Spuntino

Spuntino is no soigné continental café. It is a place for quenching the libidinal urge of hunger, most probably accompanied by a skinful of booze

There will always be an upwelling of ‘scenes’ that are fleetingly ‘now’; pockets of ephemeral trendiness that rise without trace and then dissipate just as quickly. Case in point: Camden in the mid 90’s. If you were anybody who was anybody, this was where you were back in 1995. But then Menswear turned up, Tony Blair got out his Fender Strat and then everybody went home. Similarly, Shoreditch and Hoxton were where it’s at until about 2006. Now apparently it’s Bermondsey where it – whatever ‘it’ is – is happening.

Fashionable postcodes don’t start life that way. Cheap areas of town would by and large have attracted poor artists, students and writers who would lodge, eat and socialise in these areas, purely out of necessity more than anything else. Eating houses, cafés, pubs, bars, music halls, galleries, debating societies and bookshops would inevitably flourish. Fledgling vibrancy eventually becomes a Scene. But at some point a Scene becomes a Fashion and will eventually end its life as a tourist trap. From Montmartre to the Mardi Gras this trajectory has pretty much always been consistent. Yet what the scenesters and rubberneckers at the latter stages of this trajectory never quite grasp is that these areas, quite often poor, are where real people, real families and real communities also live. The grubby local boozer is no longer a Grubby Local Boozer but becomes “like, edgy and, like, real.”

Take areas like Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Hackney. You really need to go back to the 1980’s when there was any kind of scene: an art scene in actual fact. Whitechapel Art Gallery became a hub for artists and their exhibitions. Though not before recession became the crystallising factor in affording local artists the opportunities for creating temporary exhibition spaces and galleries in empty office blocks and derelict warehouses. From here, the Young British Artists movement was able to gain a foothold.

Fast forward quarter of a century and there is no longer any aesthetic or cultural reference points. There is no rebellion, no sense of subversion. It is all rather glib and flippant. Your archetypal Shoreditch Scenester “lies somewhere between MGMT, The Inbetweeners and Derek Zoolander” as waspishly articulated by journalist Alex Rayner. When all the cool kids un-ironically hunch around a table in Starbucks and say, actually say, things like “amazeballs” and “totes lolz” you know it’s time to pack up and leave. As Danny The Drug Dealer’s well-worn line goes, “they’re selling Hippy wigs in Woolworths, man”, although in this case, one would probably expect to find those really shit Shutter Shades. An ‘edgy’ East London postcode does not a counter-culture make.

There’s something rather prophetic about all this: the denouement of the actual Broyardian Hipster who Got What He Wanted. And with that in mind it is to Soho where we now return. For it was here, indisputably, that the Hipster subculture of the 1940’s and later the Beat Generation of the 1950’s took root in the UK. From as early as the 1930’s intellectuals, writers and artists were drawn to Soho’s back streets: a marginal and clandestine underworld all of its own. Out of sight of the squares, Soho developed as the capital’s jazz and blues epicentre when Club Eleven, London’s first and arguably most iconic jazz club opened its doors. It was all about the bebop; being hip to the bomb; wigging out in “a present that existed only on the existential wings of sound.”

From Hipsters to Ravers, the skiffle clubs materialised starting with a first floor room above a pub on Wardour Street in 1952. The Beat Poets gathered wherever they were able to. Before long Soho went electric with the opening of music clubs such as Whisky a Go Go, the 100 Club and the Marquee Club, and record shops (nowadays clustered around Berwick Street). What is clear is that over a forty year period there wasn’t a defined series of movements as such, more a seamless, amorphous evolution of a way of thinking. That and the right hang-outs, clubs and cafés.

Soho – its residents and itinerants – would have needed feeding. They may well have done so at Spuntino had they the opportunity. Spuntino is no soigné continental café. It is a place for quenching the libidinal urge of hunger, most probably accompanied by a skinful of booze. Located among the unmarked doorways, sex-shops and dive bars of the grubby end of Soho, Spuntino is itself an unmarked doorway and is as minimalist as it gets. It doesn’t even have a phone number.

It is a New York bar-cum-diner located stylistically and spiritually somewhere between Lower East Side and Greenwich Village. It clearly pays homage to West Village’s iconic Café Ino, though whether by accident or by design it is hard to say. The food melds New York bar food (Sliders) with Southern comfort eating (Steak’n’Eggs, Grits) and intermittent Italian influences (Mussels and Saffron Agretti). It is also mostly carbs-based (Mac’n’Cheese – undoubtedly useful for soaking up the drink), although some will no doubt be reassured to know there is lighter, more herbivorous fare on the menu in stoic defiance of all that swaggering starch (Jerusalem Artichoke and Treviso Salad). There is room for only 26 by way of stools around a central zinc-topped bar. The suitably down-town interior is dimly lit, but don’t let this fool you: a lot of effort has clearly gone into the seemingly effortless cool of glazed tile walls, retro prints and exposed low-wattage bulbs. Patrons are accompanied by a soundtrack of gutsy rhythm’n’blues with the occasional diversion through jazz and the more avant-garde.

Food is mostly ‘taster’-sized portions with a few larger ‘plates’.To start, Eggplant Chips and Fennel Yoghurt: the former in the now rather Hackney-ed military-style tin dish, the latter in a shot glass. This was brilliant, the chips were as precise a facsimile of actual chips as it’s possible to be without being potato. Their coating contained actual fennel seeds and had an extremely gratifying crunch. Evidence, I’m sure, of the triple-cook treatment.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken was served in a similar fashion. Fried chicken was once the time honoured staple of the 2am drunk. All gristle and slimy sinew it was often a good deal less pleasant than uvulating the corpse of a burns victim. Nowadays thanks to the popularity of American homestyle, Japanese and Korean street food vendors you now find that many a venue is trying to make their dude food the best it can be. A basting of buttermilk before cooking tenderises and enriches the meat and ensures the coating is fried to a perfect, golden crisp. Here at Spuntino I was on the fence. Their pieces were a bit small. They do it better across town in Jin Juu.

A focus of the menu is its (mini burger) sliders. Here, a Ground Beef and Bone Marrow Slider was coarse with a welcome seam of minerality from the bone marrow. A further tidal wave of salty savouriness came courtesy of a slathering of melted cheese. Small size but big taste. A ‘Brick Lane’ Salt Beef and Pickles Slider was a great recreation of its east end cousin and as tender as a baby. Others included, interestingly, spiced mackerel.

If Spuntino is renowned for one dish and one dish only then it can only be its unofficial house special of Truffled Egg Toast – a doorstep of white bread, egg yolk dropped into the centre, enveloped in Fontina cheese and truffle oil and then grilled. It is of course a cheese toasty, albeit one as rich as Croesus and twice as immoral. It has already sent countless online devotees sliding blissfully into a coma, and let’s be honest, probably a diabetic one. It remains a menu must-have although a Kohlrabi, Hazelnut and Black Sesame salad, light and snappy, proved the perfect antidote.

Brown Sugar Cheesecake with Drunken Prunes to finish. This is the end to a meal you would be disappointed not to find here. Creamily smooth, just stodgy enough and with a burnt, sour molasses tang. Who knew that bourbon soaked prunes would taste this good?

Drinks? Bourbon neat. And more bourbon. There is a comprehensive choice of the stuff and when perched at the bar like an amphetamine-frazzled beatnik you will want to indulge too. Cocktails tend towards the short and hard and for the more continentally minded Spuntino has a small, Italian-leaning wine list.

Soho, then, has always been ‘in’. It is not the sort of place that drifts in and out of fashion. Its streets have always been the capital’s iconoclastic and bohemian heart. It has certainly got all of West London’s coolest restaurant but then that is no surprise. Spuntino may be new to the neighbourhood – a mere upstart – but it has already become one of those coolest.

Opinion: 7/10

Spuntino
61 Rupert Street
London
W1D 7PW

Website: http://www.spuntino.co.uk
Twitter: @Spuntino

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Clos Maggiore

just as Prometheus was said to have smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk, it was as if a small corner of the Mediterranean was smuggled in to Clos Maggiore with this dish

So what exactly is it that people look for when they go out to eat? What do we want from a restaurant?

What we want is somewhere that, looking in from the outside, comes across as the kind of place you would quite fancy being in. That means peering in through the window and happening upon a well lit room, preferably full – or close to being so, with the patrons appearing as though they’re having a thoroughly pleasant time of it.

If you’re unlucky ‘that place’ might be something like this:

“I’m so dreadfully sorry, we’re full” would come the fawningly disingenuous response from the Maître D: a Humble Heep; an Honest Iago; an altogether loathsome specimen whose ill-concealed smirk and unwavering glare actually convey, “I’m so dreadfully sorry, we shall only be fleecing fraudulently socialist Latin American dictators and Arab princes tonight. This isn’t really your sort of place”. Oh well, never fancied a bottle of that Romanée-Conti 1978 at 15 grand a pop anyway.

So now you are in, you are seated. All is well. Except it isn’t because your table is hidden away down a corridor, past a cleaning cupboard and slap bang outside the lavs in and out of which a parade of boorish Jeremy Clarksons stumble all evening long, shaking themselves dry as they pass your table and return to their seats. The waitress avoids all eye contact; the sommelier’s body odour is more toxic than ricin; you’ve got a wobbly table; there’s a light flickering above you; the menu is either mired in a time when citrus fruits were considered acceptable as an hors d’oeuvre (orange juice or grapefruit halves, anyone?), or else it’s all about needlessly tossy, irritating ‘concepts’ (a fishdog is not an on-trend menu must-have, it’s a goddam fish finger goddam sandwich); the starter is straight out of a tin; the main is straight out of a microwave and you’re supposed to be on a date but thus far the evening has gone so badly that even Pepé le Pew would be reconsidering his chances of being definitely on for some action later.

Hopefully your evening will go a little better. The two questions posed at the outset might more usefully be paraphrased as What Makes A Good Restaurant? In many ways, What Makes A Good Restaurant is Clos Maggiore. What makes it especially ‘good’ is so cunningly, cleverly simple: it is the ‘restaurant’ bit. No gimmicks, fads or trends, it is a place where you go to eat and have a nice time. That is all.

In one sense Clos Maggiore might be considered resolutely unfashionable. It is the kind of place that ‘Nobody’ goes to, ‘Nobody’ tweets about. Yet the place is always full. Full of people who enjoy going out to restaurants, who quite simply derive pleasure from the social niceties, and niceness, of all that entails. Mostly, it is couples enjoying a quiet meal in a place that ticks all the boxes.

Edward VIII favoured the private upstairs rooms at Rules for a quick knee trembler with Wallis Simpson while Nobu was the setting for Boris Becker’s broom-cupboard caperings. Clos Maggiore on the other hand has imperceptibly managed to win over the public as Harden’s “London’s Most Romantic Restaurant” of 2013. Toptable’s voters have gone a considerable step further by bestowing it with “Most Romantic in the UK”. There must be something in the Beaujolais as Wine Spectator recognises it as having one of London’s best wine lists and according to Hugh Johnson, “the wine is worth a week of anybody’s time”. Not bad without there being a single blogger in sight.

“But it is a romantic place” is the widely held aphorism. Yes it is, albeit in a very conventional sense: ideal for that dinner à deux intime under subdued lighting in a well turned-out room. The brief was to recreate the inns and bistros of provençale France. The rear conservatory, with its striking overhanging cherry blossoms is both visually sumptuous and the place to request a seat. While there may not quite be a sultry evening sky perfumed with rosemary and lavender and resonating with chirruping cicadas, it is still one of the better dining rooms in the West End. The “climate hot and dry, the colours vivid, the terrain varied from plains to mountains…brilliance and light and vivid of landscapes, yellow – old gold” of Van Gogh’s Provence is something truly romantic and evocative. Has Clos Maggiore perhaps missed a trick in not trying to recreate this instead?

From the outside it looks a bit like That Posh Bistro On The High Street, and in a sense it is. At its worst it you might glance at its frontage and consider it a bit Market Town Tory with its blue-blooded scarlet frontage and chocolate-box potted shrubberies. At its best it is rather smart: that Friday Evening place you might dress up a bit for. Rather than being pastorally provençal it’s perhaps the sort of place you might come across on Paris’s Rue Saint-Louis en L’Ile.

When it comes to the food, the more quixotic elements of the South are eschewed in favour of a tried-and-tested route through French cooking. Nonetheless head chef Marcellin Marc, formerly of double Michelin Starred Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence, and his team have fashioned a tight, well-balanced and altogether very approachable menu.

A garden herb salad starter was reasonable; the requisite sweetness of the greenery was there despite being given the treatment by a truffle vinaigrette. I’m not really a fan of this. Truffle oil is this decade’s balsamic vinegar – a faux-condiment that now seems to labour as contagiously as a TB epidemic in kitchens up and down the country in an attempt to ‘posh-up’ things that have no need of being poshed-up. I would have preferred the real thing. You can keep your dressings. Nothing lifts a plate of chaste, infant leaves and spring veg like a dissolute mountain of actual, freshly grated black truffle. But then that’s just me.

Plump scallops with seaweed butter was a top notch dish with a delicate, polite intimation of the marine. A confit duck leg with foie gras, pain d’épice and poached rhubarb is a tried-and-tested combination but it is so for a reason. Each part of the dish managed to elevate every other part.

Sea bass came with an aromatic fennel salad – another combination typique where the herb’s lustrous flamboyance worked as a foil to the mildness of the bass. Just as Prometheus was said to have smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk, it was as if a small corner of the Mediterranean was smuggled into Clos Maggiore with this dish. Breast of guinea fowl with garden vegetables was fine, lovely. Just a fairly nice bit of bird with a few veg.

Dessert was ‘Paris Brest’ with Praline Ice Cream. It is choux pastry with a praline cream filling: kind of like a cross between a Victoria Sponge and a profiterole.

So what about that wine list? With around 2,000 wines in total it was almost like settling down with a good book for the evening. But you’ve got to go du pays really haven’t you? So a Southern Rhône red that sat stylistically between a Châteauneuf and a Gigondas and a fraction of the price. Spicy, rustic, job done.

You will have a great time at Clos Maggiore and you will enjoy good, polite, formal French bistro cooking. You want to go out for a great dinner, right? On a date? Off to the theatre? Fancy a nice, proper restaurant with proper table linen and a proper wine list? Clos Maggiore is the proverbial hidden gem of the West End.

Opinion: 8/10

Clos Maggiore
33 King Street
Covent Garden
WC2E 8JD

Telephone: 020 7379 9696
Website: http://www.closmaggiore.com
Email: enquiries@closmaagiore.com
Twitter: @ClosMaggioreWC2

Café Mauresque

I love cumin. It is easily my favourite spice. In fact, it is so good it is mentioned in the Bible – twice

So Easter has passed by once again, except nobody actually noticed as a result of it still being winter (at the time of writing). Not that it is ever much to get worked up about here in the UK. We do try, though. We endeavour to shove a bit of crass, Christmassy commercialism Easter’s way but it never really enters into the spirit. Try and lend it a bit of festive cheer but Easter just doesn’t want to know. Usually at Easter time you can be energised by the rising sap of spring: lambs, chicks, daffodils, blossom, all that; nature once again becoming green and fecund; the hazy burr of lazy summer days on their way once more. Much, genuinely, to feel good about. But this year it already feels as though nights are drawing in for the winter. It might as well be November. And as Easter slopes away so too does any hope that Persephone might fling any fruitfulness our way.

If you happen to be from Seville then none of this will be of immediately pressing concern. Sevillanos go to town for the duration of La Semana Santa – Holy Week. Seriously go to town. The pasos, (processions) of Seville’s Holy Week are the most pre-eminent event in the country’s religious calendar. Seville is Spain’s Vatican City, its Canterbury.

Religion – Spain’s Roman Catholicism: dark, brooding, muscular, yet always highly extravagant – hangs thick in the air in Seville, and nowhere more so than in Santa Cruz the city’s old medieval centre. The old town, or El Laberinto (‘the labyrinth’) as locals know it is exactly that: a warren of narrow streets and alleyways. It is like a hothouse. Temperatures soar from, well, Easter onwards and so the shade afforded by the many cool patios and plazas is a celestial blessing.

Seemingly every street, every public thoroughfare is named after some Saint. Even routine street furniture is suffused with the deathless whisper of The Resurrection, The Passion, The Virgin: The Phone Box of Christ The Holy Saviour, or The Pissoir of Our Most Blessed Redeemer. Pious wall murals are always demanding your attention.

It all rather makes the Camino del Santiago in the country’s cool, Atlantic north look like a village fête. Whereas back home you might organise a raffle for fixing the roof at the vicarage, here during Semana Santa you’ve got the Hermandades y Cofradías de Penitencia. These are the ‘Brotherhoods’, the masked penitents dressed in the Klu Klux Klan garb of head-to-toe robe and pointy mask processing through the streets. But it is really all a bit sinister, a bit Da Vinci Code. The whole thing has more than a whiff of The Inquisition and murky associations with Franco-era atrocities about it than I am entirely comfortable with. These Brotherhoods are said to undertake ‘Self-Regulated Religious Activities’, which, I would imagine, include manacling heretics to racks and removing their tongues.

But I do love the city and Santa Cruz in particular. It feels charmingly shabby. Its plazas of bright whites and sunlit gold are blithely carefree. It is characteristically unhurried in that way that Southern Europeans have made their own. And the scent of orange trees really does hang in the air. (There’s a great Irish Pub as well, but that’s another story).

Yet far from being a Catholic stronghold, Seville was of course a Muslim city and was part of Moorish Spain for several centuries until the reconquista of Ferndinand III. These influences continue to exist everywhere for all to see. You only have to look at the cathedral’s bell tower La Giralda to know that for all intents and purposes it is a minaret. The city is as much Muslim as it is Christian.

These morisco influences are nowhere more prevalent than in the very catholic – that’s ‘small c’ catholic, the true meaning of the word – cuisine and flavours that were developed after North African, Berber and Arab foodstuffs and cooking methods were brought to Iberia: cumin, saffron, almonds, lemons, dried fruits. Things we think of today as Spanish staples exist only as a result of the trade routes south and east. Paella and olive oil? It was the Moors who introduced rice and the cultivation of olive trees to Spain.

But we are not in Seville we are in Canterbury. Home of the Anglican Church this time and home to Café Mauresuqe, a Moorish themed Andalusian-tapas-Moroccan-tagine-kind-of restaurant and tapas bar. What’s more, it is in the heart of the city’s old medieval centre, with, as it happens, a pretty decent Irish Pub almost next door…

Café Mauresque is immediately a visually arresting and atmospheric place to be. From the morisco style ceramic tiling to the horseshoe arch motifs and even the lighting, it is not a million miles away from a Tangiers souk or a Córdoba back street. Without qualification, Café Mauresque is the loveliest looking restaurant in the city.

You will find a decent selection of Andalusian-Morrocan tapas dishes, cous cous, stews and many more Europeanised main course dishes such as Pork Belly in Fino Sherry and the perhaps unconvincing-sounding Steak with Manchego Butter. Moorish style Spanish tapas is certainly still infrequent enough for it to pique interest, which is in no small part aided and abetted by consistently dexterous cooking.

Fried potatoes with harissa yoghurt were hot and crisp. Hummus came with its characteristic garnishes: a generous slug of fruity olive oil and a spike of paprika. It was creamy, woody and avoided tasting like chewed cardboard, as it so often can. Brochettes of squid and chorizo, then lamb a la plancha were both decent and hearty; the former in particular. Plenty of smoky flavours here as well. 

For me the highlight of the tapas dishes were the Kefta, or Moroccan lamb meatballs. They were both plump and rich with cumin and served with sweet-sharp tomato sauce. I love cumin. It is easily my favourite spice. In fact, it is so good it is mentioned in the Bible – twice. Not only does it remain an integral aspect of the Moroccan kitchen but also the dining table where it is used as a plate-side condiment. It is such a warm, convivial aroma and always just pungent enough. Lamb, tomato, cumin in combination just does it for me.

More lamb: a tagine with dates and ginger and served in its namesake conical pot was excellent. Softly yielding, fatty meat slid with minimal effort from its shank bone tether. It was as filling and as reassuring as only a good pot of stew can be. Of all the meats lamb turns warm, sweet notes to its best advantage.

Dessert was Sticky Date Cake and was sticky, date-y, and erm, cake-y  accompanied with Spanish helado and washed down with sweet mint tea.

Canterbury is a kind of spiritual home for me. It is a place of childhood memories as well as being an adolescent stamping ground. Many halcyon days (and nights) were spent there as a student and then later on working in the city’s best bookshop. And it was during that time that Café Mauresque opened and became an instant hit.

Over a decade later it remains Canterbury’s best and most stylish restaurant. Moorish and moreish in equal measure.

Opinion: 8/10

Café Mauresque
8 Butchery Lane
Canterbury
Kent
CT1 2JR


Tel: (01227) 464300
Website: http://www.cafemauresque.com
Twitter @CafeMauresque

La Trappiste

my personal torment would be being water boarded by a ruddy-faced Bavarian wearing nothing but lederhosen, stockings and his Wehrmacht epaulettes

Just occasionally in life you encounter places that capture the imagination like nowhere else. For good or for ill, there will be these isolated little moments in time that leave an indelible mark on the imagination, an ineradicable footprint on the sands of memory for all time. Oh sure, there will be all those irresistible stirrings brought on by the usual reveries: The Sounds Of Radio Four Coming From The Kitchen Of An Avuncular Great Aunt Living In Devon; That Kiss In The Park By The River On That Summer Afternoon; Vomiting Down Your Shirt In A Packed Bar…

Truth be told, it’s probably not in anyone’s interests to try and turn their lives into a Proust novel. But there are two occasions I can think of in my life where I have tried to retrace my steps somewhere but have simply been unable to do so, second or any subsequent time round.

Both places are restaurants. First was a little trattoria in the side streets up in Paris’s 18ème arrondissement. It was my first time in La Ville-Lumière. 1995, a Sixth Form French trip. It was lunch time, we lost our teachers for the afternoon, found this little place and ordered pizzas and beer and smoked Marlboro Reds. After scraping our money together we hadn’t quite enough to pay but the owner wasn’t the slightest bit concerned. We stayed for hours. And I have never managed to find this place since  – I don’t know if it still exists even. I realise this must say something about me as a seventeen year old, the fact that one of my enduring adolescent memories is enjoying an ad hoc yet rather civilised (surprising, considering the company) extended lunch in Paris.

The second and more recent occasion was a place in the centre of Munich and for the life of me I cannot remember what it was called. All I know is that it was a stone’s throw from the Marienplatz. I’ve tried putting every conceivable combination of words into Google – ‘German restaurants Munich city centre’, ‘local restaurants in Munich’, ‘Bavarian offal fetish dungeon hell hole’ – but all to no avail. The place does not seem to exist on Street View either. And I so desperately wanted to find this place again, really just to see if it actually exists and I haven’t just invented the whole thing.

Since I have no details of the place: name, location, anything at all to point to it actually existing outside of my own mind I can’t therefore review it, as was my intention. It would be like writing a review of The Krusty Krab. So instead I shall adopt a persona – let’s say this character’s name is S Truffle – and write a narrative piece in the first person perspective about the experience of visiting a restaurant in Munich.

***“In the evening I went looking for a restaurant. This is often a problem in Germany”. The words of Bill Bryson in actual fact. And as I was to find out, never truer words spoken. Finding somewhere to go for dinner was such a monumental trial each and every time I began to wonder whether I, S Truffle, was merely a character in somebody else’s mind – a chimera existing solely for somebody else’s amusement. Perhaps their plans for me would be my eternal languishment in a tartarus of Bavarian cuisine right here in Munich. Was being held fast, buried to my neck and slowly drowning in a quicksand of weisswurst and pickled lung stew my nightmare or somebody else’s? Never mind being burnt to death with a lighter or being spoon-fed bits of my own body until there was nothing left, my own personal torment would be being water boarded by a ruddy-faced Bavarian wearing nothing but lederhosen, stockings and his Wehrmacht epaulettes.

Suddenly I was no longer alone. I had a companion. We chose a restaurant. I say ‘chose’, it was more like finding you’ve been entered for Shirley Jackson’s lottery. As we pushed open the door, parted the heavy draught-excluding curtain, I think I actually exclaimed aloud, “Oh Jesus Christ”.

The only free seats were at a large communal table. I thought we had mistakenly stumbled into a private party. Pine-panelled walls, mounted animal heads, various Tyrolean curios and memorabilia all gave the room an ominous mien. Was this in actual fact some clandestine Austro-Bavarian masonic lodge meeting? Everyone in the room was middle-aged, well-to-do and ruddy. They definitely all harboured extreme right-wing views. Maybe they were cannibals? It crossed my mind. The woman seated directly opposite was particularly intent on staring me out. Surreptitious whispering heavy with glottals and menace came from all corners. I’m sure everybody was now licking their lips. We were not welcome here. At all.

A menu nevertheless arrived. As feared it was a veritable biopsy table of internal organs and bits of digestive system. I was able to pick out the schweinehaxe which I somehow knew was a regional speciality of pork knuckle. My companion settled for liver dumplings, whatever the hell they were. If I hadn’t navigated as judiciously as I did the task of rendering what German I have into English I know for a fact that plates of quivering udder and boiled colon would have been placed in front of us. For some irrepressible reason I had the compulsion to order, in English, in a comedic ‘Allo ‘Allo German accent though was begged not to. Our food arrived. Needless to say every mouthful was terrifyingly, nerve-shreddingly horrific. I heard myself scream. I woke with a start. Around me was a sea of leering, ruddy faces. I was held fast in quicksand up to my neck. A faceless man wearing only stockings and Wehrmacht epaulettes advanced upon me with a tray of quivering udders and assorted boiled colons. I began to scream before waking with a start.***

But If I could finds this place to review it would score a perfect ten. Ten for the memories and minus ten for everything else.

chips were of the school dinner variety – pale, flabby, fat and greasy

And so to Canterbury’s titular La Trappiste and the most unwelcoming, uncongenial establishment encountered since S Truffle went on holiday to Munich by mistake. It is a Franco-Belgian themed brasserie and bar in the old city centre, practically under the shadows of the cathedral’s splendid western façade. I still love Canterbury. It manages to be a surprisingly young city thanks to it being home to two universities and countless overseas students.

La Trappiste occupies an impressive and roomy space at the intersection of four streets. It really could not have asked for a better head start in the battle for the hearts and minds of the city’s inhabitants. It can be approached from all angles. If you are going to or from the cathedral you will probably walk past it. An attractive bar provides the centre piece. There is even an on-site bakery whose wares are displayed in the window. It is a damn wonder the space wasn’t made into a Prêt or a Starbucks. It is also a damn shame as well…

On our first visit one summer evening we didn’t even get to try the food. Being shown to an outside table was the last we saw of anybody. After decanting us to our seats and sloping back inside, the waiter then resumed his duties of busily standing by the bar. We didn’t even get menus. I should of course point out that the place was actually empty inside. Plenty of staff though. So industrious was their bar-propping that their elbows must have worn deep furrows into the counter. What the hell was their problem? After a Best-of-British, hand-wringing fifteen minutes of apologetically telling each other “don’t worry they’ll be along in a minute,” I thought about going in to say “look, I’ll cook our meal. Do you mind if I pour myself a Leffe?”

I did go in to ask what was going on. The shift manager’s response was to spit: “right, so are you gonna leave then now, or what?” in the same tone a chap might employ for requesting another chap’s presence outside for fisticuffs.

And that was that.

I just knew I had to go back again. This time for lunch, labouring under the misapprehension that things couldn’t possibly be any worse. Once more I was shown to a table but this time hidden behind a pillar and to get to it I had to squeeze between it and the next table, depositing my scrotum – accidentally, I hasten to add – into their food whenever I passed by. The table was so tiny it would have been more comfortable eating off my lap.

I kept things as simple as possible by ordering Steak Frites and a beer, a Grimbergen Bruin. It was tart, brown and fizzy and pretty damn good, and sadly the only thing to scale the lofty heights of above average. The steak, a sirloin, was requested medium-rare but arrived torched to oblivion and devoid of any kind of discernible characteristic that may have identified it as sirloin steak. All essence and flavour must have been surgically removed before it left the the kitchen, thus leaving it with less taste than the guests at a Jeffrey Archer dinner party.

Chips were of the school dinner variety – pale, flabby, fat and greasy – and bore not the slightest resemblance to any French or indeed Belgian Fries I’ve come across in my lifetime. In fairness though an accompanying Béarnaise sauce was decent.

La Trappiste is utterly half-arsed and breathtakingly arrogant to boot. I cannot decide whether management don’t know how to run a café restaurant or simply don’t care. It cannot be stressed enough just how much this place has everything going for it. Even the affected interior rough-and-readiness really does look like that of a continental café. And by god, Belgium really does know how to produce stuff people love to eat: fries, mussels, chocolate, waffles and seemingly innumerable varieties of really amazing beer. But sadly not here. Canterbury: so close to Belgium yet so far.

Opinion: 2/10

La Trappiste
1-2 Sun Street
Canterbury
Kent
Tel: (01227) 479111
Website: http://www.latrappiste.com

Shoryu Ramen

the stock in trade of Shoryu Ramen is vigorous, noodle-slurping, informal comfort food

Shoryu Ramen!! Said aloud, or even just written down on paper, the name of this Hakata-influenced ramen bar is more like a battle cry from a revolutionary early 90’s combat arcade game that people of a certain age (i.e. mine) will no doubt recognize. Which is why, when I first heard of this place, my first reaction was “a-ha! I know what shoryu means!” (It means ‘rising dragon’ by the way).

First things first though: I know absolutely nothing about Japanese cuisine. To me it is a twilight world shrouded in intrigue and secrecy, a whole other alien universe. A demi-monde everlastingly shut-off from the prying and greedy round eyes of the Gaijin. The concept (for it is undoubtedly a concept) of Japanese ‘high eating’ is built around etiquette and ritual and takes its roots from the country’s ancient tea ceremonies. The manner in which one eats, the aesthetic appreciation of a shared meal, is as much part of the experience as the eating itself, maybe more so. And this is something that does not really square with our own occidental world view of food and what it means to eat.

Only when a peep behind the noren into the ryokan is permitted do we see the sheer breadth of Japanese cuisine. And it is staggering. Sushi and sashimi for instance, both utterly different (though often thought of as one and the same by us westerners), yet each their own distinct universe. How many ways of serving tuna or mackerel can you think of? Well you could probably walk down an – apparently – unmarked alley just off the Shibuya in Tokyo into a bamboo shed with space for only five only to find it is a triple Michelin Starred alter at the temple of sashimi. Here, a single fish might be cut, sliced, prepared and served in about five hundred different ways before your eyes. A haiku in epicurean form where meaning and connotation vary from city to city, region to region.

Society changes. And so do our palettes. And as these both change so again does the world around us, driven as it is by our bellies. Foreign, or gaijin food probably now comprises the majority of what Japan puts into its mouth, and interestingly, this what it now exports back to the rest of the world. Since Imperial Japan kicked off in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration, rapid economic growth and industrialisation coincided with contact and trade with the previously shunned outside world. This of course brought gaijin food to Japan. Fast forward to now and Kobe (Wagyu) beef is Japan’s ubiquitous foodie export to the world. It may be sought after as an exorbitantly overpriced bovine delicacy on high-end menus the world over but steak is western food sold back to westerners. They are even doing it with whisky – what is Japanese whisky, as bloody brilliant as it is, if it isn’t basically just Scotch?

A great deal of Japanese food today is in fact Chinese in origin. It is Chinese noodles and broth that form the beating heart of modern day eating in Japan. See that steaming bowl of ramen and those tempting gyoza? As Chinese as child labour. And that is exactly what is served at Shoryu Ramen on Lower Regent Street, just off Piccadilly.

Dispel at once any notions of delicacy, obscurity or refinement; the averted-gaze-and-shy-giggle-behind-the-hand; the imperial-military-severity of tsukemono or hamachi restaurants. The stock in trade of Shoryu Ramen is vigorous, noodle-slurping, informal comfort food.

As you may or may not have guessed ramen is ‘noodles in broth’. Any Japanese-ness attributed to ramen is of course the fact that there are an utterly bewildering number of iterations of the dish, be they regional or ingredient based. Shoryu Ramen specialises in only one type and that is the tonkotsu (not to be confused with tonkatsu, something totally different). Not only that, the tonkotsu ramen served here are of the Hakata variety – specific to the Hakata district of the city of Fukuoka.

Tonkotsu means ‘pork bone’. The resultant broth is made from boiling down pork bones, fat and meat over many hours. Miso this is not. This variety is currently popular back home plus there are already two others in London: Bone Daddies and the eponymously named Tonkotsu, with many more due to open soon. If the craze for ramen restaurants takes off big time in the capital, well, you read it here first.

Immediately upon entry I was assailed by a strangulated shout of “Irasshaimase!” Not knowing what was going on around me my instinctive reaction was to block the anticipated ball of energy about to slam into my midriff. (You can’t duck underneath, remember, and leaping over would leave you open to attack from a well-seasoned World Warrior – eh, kids?). But no, Irasshaimase thankfully turns out to be a greeting yelled to all and sundry who step over the threshold.

Shoryu Ramen is a compact space. Lunch time diners fit elbow to elbow along a single row of tables although there is also an area of communal tables and benches at the front by the window – probably the best place to sit. Walls are of the ubiquitously à la mode bare brick variety save for some decidedly retro swirling motifs. Browns and oranges are the dominant colours. It certainly didn’t put me in mind of something I’d expect to see in downtown Hakata. More like a cafeteria in a Scandinavian airport in the 1970’s. The overall effect was not as suicide-inducing as it sounds. It worked and looked stylish. My visit was also accompanied by a background soundtrack of post-bop jazz that put me in mind of writer Haruki Murakami for some reason. 

I found my first few appetisers to be a waste of time sadly. Pickled cabbage was really just flaccid curls of raw white cabbage soaked in Sarsons. It was as every bit as hair shirted as it sounds. Yamitsuki Asian cucumber was equally as unforgiving. Though dressed in sesame and sea salt it looked (and tasted) like it had been buried in North Korean sand.

Luckily, things kicked up a gear with the arrival of a plate of Gyoza dumplings and Shoryu Ramen immediately got back to what it does best: pork. If badly done, I find that the pork mince in gyoza can have a distinctly nasty, bummy quality. If done well they are one of my favourite things in the whole world. A fine line if ever there was one. These, thankfully, were the real deal: each one maddeningly addictive and superbly succulent. A hirata pork bun, a supple, pillow-soft steamed bun filled with yet more pork – slow cooked belly this time – further drove the point home: I would not be leave here hungry.

There are variations of the Tonkotsu ramen on the menu ranging from the typical (with added chilli, wasabi or char siu barbecue pork), to the more off the wall: piri piri, yuzu and the intriguing ‘dracula’ that adds caramelised black garlic and balsamic vinegar. A recent addition to the menu is the Hokkaido curry ramen which includes crispy fried kara-age chicken and mini fishcakes.

I opted for the basic, or ‘signature’ ramen. It was quite the distillation of everything porcine. The broth was concentrated and cloudy, almost milky in colour. All flesh, bones, collagen and more flesh and bone. But naturally enough it was lighter and cleaner on the palate than expected while still being satisfyingly rich. Toppings were yet more sliced pork (too dry) and kikurage mushrooms. A generous shovelling of noodles, plus bean sprouts, spring onion and nori seaweed provided the body of the dish, while sesame and ginger provided the seasoning. The soul was undoubtedly the pork broth. As for the manners? Well they were distinctly Chinese: slurping is most definitely the order of the day. No self-consciousness here, head down, get on with it. Filling, myriad flavours, wonderfully satisfying. Ramen are hardly a novelty but this did feel like something entirely new.

All this was accompanied by a wonderfully invigorating genmai, or brown rice tea. The drinks menu also offers no less than thirty varieties of sake if you feel like going at it but alas, time, for now, marches on… So I finish up. Funny to witness the chap who was to take my seat flinch in terror at the incoming “Irasshaimase!”.

Shoryu Ramen, while maybe a bit Too Cool For School for some of you squares – they’ve even flown in the chef from Hakata – is welcoming, different enough while still being familiar enough, and is a great introduction to Japanese lunch time culture. Dozo omeshiagari! And indeed, Shoryu ken!

Opinion: 7/10

Shoryu Ramen
9 Regent Street
London
SW1Y 4LR
Website: http://www.shoryuramen.com
Twitter: @shoryuramen

Corrigan’s

the sense that green, muddy, hearty Ireland had been supplanted by warm, fragrant, luminous Southern Europe

Hey, I’ve got a joke:
“Waiter, waiter your thumb is in my soup!”
“Don’t worry sir it’s not very hot.”
Or how about this:
“Waiter, waiter I want to complain to the chef!”
“I’m afraid his dinner break has just started. He’ll be at the restaurant next door as usual”.

These pearls of comic genius may not trigger Tanganyika-esque levels of hysteria but they do at least shed light on the accepted truism about chefs being an inherently humourless bunch. And always skinny.

You’ll doubtless be aware of the aphorism Le chef mange ici along with the old adage entreating you to ‘never trust a skinny chef’. Well if you happened to be thinking of Richard Corrigan then you might conclude that he does indeed mange ici and that his trustworthiness would be beyond reproach. Somebody like the tiny-in-real-life Michel Roux Jnr on the other hand probably has all the integrity of Fagin. (In this context, I hasten to add. I’m sure he is a perfectly lovely man in reality).

To me, the expression le chef mange ici brings to the fore images of fat chefs – men big in both body and spirit – all sweating brows and bulging whites waddling around kitchens and bustling over stoves of bubbling sauces. Probably French, these men belong to an evocative culinary heritage of yesteryear. Ironically, much like Michel Roux Jnr’s father Albert. And they enjoy their grub. The food they cook and enjoy, though stylish and sophisticated, always manages to be big-hearted: rich, heavy reductions, lots of butter, mostly meat. They most certainly have their dinner break at their own restaurant. And they most certainly have gout as well.

I am interested in the alternative and modern restaurant scene and its evolution. But even so, there’s something inherently reassuring about a chef whose frame might not look out of place on a Botero canvass. You’d think, “yeah, I want this person to cook for me; they look as if they’d actually enjoy it.” Who wouldn’t prefer early-years Nigella (before the ascent to mainstream popularity and the descent to self parody) lasciviously whipping up some gooey, creamy dessert like a sort of high-born Hampstead reader’s wife, as opposed to Gillian McKeith’s desiccated Gestapo officer force feeding you some linseed washed down with a mug of warm vinegar before having a poke around in your poo? I do know some people who would opt for the latter but they’re not particularly fun to be around.

But what of the personality profile of the modern day chef? They tend to belong to one of two distinct camps. They tend to be barely literate, violent, narcissistic, criminal psychotics who routinely work eighteen hour shifts without sleep and perform Bishop’s Fiver Finger Fillet on themselves and colleagues for fun. Alternatively they are autistic obsessives, meticulously fixated with detail, order and routine to the exclusion of, you know, normal things. Either way, they are barely-functioning human beings. You certainly wouldn’t want one as a friend.

And if once again you just happened to be thinking of Richard Corrigan you might by now be scratching your head. Not only slightly cuddly, he is also most definitely the sort of man’s man you might want as a mate. Much in the same vein as television’s James Nesbitt (is it an Irish thing?), he is the sort of bloke that other blokes would go for a pint with and talk about manly things, like car engines or sawing wood, or whatever. And since he is big in the culinary world, so to speak, you know you would also have genuinely interesting conversations about the optimum time beef should be aged, or how to make the perfect beurre noisette. He would laugh uproariously at your jokes about waiters but also crack his own. So: not skinny; likes a laugh. Probably not much cop as a chef then…

Michelin Stars earned at Stephen Bull and Lindsay House, a successful buy out of iconic London landmark Bentleys and being awarded ‘AA Restaurant of the Year’ for his newest venture, the Mayfair dining room Corrigan’s (opened in 2008), would suggest otherwise. Oh, and he has also won BBC’s The Great British Menu no less than three times.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that eating at Corrigan’s is representative of not just the man but of the background. Born and raised in rural County Meath, he has always stressed both the importance and value of land, sea (the snotgreen sea), good husbandry and honest farming. Just as Joyce’s Leopold Bloom gourmandised “the inner organs of beasts and fowls…thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs and fried hencods’ roes” then so too does the menu at Corrigan’s place an emphasis on heartier, wilder fare. A gratifying sense of terroir unites dishes such as wild rabbit through Cornish crab to artisan Irish cheeses. In-season game features prominently as do wild fish and oysters – West Mersea and Carlingford. But there are also plenty of surprising flourishes which exhibit a lighter, defter touch: a shellfish ravioli with sea vegetables; veal sweetbreads paired with morel cream; nutmeg ice cream with spiced fruit.

Designed by Martin Brudnizki, the interior manages to capture pastoral and hunting themes, albeit in a rather pleasing tongue in cheek fashion (bird foot lamps). The overall impression is actually that of a rather elegant 1930’s transatlantic liner with blue banquet seating, immaculately gleaming table linen and dark wood counterbalanced by the cosy, orangey glow of lamplight. Half of the space is devoted to a stylish marble-topped cocktail bar and the rest is the open plan dining room.

A recent dinner conjoined the robust with the subtle in a similar fashion.

A plump miniature sausage roll made with expertly buttery, crumbly pastry was the mischievous highlight of an introductory plate of amuse bouches. A starter proper of grouse and winter vegetable soup proved unusually delicate. Finely diced assorted root vegetables, pleasingly undercooked, coalesced with the slenderest slithers of grouse in a light broth. When one thinks of game birds paired with wintry roots it’s hard not to think of big ballsy flavours. This was way more refined than might otherwise be expected.

Rump of Elwy lamb with Heirloom tomatoes was similarly atypical in the sense that green, muddy, hearty Ireland had been supplanted by warm, fragrant, luminous Southern Europe . In this context the use of lamb makes utter sense; it is a ‘warm meat’ made alive by spice and sunnier climes. Here it was cooked medium rare, perhaps a tad under, and perhaps a bit, just a bit, tough. The tomatoes were as sweet in taste as in colour – vivid red to florid yellow – and the dish was rendered complete by the nut-like Ratte potato.
Dessert was a stand out by a mile orange and Grand Marnier soufflé elevated by its sharp clout of boozy citrus. A great soufflé is always a deeply indulgent moment d’intimité, kind of like receiving an out of the blue love letter, so a doff of the hat to the kitchen for that.

Wines: An O Rosal and a red Sancerre, both very decent and noteworthy alternatives for fans of Albariño and young-ish Burgundies.

At Corrigan’s you get a touch, just enough, of Mayfair grandeur but most importantly you get an unpretentious menu created for people who enjoy eating enjoyable food. It is telling that Richard Corrigan and his food seem to be universally liked by the critics. There exists genuine goodwill. Corrigan puts this down to the fact that he is doing the right sort of things for the right sort of reasons, purely and simply. I am very much inclined to agree.

Opinion: 8/10

Corrigan’s
28 Upper Grosvenor Street
London
W1K 7EH
Tel: (0)20 7499 9943
Website: http://www.corrigansmayfair.co.uk
Twitter: @CorrigansFood (Richard Corrigan)

Tommi’s Burger Joint, MEATliquor

there is room for 25 only. It is always full. There is a classically retro stool counter and bare-ish brick walls save for some Johnny Cash and Sopranos posters. Dylan was playing

The humble hamburger. Never has such apparently humdrum grub been the subject of so much discussion. The main reason is that 2012 was the year the hamburger arrived here in the UK. But it is a truly divisive thing. Everybody’s favourite equine-tainted meal perpetually teeters between authenticity and mockery. It is the great culinary uncertainty principle. Schrodinger’s Cow, you might say. On its own terms a burger can be seen as something authentic, real, honest. But is it really just artificial and ersatz?

The very earliest burgers were simply rough slabs of ground, salted beef flavoured with whatever spices were at hand, occasionally eaten raw, and probably about as appetising as their cheaply-made progenies stacked high in freezer cabinets the world over today.

The US Library of Congress ‘officially declares’, with great, Orwellian Ministry of Misinformation chutzpah that Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch, a small lunch shop in New Haven, Connecticut sold the first hamburger in 1900 by taking left-over meat, bashing it into shape and serving it between slices of toasted bread. It is a dish that is still served to this day (and one that would go down a storm in Shoreditch, no doubt).

In numerous moribund backwater towns the length and breadth of the USA there is the obligatory local ‘historian’ proclaiming said town as Birthplace of the Burger, along with some annual festival, probably with lots of dungarees and competitive eating. A particular example: so certain are residents of Seymour, Wisconsin of it being invented there in 1895 they have dubbed the place ‘Home of the Hamburger’. There is also an annual festival which includes a burger-eating contest. So not far wrong, then.

My personal favourite: the first burger was, according to an article entitled Welcome to Hamburger Heaven in Oklahoma Today magazine, “placed between Grandma Fanny’s yeasty buns” – you think I’m making this up? – and served on Grandpa Oscar’s (Oscar Bilby) farm in 1891, Tulsa Oklahoma. True to form, a parade of local writers and historians affirm with no shortage of Old Testament certainty that Tulsa is the “cradle of the hamburger”.

Horses for courses or a load of old pony? Nobody seems to have the foggiest whether any of the above is actually true or not. But it is heart-warming to think that maybe dear old Grandma Fanny’s yeasty buns played their own small part in bringing Ronald McDonald into the world. 

So just how does one go about critiquing a hamburger? Well there are so many tweeters and bloggers on the subject these days, so you tell me. Nuance and ostentation are obviously out. No cheffy bullshit either – it isn’t about the ego. Either it is good – it is proper – or it isn’t. Simply put, is it authentic? The words of Josh Ozersky the highly-regarded Time food writer, restaurant critic and founder of New York based food blog Grub spring to mind. “Burger purists have a historical mind…thinking about old-time, classic hamburgers. There’s a kind of poetic idealism to them”. To him, a potentially, perfectly authentic burger “deserves a kind of Shinto-like approach…purity of simple objects. It is a gastronomic end point.” 

That is stateside. Except us Brits have never really ‘done’ The Hamburger: Casey Jones (remember them?), Little Chef, motorway services – all unspeakably vile. It also suffers from an image problem. It is a vulgar thing. It is the default food of any larg gathering of hoi polloi where the cloying reek of The Burger Van is the only option available, and where more often than not it will be assembled from grey, faecal dollops of offal and pressure-hosed remnants of eyeball and bollock. And from a cow if you are lucky.

So it comes out of leftfield to those not privy to the London foodie blogosphere that the thing in London in 2012 was not in fact The Olympics but The Hamburger. And continues to be so to this day. Venues often started life as pop-ups and residencies but soon became permanent. 

The raw materials: high quality, aged, organic beef sourced directly from boutique farmers and suppliers. The process: no sharp practices or dubious ingredients, butcher to burger in an instant. As ethical as it gets for those who don’t bridle at the prospect of eating them. The experience: a desire to embrace the aesthetic of a kind of culinary cassette culture, reproducing as faithfully as possible that perfect burger. The venue: the burger restaurant – something the capital has never previously had. 

Icelandic in origin, Tommi’s Burger Joint (owned by restaurant and hotel entrepreneur Tomas Tómasson) arrived in London last summer with the opening of its first UK site in a Marylebone pop-up.

The brief was to be the ultimate lo-fi American-style burger joint. The indie-stylised minimalist ethic is immediately evident from the exterior of plain black paint – no additional adornments save for some brown paper bags stuck to the door with the opening times on them. Likewise the interior of recycled, vintage seating and a few more hand-scribbled signs, including the menu. I say menu, it is more a Hobson’s Choice (burgers and fries only). Everything is served in yet more brown paper bags from an open kitchen, you can pick up extra condiments (including pickles, which are free – a nice touch) if you wish, and if you want a drink (not free) you just grab it from the fridge. There is room for 25 only. It is always full. There is a classically retro stool counter and bare-ish brick walls save for some Johnny Cash and Sopranos posters. Dylan was playing.

Tomasson claims to have eaten one of his burgers every day for the past eight years, a claim the staff here at London’s outpost – impossibly thin, elfin, gorgeous and skinny-jeaned: kind of like a Scandinavian master race – could not possibly make. In fact, I bet they are all vegetarian.

nobody wants vegetarians in whiffing the place up, do they?

The meat is organic, outdoor-reared and sourced wholly from London’s HG Walter, and ground from bespoke cuts of fat-on ribeye, rump and fillet steak. Cooked at a default medium-rare and squidged between a glazed brioche bun, Tommi’s was fatty, salty and unusually highly flavoured. It should not, cannot, be any other way. A good amount of fat is vital for texture and flavour and for ensuring the meat remains moist and ‘juicy’. And salt, lots of it, is required and nothing else. High quality meat did the rest. As basic as the surroundings but delicious.

The fries were unremarkable, no more than average. Does this matter though? I am of two minds. They are after all a means to an end. And here at Tommi’s, a decidedly no-frills one – in the fryer, out again, there you go. Drink? Well Coca-Cola, obviously.

MEATliquor is an altogether different beast. Also in Marylebone, it is hidden away down a back street with no immediately visible signage, or any indication whatsoever that within the neo-brutalist concrete exterior there is an institution that offers sustenance.

MEATliquor is the brainchild of Yiannis Papoutsis – purveyor of London town’s finest burgers, according to 2012’s Twitter devotees. Now regarded as something of a kingpin and maven in the Dirty Food scene, business started in 2009 with the launch of the Meatwagon. Yes, a burger van. But next came #MEATEASY, a pop-up above a pub in New Cross.

And now MEATliquor. It boils down to one question only. How much time do you want to devote to eating a Hamburger? What is it really worth? Eating here will usually involve standing in the type of queue usually only seen for the loos when Keith steps up to the mic at a ‘Stones gig – no fun in January, or indeed any other time. No bookings, no phone calls, no mercy. In truth I suspect the enforced queuing is nothing more than a gimmick. MEATliquor’s way of creating a bit of buzz.

Arriving at 11.55 am for midday opening there was a tailback already. So how to describe the interior? Variously: a gloomy New Orleans brothel; a Gonzoid swamp blues speakeasy; a Deep South meth den; a Bogota police station hosting a student party; a seedy, industrial 80’s Berlin nightspot; the cenobite’s lair from Hellraiser doused in shock graffiti. Everything in fact, except a west end burger and cocktail restaurant.

As at Tommi’s, no cutlery, no plates – they’re for squares, right? – just some supermarket kitchen roll. The menu is Dirty South meets New York City and is divided into ‘birds’, ‘bulls’ and ‘rabbit food’ but don’t worry though, anything that remotely looks as if it was grown in the ground is slathered in a batter exoskeleton. The menu favourite is the the chilli bacon cheeseburger. There is even a Phili Cheesteak – the doner kebab of Brotherly Love.

I had a house speciality of two burgers, ‘secret-recipe’ sauce, cheese, lettuce, pickle and minced onion known ominously as the Dead Hippy (Nobody wants vegetarians in whiffing the place up, do they?). Remind you of anything? Yep, the ‘Hippie is a pimped-up Big Mac – the ultimate, though somewhat dubious, hamburger homage. The meat was cuts of 35 day aged steak, ground, slightly bloody. The result was a sloppy mess but beejebers it was wonderful. Basically what a Big Mac ought to taste like. The meat didn’t have the depth of flavour it did at Tommi’s but the overall experience was superior. 

This was ordered with onion rings. These were monstrous things indeed – worryingly large, ‘American’ large. And as batter goes, everything you could wish for with tangy darts of both salt and sweet, no rancid oil taste, and as downright dirty as you would dare go without needing a doctor’s note. An additional side of deep fried pickles (yet more batter) and dip was a great Deep South twist.

Drink had to be the New Cross Negroni made with craft-distilled gin. Yes, yes, very über-trendy. Bit small though.

Both Tommi’s and MEATLiquor certainly pack the punters in at lunch and throughout the evening. The point of it all must solely be the quality of the food. Both Tommi’s and MEATLiquor deliver insofar as the brief is met – a hamburger comme il faut, a decent stab at gourmet junk food and an equally decent stab at authentic expression. They do the job and are as good as they need to be. Perhaps a little too knowingly arch for some tastes. Plus on the bright side you are not likely to overdose on phenylbutazone or ketamine either.

Opinions:

Tommi’s Burger Joint 7/10

MEATLiquor 7/10

Tommi’s Burger Joint

57 Marylebone Lane

London

W1U 2NX

Website: http://www.burgerjoint.co.uk

Twitter: @BurgerJointUk

MEATLiquor

74 Welbeck Street

W1G 0BA

Website: www.meatliquor.com

Twitter: @MEATliquor