Monday, 25 February 2013


          Byron is a small chain of burger restaurants, with all but 2 of their 30 or so sites located in London. This is not at all surprising given the fondness for burgers that the capital has acquired in recent years. But if we look a bit deeper we can see a group of restaurants innovating not imitating, appealing to a wide range of areas and demographics, and very possibly being the most reliable restaurant group in the city.
        When Byron started (around 5 years ago) the demand for burgers was already growing, with chains like GBK et al offering affordable meals at a step up in quality from the real fast food giants. We have since moved to a state of affairs in which burgers are deified in a seemingly endless parade of individual restaurants that have legions of dogmatic followers across the social media landscape. Byron is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and has remained largely unmoved in its approach since its inception.   
            The food is good – a minimum requirement, and one which is easily met. The burgers are cooked to an attractive pink medium, seasoned well, and are unfussy in their style and toppings. The Scottish meat is allowed to shine without an overload of sauces or eclectic additions; the pickle is even served on the side. Fries can be fat, thin or courgette, the traditional options both very good and the courgette surprisingly delightful. Salads, veggie burgers and a few sides mean that you can come here with boring people and they won’t be massively short changed. Deserts are heavy on American nostalgia and pleasingly bad for you, but even better is the ridiculously good Oreo cookie milkshake, which is embarrassing for an adult to order but well worth it. Things are kept interesting with a fairly regular roster of specials – recent ones have included the self-explanatory Triple Cheesemas and the cheddar and pickled onion topped Mo burger. It is fairly safe to say that Byron does not produce the best burgers in town (they cannot compete with  the more fetishist elements of the restaurant trade), and the menu is lacking in deep-fried-stuff-with sauce-and-cheese wow factor, but in terms of quality, consistency and price there are few that can match them.

The attention to detail in the food is matched with their drinks list, which is short and accurate. Drinking wine with burgers is frankly idiotic (unless you are Miles in Sideways in which case it’s funny) but if you must, Byron have helpfully split the few they have into categories of ‘Good, Better, Great, Best’. There is also some decent bourbon which makes a lot of sense, but it is the beer list which needs to beer good here, and it is. The second most appropriate drink to have with burgers (after Coca Cola), beer is given the correct amount of thought here; there is some washing-it-down lager for good measure, but also some really good craft selections from home and abroad. The USA has a lot to contribute in the beer and burger stakes, and some real classics are currently available like Bear Republic Racer 5, Sierra Nevada Pale and Brooklyn Lager. Some excellent stuff for the UK is provided by Kernel, Camden Town and Brewdog, and they even have their own hoppy and fresh house ale, Byron Pale (brewed by Camden Town). This list is considered and then changed fairly regularly to keep things exciting, showing their dedication to good beer. The only disappointment is the lack of draft options, as both cost and freshness can be a concern with bottled beer.
       Often with chains (even small ones) the downside is conformity of style and environment that makes them dull and devoid of character and a sense of place. This trap is avoided by Byron, as the individual restaurants have their own personality and a sense of where they are – the Soho branch is small and eclectic, Camden is cool and functional, and Kings Road a bit more formal. Even the shopping centre locations are bearable. However they do share a common trait – most are bright, welcoming, comfortable and pleasant – which are not often words used to describe the new brigade of trendy gourmet fast food joints.
        The concept of a restaurant group that focuses on serving basic, affordable food with a good drinks list in comfortable surroundings may sound a touch dull for the modern London diner. And it can be said that these places are not revolutionary, nor are they world beating. Yet while the focus remains on quality over convenience, and food designed to be enjoyed not instagrammed, Byron’s popularity will continue to grow, not just amonst the young but across all social and economic groups. Chains tend to have a bad reputation because there are simply so many bad examples out there, but here is at least one exception that proves the rule.  

Friday, 15 February 2013

New Breweries Making Good Beer

      Although not all of the recent brewery openings in London have yielded fabulous beer, many were at least decent starts and something on which to hopefully improve over time. Many will go on to brew great beer and though the interim period may provide the public with a few duds, perhaps this is a small price to pay for such growth in the capital’s brewing landscape. However, when new breweries are able to create good beers at the first attempt, this is properly exciting. In the recent past we have seen that new ventures that instantly produce great stuff can go on to become some of the big names in British brewing – Magic Rock being a prime example.
         One such place to make a good first impression is Rocky Head, based in South West London, with their imaginatively named ‘Pale Ale’. This is a relative rarity in bars and shops at the moment but if you find it is certainly worth a go. It looks great - an appetising shade of orangey gold, with a frothy head, and the aroma is punchy and fresh, full of marmalade and burnt lemon tart, with an interesting note of tomato vine. There is also plenty to enjoy on the palate; a pretty brutal, heady whack of alcohol, a long dry rasping bitterness and chewy tomato and marmalade which offers a touch of sweetness. It may be a little unrefined – the alcohol is dominant, the hops are subdued giving the beer loads of bitterness without a lot of complexity or fresh hop character, and it’s a bit too dry. But this is still an impressive debut, for its ambition, flavour and lack of brewing faults.   

         Even better though, are some pale ales from Bermondsey. Partizan beers are still quite difficult to find (unless you visit the brewery on a Saturday) but give it a few months and they will be everywhere. The combination of cool looking bottles and the use of in-vogue hops will get you some attention, but you can only keep it with quality beer, and judging by their early efforts there will be a steady stream of it. A Citra, Pacific Jade and Cascade pale ale at 5.1% was incredibly clean, with plenty of hop character and a pleasing bitterness, all delivered through a light, nicely carbonated body that gave the beer real crispness. A Cascade and Wakatu hopped 6.1% pale ale was bigger and better, with the warmth of the alcohol providing a more interesting foil to the bitterness. A strong malt backbone that delivered biscuits and dry toast to the palate was balanced nicely by a long bitter finish and lemony, grassy hops. The body was too thin for the bitterness and the alcohol, but it is a minor error in a very decent beer. For their sake and ours, let’s hope these clever new breweries don’t get second album syndrome. If they don’t, they can look forward to plenty of our money over the coming years.          

Monday, 14 January 2013

Some London Restaurants Serving Craft Beer

       It is very noticeable that many restaurants opening in London these days are making at least a small effort to have craft beer as part of their alcoholic drinks offering. While it is still true that wine dominates the restaurant drinks menu at every level, and especially at top end places, it is good to see that more venues are acknowledging the demand for good beer with food. The one area where this is most obvious is the huge amount of casual, affordable and on-trend restaurants that open at regular intervals in central London, often with a no bookings policy and an inexplicably large amount of twitter followers. Hopefully, beer appearing in these places is a result of informed, sustainable consumer demand, and not just an obligatory nod to what is trendy right now. Either way, now is a good time to be going out to eat in central London if you like a beer with dinner. Here are a few examples;
        Meat Mission in Shoreditch is the latest opening from the people behind Meat Liquor and Meat Market, purveyors of burger fetishism and high priced junk food. For fans of the format this is another winner, with the heavy metal club meets disused church vibe in full swing. Service was slow on our visit but generally worth the wait, the classic cheeseburger and fries essentially faultless; an ode to salt, fat and sugar. The much raved about monkey fingers (fried chicken in buffalo sauce) were good when piping hot but a bit slimy after a few minutes. Served with a blue cheese dip, this is in every sense not for the faint hearted. A more varied menu of sandwiches, and combinations of meat, chilli and fries that are assembled into dishes labeled ‘onnaplate’ complete a guiltily enticing menu which largely delivers on flavour and texture. To accompany this there are several good draft beers available, including Budvar Dark and Yeast. The Yeast (an unfiltered version) was sublime, arriving in a 3 pint flagon looking a million dollars and tasting better; a perfect fresh, clean and balanced contrast to the heavy food. None of this is particularly cheap – a pint, a starter, a burger and fries will set you back around £20, but this is not unusual for London and the quality of both beer and food is high.  
         Getting a table in Honest Burger in Soho (there is another in Brixton) takes almost exactly the same time as a flight from London to Hamburg, where one might reasonably expect to find a decent example of what is now fast becoming a ubiquitous foodstuff in the capital. Fortunately if you do opt to leave a name and number and return somewhat closer to midnight than intended, the burgers here are very good. You might expect them to be, as they have done away with traditional burdens like starters, deserts and coffee to be essentially a one dish cafĂ©, ranging from a burger and chips (£7.50) to a burger and chips with some extra stuff (£9). Prices then, are very reasonable for this part of town and portions are decent. The patties themselves could be bigger, but are generally exemplary in flavour, and the generous portion of chips had everyone raving about them until halfway through when the rosemary just became too strong. London’s Redchurch make up the craft part of the beer menu, with the Shoreditch Blonde pretty good and the Bethnal Pale Ale excellent – juicy new world hop flavours and a lasting bitterness. This is a fast improving brewery and it is good to see it represented in such a busy place. Overall this is a fun place to go with friends for a cheap dinner but nothing you haven’t seen before. 
       Perhaps the only food more on trend right now than the burger is ramen, the Japanese noodle soup that delivers just as much fat with a bit more style. Of all the new Ramen joints opened recently, the most talked about is probably Bone Daddies, again in Soho and again with a slight queue problem. Walk through the unmarked black curtains and if you are lucky there will be a table free, as there is no leaving your name and number here and no bar area to wait your turn. Once you are sat down things get good pretty fast though – starting with the smoky, bitter, spicy chilli condiment on the table. This is great with their fried chicken, which at £5 a pop is more expensive than you pay in KFC but is a whole lot better. The ramen itself should be the star of the show, and thankfully it is - big bowls of colourful, steaming noodles arrive swimming in sticky, velvety liquid, salty and warming, luxurious yet uncomplicated. The 20 hour pork broth in the Tonkotsu is deep, rich, fatty and satisfying, and although the pork and noodles were unremarkable the boiled egg floating within it was a sensational squidgy mouthful. The Tantamen version with chicken broth and pork mince was far more dynamic, being sweeter and spicier, but became a little cloying toward the end of the bowl. Although they are expensive (£9-£11 each) these are interesting, exciting dishes that fill and thrill in equal measure. Hoppy, fresh beers are just the thing to have with this type of food, and alongside the expected Asahi and sake, The Kernel's Pale Ale (whichever ones are current) and Redchurch offer something local and desirably bitter to counteract all the richness.
     Although it would be nice to see more thought going into restaurant beer menus, and eventually more emphasis on knowledge and actually pairing and matching, for now it is simply good to see high quality, in-demand eateries recognizing the qualities of beer.