Restaurant Review, MeatLiquor, Boxpark Croydon

This article originally appeared in the Croydon Citizen: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/restaurant-review-meatliquor-boxpark/ 

 

I’ve been eating at MeatLiquor since I demolished its celebrated ‘three dead hippies’ dish in a pub off Peckham Rye. I’ve been a fan of their burgers for years. I often get a dead hippie with chilli fries as a takeaway at work for our Friday blowout team lunch, and I’ve had a few great nights out in Meat Mission in Hoxditch.

You could make the argument that Meat Liquor is, along with other brands such as Hawksmoor, a genuine pioneer in bringing a fundamentally American idiom (in this case gourmet dirrrrty food, whereas Hawksmoor does upscale steak) and putting it in an acceptably British context with imagination and wit. Both have done very well in the last decade, starting in Zone 1 Central London and moving out.

I love Meat Liquor’s choice to go for a higher fat content in their top quality beef patties. The combination of high quality beef and a higher-than-what-had-been-standard fat content creates what Sam Jackson once referred to a ‘tasty burger’. They’re so juicy you need a few napkins. Bearded chaps such as me need to wash afterwards. The sides are also outstanding, particularly the chilli fries. The buffalo chicken is the sine qua non of the genus. There’s also good hoppy craft beer that complements the food and cuts through the big flavours. The cocktails aren’t my sort of thing (I’m a Martini/Manhattan/old fashioned/negroni sort of cocktail drinker) but mates who’ve had them say they’re good stuff. Want to know how good MeatLiquor is? Look how many imitations there are of the model in Central London, some of which are backed by multi million pound funds.

These are all very good reasons to go to Meat Liquor if you’re in the Croydon area, feel hungry and have £30 to spend on a tasty, but pretty swift, meal for one person including a few drinks. The food is worth four stars in itself and it’s the best burger within a mile or two.

Ready for the ‘but’? Meat Liquor (like the aforementioned Hawksmoor) is not just a burger restaurant. It’s now a brand, undergoing an (international) expansion programme. Maybe it’s because I’m a communications adviser by day (and night) but I feel that this should be taken into account when considering the overall experience there. It’s not a quirky independent joint anymore (which it really was at the start), but a business that has honed itself to appeal to a certain audience, which is one that I’m not sure I’m part of.

I was interested to read the comments of its creative brand agency Tinder & Sparks: ‘Meat Liquor doesn’t have Brand Guidelines. We like Meat Liquor. The guiding principle can be summed up in one of their many briefs to us: “Can you make this look cool?”’.

If you’ve read this blog, you’ll know that I’m not cool and have no wish to be so. I’m a thirty-seven year old who lives in Sutton and is the father of two young kids, happily married and geekily obsessive about a small number of things. This is probably not ‘cool’, or perhaps not the cool envisaged by T&S, which has created a brand designed to drive enhanced and long lasting income streams for their client from a young and affluent consumer group. They want you to feel like part of the club. Like this is your sort of place. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s not mine; at least, not anymore.

This is at the heart of my issue with Meat Liquor in Croydon. I like the way that the burgers taste and the way that the buffalo chicken stings my mouth. I just don’t want to be in the environment enough to get to it. I can’t see it purely in a Croydon context as I don’t live in Croydon any more and am not going to simply pop in. Croydon is somewhere I visit for food that’s a combination of convenient for big groups of mates, something that I can’t get in Sutton or something I can’t be bothered to go into London for.

I know the MeatLiquor brand well enough so that for me it’s just another (small) chain that’s offering a quality product to an affluent audience on a repeat basis. Think Pizza Express in the 1980s before the big expansion. Sort of exclusive in look and feel, offering a premium product but in reality available to most with a bit of disposable cash.

The travel time there for me is twenty to thirty minutes door to door, and for me, it’s not worth it, especially as it’s not somewhere to linger, either due to the afore mentioned style, or because the chairs, stools and tables are clearly designed to fit the brand aesthetic, but not my slightly oversized arse.

On its value purely as a burger joint, for me it is hamstrung by its connection to Boxpark which is massively unfriendly for young children. Meat Liquor itself is very much an adult destination. I will therefore go to the two Purley burger restaurants instead whenever my family want a quality burger.

So in conclusion, the food alone gets four stars. The experience, however, wasn’t for me.

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Restaurant review: Bianco 43

This article first appeared in the Croydon Citizen: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/restaurant-review-bianco-43/

I lived in Croydon for over a decade and during that time, Mirch Masala on South End was a firm favourite. Great spicy grills in a no frills environment and BYO booze policy meant that I was there a lot, lateish back from the city, grabbing a quick, cheap, excellent dinner.

However, I moved back to Sutton, and Mirch Masala coincidentally moved down to Coulsdon at about the same time, leaving the restaurant vacant. Until, that is, a small chain of traditional trattoria, based around classic Italian cuisine and a wood fired oven, moved in. Croydonians should sing an Ave Maria in thanks: this is a seriously good restaurant, masquerading as a proto-chain of the Zizzi/Pizza Express format in something of a warehouse/barn type building.

Let’s start at the start. A short list of appetisers includes wonderful buttery green olives that I’d guess were something like nocellara. Better than anything that you’d get at a chain. They also have a short classically Italian cocktail list that included a very well made negroni. This made for an epic start that in Soho would have cost £20. At Bianco it was £10. As a brief aside, the negroni was very good, but where else in Croydon could you find a well-made one? Answers in the comments below would be appreciated.

For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up
Our party ranged widely across the menu and everything was fantastic. There was a delicate hand with the deep fryer for bone dry crispy courgette and calamari. A deep, rich, gooey melanze parmigiana was great comfort food, skilfully put together, with a confident hand on the seasoning of a brilliant tomato sauce. A selection of cured meat and a tomato/mozzarella salad showed the team source very high quality ingredients and have the guts to let them sing for themselves, adding context with lovely grassy olive oil and aged balsamic.

The mains kept up the quality. The wood-fired pizza adds heft to outstanding Neapolitan-style pizzas. A bit of char on the crust to combine with a lovely sweet tomato base and some great traditional toppings. My diavola was properly spicy but it also had real depth of flavour. The best pizza in the Cronx by a long way. For the same price as either Zizzi/Pizza Express, Bianco is a significant step up.

My wife said that her very generous portion of spicy sausage and mushroom pasta was great. Again, nowhere to hide with this. A deep rich sauce with fiery sausage and herbs. Could have been dull. At some well-known chains, or local trattoria, it would have been professionally bland. Here, it wasn’t.

Everyone else raved about their steak, chicken Milanese and lasagne. Six old mates – who due to careers, moving away and kids, don’t see as much of each other as we would like – spent less time talking than would have been expected, due to the quality of the food.
Desserts weren’t really investigated as we decided to give the all-Italian wine list some serious attention.

I’ve seen some TripAdvisor reviews suggest that the wine is expensive. I fundamentally disagree. Of course you can get a cheaper glass/bottle in a Wetherspoons (more on that later) but I actually thought that for the quality on offer, the wine was keenly priced. The Montepulciano was a great accompaniment to both meat and pizza; a classic spicy, savoury red.

Proper Italian dark roast espresso and a grappa provided a traditional end to a great meal. We walked out into the night very well fed and watered, all of us of like mind. This is a great Italian restaurant that might be part of a chain, but had the charm and quality of a neighbourhood favourite.

The variety on offer was reflected by the diverse range of parties dining in the restaurant
Bianco offers its customers either a cheap dinner out or something rather more special. You could pop in for a pizza and a beer and be out for less than £20. That will keep them in business on wet Wednesday evenings. Or you could range across the menu, drink a lot and spend twice that per head on a special occasion. This was in evidence with the range of parties in the restaurant. It was pretty diverse. Romantic couples; young and old; a few big tables. Lots of different accents. The place was rammed and I hope that they continue to be as successful.

A short postscript to this review is to note that the restaurant is next door to the Skylark. We met in there and then went back after the meal. It is a great example of how when a ‘Spoons is good, they can be very good indeed. Polite, engaged, efficient staff serve a great range of beer at an unbeatable price, served in a simple, comfortable pub. As is traditional when I’m out in Croydon, I was able to drink locally. Cronx American pale ale was a technicolor dream of hops and tropical fruit. Just the thing to finish off another great night in Croydon.

Farewell to Waddon

Sometimes numbers don’t tell the true story.

Says the man paid the make a narrative out of numbers; who is supposed to find human interest in pounds, dollars and roubles.

So perhaps I’m trained to see the romance in the spaces between the numbers. I’m sure anyone reading this wouldn’t find anything interesting in the following numerical sequence: 2, 2, 2, 4, 13

Indulge me for a second as I wind my way through a very personal blog, filling in the gaps between the numbers, and finding my own story in these numbers.

13 / 2

I’ve lived in Waddon for 13 years in two flats. It was always a marriage of convenience. Both flats, 50 odd yards apart were never where I particularly wanted to live. I never really knew where I wanted to live, but I didn’t think it was going to be here, stuck on the dirty, unloved arse end of Croydon, cheek by jowl with the A23 and the railway line. Next to a well known rough boozer, an annoying schlep into Croydon, with buses I knew were crap because I’d relied on the same busses most of my adolescent and nascent adult life.

Ready for the but? The railway gets me into London Bridge, Victoria or Shoreditch very quickly. It runs early and late. Croydon is but a snap of the fingers away, with good shopping and better food that has improved over the years. The A23 is a useful artery to have close by, and Waddon itself is straightforward suburbia, no better or worse than anywhere else. We’ve got a great new Arab restaurant that I reviewed here (link) the famous and excellent wing yip Chinese / Far Eastern centre and a very good new leisure centre where my son Aidan is learning how to play rugby.

Waddon has been a base of operations, a bunker where I’ve been safe from the slings and arrows of the outside world. It has given certainty, something that for quite a lot of the 13 years I didn’t have.

4

I’ve had 4 jobs in my time in Waddon. Waddon and its certainty has helped provide the psychological base to build a career, of which on a sunny day I think I can be proud. From nervous steps into IR and silly City drinking to post soviet capital markets, nasty oligarchs and “cheeky pints” to straightforward British old school financial comms, long lunches and a Kazakh sojourn and now a very different grown up job at one of the world’s largest PR firms; the constant has been my base. “Where are you going back to?” Has always been answered with “Waddon… It’s a small place just outside Croydon before you get to Wallington”. Waddon has been safety. Waddon has been a constant. It’s been home.

2

It’s also been home to 2 children. Aidan and Hannah will be known to most readers of this as they’ll have seen photos in my social media streams. Waddon will always be the place Kirsty and I started our family. A safe, nurturing environment with 2 great parks within walking distance, where we both felt rooted enough to take a life changing step and change each others’ lives for good. They won’t remember it, but it was in Waddon where they had their first swings, their fast play in parks, their first smiles and giggles. We will remember it and it will always make us happy.

2

As most of you will know, I’m on my second marriage. 2 major relationships in 13 years in the same place (although the first predated the move to Waddon) has seen an awful lot of change. Ups and downs, genuine bliss combined with embarrassing drunken self obsessed post relationship behaviour. I’m not going to linger here other than to say that I don’t regret anything and I’m happy to say everyone is now where they should be in life, and that the experience has again cemented Waddon into my soul.

************

There’s more. “But of course there is” I hear you say with a smirk. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of meals cooked in a couple of kitchens. Hundreds of chicken thighs, roasted in a tray with lemon, herbs, seasoning and served with anything, but I’m a fan of carrots, spuds and cabbage. Curries so hot I’ve paid for it later. Roast dinners that are never quite cooked at the right time. Risotto   with crab, mushroom, chicken or just herbs and lemon. I’ve become a big fan of Sichuan food and I’ve made my first goes at it in my little Waddon kitchen.

Then there’s the booze, either in company or alone. Craft beer. Real ale. Crap lager. Red wine from the Rhone, Italy, Lebanon and not many other places. Vodka in martinis or just out of the freezer with a twist. Champagne, mostly good but some bad. Booze has always been a passion, and a constant of my life in Waddon. Mostly controlled. Never regretted.

*******

Finally sometimes you only know you love something if you lose it. I’ve lived part time on a boat and travelled a lot to some strange parts of the world, which can on occasion be stressful. Waddon welcomed me back and offered me a blissful norm to balance life as a corporate nomad.

And now I’m leaving. We pack tomorrow, and leave Friday. I’m looking forward to the next step but that doesn’t mean I’m not a little sad. Waddon has given me a lot and I’ll always look back fondly.

Thanks Waddon.

Reasons to love Croydon part 1: Beanies

It’s been a little while since I blogged, as nothing’s really grabbed me. I blogged about Scottish independence when I was monged out of my face on morphine in hospital, and the whole Ukraine issue is a little close to home.

There hasn’t been much excitement in capital markets the last few months and I haven’t been anywhere new for an eating out blog. So this is a blog about part of my routine, a blog about the ordinary, but about a place that is far from ordinary.

Beanies is a cafe and soft play area on Croydon. It is run / owned by three Croydon women in their 30s and they are assisted by a great selection of younger staff. There have been (literally) ups and downs as the management team tried to make the most of their 3 storey property, but the core offering has remained constant;

  • a great soft play set of claiming frames
  • lots of toys and dressing up clothes
  • Good coffee and food far better than it has to be, with a hint of spice here and there. Sometimes more than a hint
  • Staff who are happy to see you, engage in easy conversation, and understand that less is more

This should seem like a simple equation. The reality is very different. The fact that the team is still there and running the business is an exceptional achievement in the current business environment where cash is short across most of Croydon’s sociological sectors.

Aidan and I, normally with Kirsty, have spent many hours in Beanies and I remain amazed how much Aidan loves it and how happy the rest of the kids are there. This in turn meant the parents are all chilled, as their kids are happy and there’s enough space and variety for them not to get bored.

Basically, it’s a lovely place to spend an hour or two if you have young kids. It’s not expensive, as can be seen by the wide range of Croydon families in residence. You can hear multiple languages whenever you’re there, and a lot of laughter, often from the parents enjoying things as much as their kids.

I love this place and I wish the team every bit of luck and a long and successful business. If only because it’s one of the very few places in croydon where when it’s raining I can go with Aidan, he can run around and have fun and I can chill out with an decent espresso.

Long live beanies. Probably the main reason you might find me in croydon on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Brasserie Vachein Croydon

I dare you to look at this menu and not want pretty much anything on it.

http://brasserievacherincroydon.co.uk/_/pdf/menus/Main%20Menu.pdf

I’ve been eating at BVC for years now, both in its current and more stripped back “Fish and Grill” incarnation. Probably 50 meals, and never a duff one. Many have been excellent. This is an exemplary restaurant, and I’m very happy to live 10 mins from it.

The guvnor, Malcolm John is clearly a talented and versatile chef. He’s worked at a number of very highly rated Central London restaurants and started on his own in Chiswick with a reportedly (haven’t been gets great reviews) excellent up market French restaurant “Le Vacherin. He then set up in Croydon and Sutton and after having a fine dining and a stripped back grill in Croydon, he has combined both to form BV.

The thing that makes this place so excellent is that the vision of a classic brassiere menu is so well executed. There’s not too much guff about ingredient provenance, which is quite refreshing. I’ve never seen the fetishisation of suppliers as has become the norm in London in France. The key is the technique in the kitchen.

Take my baked Vacherin starter. The truffle and almond crust could very easily have swamped it. But it didn’t. The side salad of bitter endive with a subtle dressing is a perfect accompaniment and a statement of intent. Something that is very simple, but the dressing is perfectly emulsified and it’s flavour complements the leaf and cheese. Many local and some rather more famous places don’t do this as well.

It’s dull having steak at a place like this, as the other dishes are so good, but if you can persuade another person on the table, the chateaubriand and trimmings has always been brilliant. I had the rabbit in mustard sauce with some great crispy chips and some excellent buttered samphire, and it was near faultless. Well seasoned, perfectly tender and moist, creamy but punchy sauce. My mum’s fish stew was probably the best thing anyone had. Lots of different fish, perfectly cooked so it was just done, in a lovely broth. Gut feeling is it’s just raw at the pass and get to the table just cooked. Brave but brilliant.

Then there’s the desert. I often don’t nowadays as my son Aidan has only so much patience. I still dream about a plum and almond tart they used to do with creme anglaise which really showed the skill in the kitchen. It wasn’t just very good (like everything else) it was the sort of food you’d comment on being good somewhere with a far higher reputation. Short pastry with a frangipan filling and roast plum that wasn’t purely sweet, but a little tart as well.

Add to this a wine list that doesn’t try too hard, Chateau du Brieul Calvados and attentive, friendly and professional service that makes you feel welcome and you’ve got an excellent local restaurant.

A word on cost. It’s not cheap, but it shouldn’t be for this quality. It’s good value and one can box clever and eat there regularly (as I have done), or it can be something of a destination restaurant and the boat can be well and truly pushed out for treat.

Kirsty and I had wonderful nights falling in love there at a corner table for four they let us always have. We now go there with Aidan and a lot with various members of our families. It’s my standard response if anyone ever asks “does Croydon have a properly good restaurant?”

As you probably tell, I love this restaurant, long may it last.