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Move over frippery and fanciness – good, honest beef is back. Chris Harding considers what’s driving the resurgence in London’s steak and burger restaurants.
Real beef, cooked well, is making an increasingly meaty impact on the capital’s culinary scene. Fuelled by the enthusiasm of the influential food blogging community, 2011 saw the opening of a rash of new steakhouses and burger joints. London welcomed Richard Caring’s 34, Goodman’s Canary Wharf restaurant and a third branch of Hawksmoor, as well as Wolfgang Puck’s first venture into Europe with Cut, and the Rib Room reopened at Jumeirah Carlton Tower. Meanwhile, new hotspots for top-end burgers include Burger & Lobster, Meatliquor and Honest Burgers.
‘We’ve got incisors for a reason. We’re built to enjoy red meat. It’s natural.’ I’m speaking to John Cadieux, executive chef at Goodman – the Moscow steakhouse rapidly making its mark on London with branches in Mayfair, the City and now Canary Wharf. He’s a big Canadian with a buzz cut and tattoos, the archetypal image of the burly steak chef.
‘There has been an increase in demand. It’s about value for money. You can either walk into a restaurant and spend £60 on three portions and leave hungry, or go to a steakhouse and spend £40 to have the biggest steak you’ve had in your life.’
Cadieux’s perceived increase in demand is borne out by the figures. In the year to April 2011, sales of organic beef rose by 18%. Of course, organic is not a sure stamp of quality, but it’s a good indicator. ‘The public are getting more discerning about both quality and value. They’re not afraid to pay for good, well-bred beef because they recognise that you have to pay for quality – no matter what it is,’ says Cadieux. ‘Over here, Jamie Oliver’s done a great job of educating people. They do the same things with cows to make burgers as they do with chickens to make nuggets.’
Tim Hughes, chef director at Caprice Holdings, which recently opened high-end steakhouse 34, agrees. ‘High-street steakhouses were immensely popular around 15 years ago, and since then, their star has been waning. But people are still very much interested in steak, although now, armed with more knowledge, they are more sensitive to provenance and quality, and can afford to be choosy about what they eat and where they eat it.’
Although it doesn’t take much specialist kit to cook a steak well at home – a good hob and a cast-iron griddle pan will do the job – when you’re paying upwards of £30 for your meat, the cooking can’t just be good, it needs to be consistently great. For that reason, most high-end steak restaurants have specialist grills, usually charcoal burning, which reach fierce temperatures and impart not only a slightly smoky flavor, but also give an almost-crisp exterior without overcooking the steak.
It is not only at the more expensive end of London’s culinary scene that beef is taking hold. While at 34 one can buy a 240g Wagyu sirloin for £80, half a mile away Yianni Papoutsis is serving some of the best beef in London at £6.50 a pop. Papoutsis, self-declared ‘guv’nor’ of Meatliquor and its pop-up predecessors Meateasy and The Meatwagon, is cagey about the secret to his burgers – the provenance of the beef. A convinced meat lover, he’s delighted with the way the beef scene is looking in London.
‘I used to fly to New York for a steak three or four times a year… I’d never have it in England. Gaucho filled a gap, but they lost a bit of focus and didn’t keep up with Goodman and Hawksmoor.
Once people had the original Hawksmoor and the original Goodman, and when they had people like us with burgers, they thought “hang on, these are the kinds of things we like”.’
While choice of meat depends on personal preference, there are quality indicators that the casual meat lover can use to steer their way around the ever-widening world of beef. The consensus among chefs and restaurateurs is that beef is best when aged for at least 28 days, with most leaning towards dry-ageing – where the beef is hung in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room – rather than the wet-ageing process most supermarkets tend to use, which involves vacuum-packing the meat. Dry-aged meat tends to be more expensive because the process leads to some shrinkage, concentrating the ‘beefy’ flavour.
However, bad meat will still be bad meat no matter how long it has been aged. Provenance is paramount, because the way the animals are treated during their lives has a significant influence on the quality of the beef. From the feed to the levels of stress the animal experiences prior to slaughter, everything the farmer does has a bearing on the flavour and tenderness of the meat. The colour of the meat is one of the best ways to judge the way the animal has been treated. Stress creates darker welts in the flesh, particularly where cattle prods have been used.
The fat in a cut of beef imparts much of its flavour and texture. There should be specks and strings of fat running through the meat, which will break down as the meat cooks. The more marbled a piece of meat is, the longer cooking time it needs, but the more complex the flavour and texture will be. This is also why cuts with the bone in are more flavoursome, because the marrow fat reacts to heat in the same way.
But why has this knowledge increased beef’s popularity? The public has benefited from the likes of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall campaigning to show the importance of good farming methods and proper meat from the right sources, but we’re not seeing an explosion of restaurants specialising in chicken or ethically sourced seafood.
‘It’s a macho thing,’ says Papoutsis. ‘Certain kinds of male are fed up with the whole metro-sexualisation of our gender. We’re coming through it and suddenly the extra-dry martini and rare steak are becoming a macho association. Beef plays to our primeval instinct. It’s something you can eat while it’s still bleeding.’
Tom Barton of Honest Burgers agrees that the desire for beef is driven by a need to reclaim red meat. ‘Everyone knows that having a burger with cheese and chips isn’t going to do you any favours. It’s not meant to be healthy food. I think there’s been a backlash against the “superfood” thing. It’s fine to have a burger once or twice a week, and people have the knowledge to realise that now.’
‘There’s been a real move in the past five or six years towards a focus on the very best ingredients,’ says Huw Gott, co-founder of Hawksmoor. ‘It’s no longer about a Michelin-starred chef creating a dazzling performance on your plate. It’s more about appreciating the raw ingredients. People want to go to a restaurant to relax and have a good time, and there’s something really informal about a good burger or a good steak and chips.’
It is a combination of these factors that seems to be fuelling beef’s welcome renaissance. But where can steak go next in London? ‘There’s more space, certainly,’ says Gott. ‘In New York, there’s a steakhouse on every corner. It fits with what people want to do.’
Mat Kemp of The East London Steak Company, a boutique company that will deliver 28-day dry-aged steak to your door within 24 hours, disagrees.
‘The first move towards steak was prompted by value for money – a big piece of meat instead of a teacup of truffle porridge – but now people are seeing that they can do it themselves. Only the very best of the current breed will continue to flourish, and any new restaurants will have a fight on their hands.’
Even if the bubble has reached bursting point, it seems clear that steak is here to stay.
Sirloin is less tender than both rib-eye and fillet. It contains less fat than rib and more flavour than fillet due to the presence of the bone. Without the bone, it is often called New York sirloin.
The fillet contains very little fat and is extremely tender, but it doesn’t have a great deal of beef flavour. Most steak connoisseurs favour the tastier cuts, but it sells well to those looking for the lower-fat option. Chateaubriand is a large portion of fillet – 500g or more.
Typically one of the most expensive cuts, Porterhouse consists of the sirloin and at least 1.5 inches of fillet. With the bone in, it has a strong flavour and is considered one of the finest cuts of steak. T-bone is practically identical to Porterhouse.
Rib-eye can consist of either two or three muscles. The two-muscle version should be cooked below medium, while the three-muscle version should be cooked above medium as it contains rather more fat. It can be served with the bone in or out.
34 34 Grosvenor Square, W1K 2HD; 020 3350 3434
Buen Ayre 50 Broadway Market, E8 4QJ; 020 7275 9900
Cut 45 Park Lane, W1K 1PN; 020 7629 4848
Goodman (pictured) 24-26 Maddox Street, W1S 1QT; 020 7499 3776; 11 Old Jewry, EC2R 8DU; 020 7600 8220; 3 South Quay, E14 9RU; 020 7531 0300
Hawksmoor 157 Commercial Street, E1 6BJ, 020 7426 4850; 10 Basinghall Street, EC2V 5BQ, 020 7397 8120; 11 Langley Street, WC2H 9JG, 020 7420 9390
Barbecoa 20 New Change Passage, EC4M 9AG; 020 3005 8555
Burger & Lobster 29 Clarges Street, W1J 7EF; 020 7409 1699
Honest Burgers Unit 12, Brixton Village, SW9 8PR; 020 7733 7963
Lucky Chip Sebright Arms, 31-35 Coate Street, E2 9AG; 020 7729 0937
Meatliquor 74 Welbeck Street, W1G 0BA; 020 7224 4239