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.   

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Golden Pints 2012

This is a summary of the year’s best beery offerings organised by Mark Dredge and Andy Mogg. Most of these categories are subjective and the strength of the choices are only as good as my memory, but when lots of people participate it does give an impression of who has been good this year and what to look for in the next. Here are my selections;

Best UK Draught Beer
Brewdog Dead Pony Club - I tried this several times in a couple of different bars just to make sure. And it really is very good – full of flavor, ever so drinkable and you can have plenty without falling over. Surprisingly brilliant and one was never enough, which is why it gets my vote. Two more beers that blew me away were Tiny Rebels Billabong, a little bit of Australian sunshine packed into a cask, and Camden Town USA Hells, which was everything you could want in a summer session beer.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Lovibonds 69 – I had one bottle of this all year, and I’m still thinking about it. I also loved Kernels Table Beer, probably my favorite of their creations so far, and a few bottles of Redchurch Great Eastern IPA were stunning – a couple were a bit rubbish as well but when its good its good.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Firestone Walker Union Jack & Double Jack. I can’t separate these two. The little brother is hoppy perfection and the big brother is boozy heaven. Both were so drinkable as to be properly dangerous.  I also have crystal clear memories of a Half Acre Daisy Cutter which was clean and beautiful.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Half Acre Ginger Twin. My favorite beer on the planet. Deep, bitter and sweet. My great regret is that I shared it. I also absolutely loved Flying Dog’s Wildeman, which was funky and hoppy and great. £11 on a 750ml bottle of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace was so worth it I bought it again.

Best Overall Beer
Half Acre Ginger Twin.

Best Pumpclip or Label
Camden Town and Half Acre are very different but the branding on both is exceptional. The presentation of the Shepherd Neame Generation Ale was the years design highlight.

Best UK Brewery
Fullers. Excellent across the board - they were good enough already, but bringing Wild River into the fold and the emergence of Black Cab was enough to pull them ahead of the pack. Camden Town had a great year of brewing with several new beers that were original and delicious while their permanent range still impresses. Buxton continue to make beer that people want to drink, and I always look out for them on draft.

Best Overseas Brewery
Haymarket. As yet their beer is unavailable outside of their Chicago brewpub, but it gets my vote as the range, quality and freshness of every beer was outstanding. After drinking all 10 or so they had on offer, the only option was to order some more. My first taste of Firestone Walker this year totally lived up to the hype, and Three Floyds beers were always memorable.

Pub/Bar of the Year
Earl of Essex, Islington. A great vibe, good beer range and delicious food. Craft in Farringdon is unmatched in its ability to produce a range of cask beer in tip top condition, and my first visit to the North Bar in Leeds was very impressive.

Beer Festival of the Year
GBBF. A better venue and great people.

Supermarket of the Year
Waitrose. A better quality range than everyone else.

Independent Retailer of the Year
City Beverage Co, Old Street. Just for keeping me stocked with Kernel, Beavertown, Crate and American craft beers.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Oxford Companion to Beer. Really good reading on the toilet.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Tandleman & Zythophile. I just like reading both of these guys.

Best Beer Twitterer
Who cares?

Best Online Brewery Presence
Brewdog’s sheer level of communication is slightly annoying but also impressive and usually funny. Camden Town has produced a nice website with an informative blog.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Fish finger sandwich and Camden Town Unfiltered Hells at the Earl of Essex - A moment alone cannot be spent better than this without touching oneself. Half Acre Daisy Cutter and deep dish pizza, and also an Old Style and hot dog at Wrigley Field are the fondest memories.

In 2013 I’d most like to...
See the glut of dodgy London brewers improve quickly and get really good.

Open category – Best new London addition
Fuller’s Wild River. A great new beer for casual drinking. Crate’s brewery/bar/restaurant is all round fun, and Beavertown have kept improving their beer, food and labels to become a leading light in London’s brewing scene.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Are London Breweries Good Enough?

     At the last count the number of London breweries was up to around 30, from just a handful a few years ago. At first glance this is great news, not only for Londoners but UK beer in general. Those of us who live here can enjoy a wider, more eclectic selection of beers made locally, often direct from the brewery, which is great for freshness and engagement with the people who make the stuff. It creates jobs, competition, and makes it possible for more events and new bars to showcase beer in all its glory. On a wider scale, as a centre of population and wealth the potential for innovation, growth and impact is huge, hopefully leading to a surge in popularity of beer across all demographics throughout the UK, and a rise in the level of respect and esteem given to brewers. However these benefits will surely only be felt if the majority of brewers are producing good beer that people will not only want to drink when they see it, but actively seek out. And right now, that is not necessarily the case.
         One benefit of starting a brewery in a big city is the ready-made audience for your product and an abundance of investors to help you get started. Another is that there are plenty of talented people around with skills required for a new business, like marketing, branding, sales, business development and management. You can see these skills on show as a swathe of new breweries have started selling their beer across the capital. Camden Town, By The Horns, Rechurch and Moncada have great bottles and cool websites. Several have blogs, Facebook pages and twitter accounts. Crate and London Fields have created trendy bars around the brewery in the right locations to generate buzz and instant income. Sambrooks have done a brilliant job of getting their product to a huge number of pubs and off licences across town, and Tap East simply opened in Europe’s biggest shopping mall. For sheer passion and innovation, look no further than Beavertown and Brodies. There is a lot of enterprise going on here, and yet perhaps the one skill underrepresented is brewing.
         Brewing is generally not one of the skills in which there is an abundance of qualified personnel, so when 20 odd breweries arrive in less time than it takes to earn a degree or complete an apprenticeship, it seems likely that talent will be in short supply. While there are many of our breweries that succeed online, on the phone, in the accounts, on the bottles and at the pump clip, too few succeed in the glass. The ones that do are self-evident and the ones that don’t will not be named here as many of these are small, new enterprises that are rapidly improving. But learning on the job is not really acceptable when many of these businesses are charging in excess of £3 a pint and supplying to off-licences and pubs across London. Beers can range from simply dull to badly conceived, poorly executed, and even infected. In the last year alone, I have had under-conditioned lagers, diacetyl bombs that taste like best bitter with packet of Werthers Original dropped in it, endless sorry attempts at hop heavy beers that seemingly forgot about the malt, the odd vinegary pint, a few muddy swamps of yeast with beer hidden in it, and even 2 ‘pale ales’ that were dark enough to be stouts. This leads to the question of whether there are enough quality brewers to fill the demand.
       On the whole, the proliferation of London breweries is an exciting, positive development, and it looks set to continue. But this is only sustainable and desirable if quality beer is being made and an audience of craft beer drinkers are not dissuaded by high prices and an inferior product. Conformity and absolute consistency is not necessary but if too many bad beers reach our glass then the pursuit of the higher pleasures and elevated intrigue of craft beer is simply not worth it. I certainly hope that the majority of drinkers are not concerned and that standards continue to rise; my next pint will be a local one. But will yours? Is the current set of London breweries brewing to a high enough standard and if not is this due to a lack of talented individuals?


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Earl of Essex

           Comfortably sat a few hundred yards from Angel tube station, in the type of quiet, Georgian townhouse lined street that would give an estate agent wet dreams, is a welcoming and charming place that will make people want to go out drinking on a Monday again. This area is one of London’s great pub neighbourhoods – not only does alcohol soaked Upper Street loom to the west, but the Island Queen, Duke of Cambridge and Wenlock Arms all hug the same stretch of canal – but it has just been massively improved. The latest in a succession of revamped Islington pubs, The Earl of Essex does not conform to the increasingly predictable gastro pub model which has taken hold of so many establishments on and around Upper Street. Instead we are presented with something more committed, personal, and much more fun.  

          On a cold October evening, the steamed windows and hum of elated Friday night banter is about as attractive and welcoming as it is possible to be. Cramped but cosy, the central island bar buzzes with activity, staff occasionally pausing for breath to describe the characteristics of a wheat beer or recommending a lager. One wall is dominated with a huge board highlighting the beers on tap – eleven kegs and five or so on cask, with one or two ciders. Prices are clear, simple and unapologetic, so if you want a full pint of the good stuff you will have to pay for it. Three or four local beers (Camden Town, Crate) stood alongside some unusual names (XT) but also a few big hitting breweries – Marble, Magic Rock, Sierra Nevada. Best in show was Fubar pale ale by Tiny Rebel, which was incredibly fresh, citrusy, bitter and delicious, a Punk IPA wannabe that may be better than the original.
      Menus on the bar show that thirds are also available, and that there are plenty of decent wines to choose from in addition to the bottled beer list, which is short and pricey but also pretty irresistible. Dominated by sought-after American and Belgian breweries, bottles are both exciting and expensive (Clown Shoes IPA’s £15, Brooklyn EIPA £5) although this didn’t seem to put off the admittedly affluent local crowd. Also worth noting is the very decent food, not just big plates of bar food but a proper menu with thoughtful dishes, all with beer matching recommendations. This can sometimes drive the price of a meal up steeply, but the keen pricing of the dishes means one can afford to indulge - £12 for a steak and chips, deserts at £4. A very decent burger and a forgivably over sauced, overly sweet pulled pork sandwich were served with fantastic chips, the service swift and happily not included on the bill (we were sat at the bar).

       It is a genuine compliment to say that this bar feels like it has been lifted from a quiet neighbourhood in New York or Chicago. The colossal beer board, the robust and informal food, a keg and pale ale prioritised beer list, and the feel that this isn’t somewhere to start the night before moving on to louder, shinier places, but somewhere to see it through. You only need to check out the website of The Earl of Essex to realise the people behind it are beer fanatics, but given the mixed bag of quality London breweries are currently serving up, the news that a small brewery will be opening downstairs in November is slightly worrying. Hopefully they can give the same attention to detail to this as the pub they have created, which is a standout addition to an increasingly competitive market.  

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Hand And Flowers

      Although the Hand and Flowers resides in Marlow, an affluent and attractive town in Buckinghamshire, it is included here by virtue of sitting on the Thames, and is only a marathon or so outside of central London. It has been on the radar for a while now, after it was given some media attention last year on account of being the only British pub to hold 2 Michelin stars. Being a bit of a groupie for these essentially useless culinary accolades, I marched the missus out there under the pretence of a romantic lunch in the countryside – something all the more impressive given that she actually paid for it.
         When the reservation was confirmed via telephone a few days in advance, we were told to arrive on time, as there was no space to have a drink beforehand.  I know we don’t have a written constitution in the UK, but surely a pub with no space for drinkers contravenes some ancient law or commandment. I would hate to think that a posh restaurant in the commuter belt has been falsely claiming itself as a member of the pub club in order to be the best in its field - that’s just not cricket.
       From the outside it looks the part - quaint and pretty, a proper pub sign to lure in passing trade. Inside, you are immediately met with a bar, stocked with draft beers and optics full of expensive spirits. Stools line the bar, a fireplace is visible amongst wooden chairs and cloth-free tables, a small garden at the back welcomes the sunshine and the coffee drinkers, and it all seems right. But don’t be fooled – nobody sits in the stools, nobody even orders drinks at the bar. All the tables are set for diners, wine glasses sat mockingly empty next to expensive silverware. Even on a warm Friday afternoon, no one pops in for a glass of wine of a cold beer to start the weekend early, this is strict reservations only territory.
       There is a warm, casual atmosphere that is inviting and comfortable, the gin list is superb if pricey, and the cask beers were decent. Noble lager, from Greene King I was informed, was just the stuff to wash down a late lunch with. This general feel is somewhat at odds with the serious and seriously good food, and the Sunday best everyone is dressed in – people come here to eat and little more. And to be fair, it is very good. A parsley soup with bacon and eel was deeply satisfying and a pleasure to eat. Lamb breast with various accompaniments was classic meat and veg done with skill and accuracy. A mirabelle fool made something memorable from very few ingredients, and a soufflĂ© was crafted with an expert hand. The famous chips here are worth coming for alone – crunchy and fluffy, seasoned to perfection. However a tomato soup was merely fine, and the sauce on the main course had been sat for too long, forming an unseemly skin - errors you should not find in a 2 star establishment. The £19.50 set lunch is an absolute steal, but away from this things get pricey quickly, with main courses starting at £25 and rising. Perhaps Michelin were feeling trendy last year, going for a bit of street cred with some starry pubs. But as much as I wanted to love it, the food here is not exciting, theatrical or technical enough to be put in the same group as Hibiscus, Le Gavroche, the Square etc. At no fault of its own, the Hand and Flowers is batting too high up the order.      
           I went to a pub and all I got was a lovely restaurant. To be a pub you don’t need shove Ha’penny, or the England match on TV, or pork pies, or a pool table, or even good beer. What you need is people to feel they can come in at any time and within reason, do what they please. Here you can do that, as long as you book in advance and have the duck.