ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Munch, Lunch and Cousin-fucking

Never averse to a spot of culture, I took the opportunity this lunchtime to pop out and visit Sotheby’s with the wife to view Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’.

The horror! The despair! It's probably an appropriate picture for Cov City fans at the moment, given our current dire predicament.

Scream your heart out
One of about four versions of the same painting produced by Munch, which are very rarely displayed publicly, this was a unique opportunity to see something famous and important before it sells next week for £50 million, though the airport-style security and queues weren’t as unbearable as I’d envisaged.

Now, whilst I appreciate art in almost all its myriad forms, I’m not one to buy into this idea that one particular work is necessarily magnitudes better than any other work, and the groupthink that supports and creates this mythology always baffles me a bit.

I’ve seen the Mona Lisa, and Rodin’s The Thinker, and felt that while they were alright, they weren’t worthy of the fuss made about them. It's all art. Yeah, it's quite good but is it really worth millions of pounds? I've seen stuff by local artists that they can't sell for 50 quid which I'd put on a par.

This pastel edition of the Scream, likewise is sort of OK,  though far brighter in colour than I expected, and with almost a camp theatricality about the screaming figure rather than the haunting terror for which the image – or, more likely, peoples mental idea of the image – is known.

And I don’t really see why it merits metal detectors, crowd barriers, a team of dedicated staff and its own room in the gallery. But then, what do I know?

In the next room were various Picassos, Chagalls and indeed several other works by Munch, and many of these were, to my eye, more interesting than the open-mouthed one, though singularly glossed over by most of the visitors, some of whom even walked straight out after their five minutes looking at the Scream.


Getting down and dirty

Just up the road, but a world apart from Sotheby’s is MEATliquor, a relatively recent addition to London’s burger scene though with a lustrous heritage in the form of the travelling Meatwagon van. Some of the artwork on the walls here is actually more interesting and challenging than the Scream, if I’m honest.

MEATliquor art
There’s bears and horned monsters and bare breasts and everything.

But, more importantly, what’s the food like? How does it compare to, say, Haché or Byron?

Well, it’s good. Very good. In a baaaaaaad sort of way.

You see, whereas the excellent Haché chain is a deliberate attempt at taking the burger into new stratospheres of upmarketness, MEATliquor is your no-nonsense, all-American working class hero and proud of it.

It’s a Ford Mustang that can’t corner properly. It's a speakeasy hoedown. It’s a vote for George W. Bush. It’s one of those provocatively-knotted-at-the-front tops that comely (and, sometimes not-so-comely) American ladies sometimes wear.

You get the idea.

Certainly the look and feel is the most authentically American I’ve ever seen in London, and with food served on greaseproof paper on plastic trays, and kitchen roll provided on every table instead of cutlery, it feels only a couple of guilty steps away from fucking your cousin over the bonnet of a rusting Buick behind the drive-thru.

Dimly lit, even at lunchtime!
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes something that feels a bit dirty is good.

For some people, the edgy atmos and décor would make MEATliquor an instant no-go area. It is dimly lit, alterno-rock plays loudly at all times, and the toilet facilities are badged ‘frocks’ and ‘cocks’.

This was lunchtime but it’s easy to imagine what it would be like at night – even dimmer, even louder and chock-full of people looking for a cheap and dirty good time. On a Friday or Saturday evening there are apparently 90 minute queues to get in, and you can’t book in advance.

But if you can live with these things – which are all arguably part of the experience – you’ll be rewarded with some damn good food that might surprise you.

The vibe and attitude might be a world apart from the Sotheby’s and Armani’s in the upmarket streets outside, as if a little bit of a bad neighbourhood has been built in the wrong place, but as burger joints go, it has quality, seeping from every pore. Or maybe that’s just the juice from the burgers?

White Trash at its finest


We kicked off with the fried pickles – long, slender slivers of gherkin in a light, seasoned batter with a chunky blue cheese dip. The sort of thing you normally have to fly across the Atlantic to eat. Perfectly cooked and still cool and tangy and sweet in the middle, it makes for a strange reverse cheese’n’pickle experience.
Only in America... and Welbeck street

There are a few other options available (Philly cheesesteaks, chicken burgers and ‘rabbit food’)  but we were here for the beef and tried two different burgers from their selection, the Dead Hippy – a double cheeseburger with a mustardy special sauce – and a classic cheese and bacon.

Unlike certain other burger places, the policy here is to serve medium-rare and this is a good thing. The meat is charred nicely on the outside but very juicy and pink in the middle, which is just as it should be.

Both burgers were messy, in a good way, like ripped denim shorts on trailer park totty. With the Dead Hippy in particular it was hard to tell sometimes where the patty ended and the cheese/mustard/bun began, but that’s all part of the attraction for me. In it's own way this, too, is Expressionist art.

Being an English gentleman, a part of me would have preferred to eat the mess from a big, sensible English plate, with an English knife and fork and an air of civilised refinement, but I fought back these emotions, took a big gulp of beer and got down and dirty, Yank-style.

Prepare to get messy. Very messy.
The bun is soft and bready but doesn’t completely fall apart, and the burgers included more slices of gherkinpickle and some token salad, which all adds up to a faceful of tasty brilliance.

We also had the fries – standard, stringy variety but lots of them – and onion rings. These were big bastards and, like the pickles, the batter was awesome, but you’ll be reaching for the kitchen roll soon enough.

Given that the burgers probably aren’t as lean as those in most other ‘premium’ burger places, it’s certainly not a place to go for a healthy meal. They might be slightly too greasy for my palette (especially when you’re having fried stuff with them) but that’s a pifflingly insignificant criticism really.

Drink!


There’s only a small selection of bottled beers available, but the Flying Dog Old Scratch is exactly the sort of beer you want with a big, badass burger. Frosted glasses are a nice touch too.

Drinking. Better than screaming.
It being lunchtime, I didn’t venture into the mixology world, but they have a good reputation for strong, no-nonsense cocktails (£6-8 each).                 

We finished up with a Goose Island root beer float, which is about as American as it gets without actually sticking flags onto a pickup truck.

A meal for two will cost £40-50, or more if you do lots of drinking, obviously. For the West End this isn’t bad, and it’s extremely satisfying food that will leave you uncomfortably full for hours if you’re not careful!

So, is it the best burger in London? Well, it’s a bit different from other places and certainly scores high on authenticity factor if you’re pining for a trashy, transatlantic dive, but I probably wouldn’t want to come here every single day and somebody like me probably has to be in a certain mood to fully enjoy MEATliquor.

The meat is probably on a par with Hache and Byron’s Big D (which is only available at certain times of the year) and a bit better than a standard Byron burger.

Slightly less expensive than these places too, although if you go around comparing the prices to McDonalds or Burger King you’ll be totally missing the point. Fucking pointmisser.

I guess the conclusion is that each of these three has something that they do better than their brethren (beer choice in Byron, brioche bun in Hache, fried pickles and unique atmosphere here) and they are all streets ahead of any other burger I’ve yet tried. I’d find it very hard to eat in, say, Gourmet Burger Kitchen these days, let alone order a burger in Wetherspoons.

So, rather than try to conclude definitively which is the best place to go for burgers in London, I shall just be glad that there are now some really good places to go for burgers in London!


Where to find it...

76 Welbeck Street
London
W1G 0AY (map)
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The Scream is on display at Sotheby’s until tomorrow, April 18 (admission free)

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