, why not these guys? But oh dear. Certainly what the brisket seems to be made of is a centimetre of solid leather because that’s what landed on my plate. Bear Grills is tough, Chuck Norris is tough but this thing could have wiped the floor with both of them at the same time. I mean, rock hard. I had trouble attacking the damn thing with a steak knife – solid. Totally 100% inedible. It got sent back to the kitchen. I moved over to my XXL chicken wings; unfortunately cold and coated in the same generic sauce as Mrs P’s ribs which overpowered pretty much everything else, the plate just didn’t give me anything near what I was expecting. I ended up mostly eating the beans which were described as contained unnamed ‘meats’ which I’m hoping was ironic.

craft-_cleaver_beans.jpg

Returning from the kitchen, our very nice waitress Tracy, told me that yes, the chef did agree that the brisket was ‘a bit tough’ (a bit?) so I could have a free pudding. Thank you Tracy, you were a golden ray of sunshine on an otherwise dreary day. We sampled multiple puds all of which were again, perfectly fine. Not great, not exciting not anything really, well except for the solid lump of frozen fudge sauce in the bottom of the Sundae – that was fairly annoying.

This meal made me angry because these guys have been to a Kansas BBQ competition, they know what they are supposed to do and yet we get this! There are loads of half decent burger joints out there, filling their menus with trashy Americana and cut-and-paste options, to present this as ‘true BBQ’ whilst simultaneously making all the classic mistakes just seems like a massively missed opportunity to me. But then let’s be honest, who am I to make such judgments? If you visit the Craft and Cleaver and enjoy the brisket, the ribs, the sauce and maybe even the over-priced weird peanut water then good for you. I wanted to like Craft and Cleaver, I really did, I was looking forward to reliving my time back in Memphis but at 160 quid for what I got, for four people (including drinks) I’ll take a pass next time and go to The Binn or Smoke Pit instead thanks.

*Highlight being a very loose term to describe something that lasted like it was made fresh rather than two other options that could easily have been scooped from a tub emblazoned with a Tesco logo.

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