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.
Tommi’s Burger Joint 7/10
Tommi’s Burger Joint
57 Marylebone Lane
74 Welbeck Street