Monday, 18 May 2009

Byron Hamburgers, Chelsea

There has been much discussion and interest recently, on the internet and elsewhere, about whether or not food bloggers should subscribe to a Code of Ethics or suchlike when reviewing restaurants. The discussion was brought to my attention first by this site from the US, which has drawn up an incredibly pompous list of bullet points including such gems as "We will visit a restaurant more than once (more than twice, if possible) before passing a final judgment" (Oh really? Who's paying?) and "We will sample the full range of items on menu." (Remember to bring Mr. Creosote along with you). My initial reaction to this list was to draw up my own, containing just one guideline - "Nobody's paying you for it, and nobody's forced to read it, so do what the hell you want". However, despite my huge reservations concerning this particular site, the issue of bloggers remaining independent and impartial with regards to the places they eat in, particularly now our influence (and, to some extent, notoriety) is on the rise and the number of PR events and "tastings" we are invited to attend increases, is probably one worth addressing.

As I mention, food blogging is a hobby, and we are free, for the most part, from the ethical issues that may affect some paid journalists and food writers when posting. But this doesn't of course mean that we are somehow more impartial than the Jay Rayners or Matthew Normans. In fact, it is just as likely to work the other way - if Jay Rayner got taken out for a slap-up meal at a new restaurant, given a tour of the kitchens and plied with free booze and then had the bill comped at the end, and subsequently gave it 10/10 in the next Sunday's Observer, chances are he would be rumbled quickly and his readership would quite rightly be outraged. But if I was put in the same situation, given my largely anonymous public profile and much smaller but more targeted readership, there's every chance I would get away with it, and a glowing post on my website would stand for eternity, cropping up on Google Searches and social networking sites and more than repaying said institution's outlay on buttering up (if you'll excuse the expression) a pathetically grateful foodie for an evening.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that because it's so much easier for food bloggers to appear impartial, the temptation is that much greater not to be. And whether it's Australian bloggers being asked to go undercover and big up cat food, or the cult of celebrity blinding one hapless forum moderator to mediocre pizza, temptation is everywhere. So in fairness to, although I could pick apart the hideous flaws in much of what they've written and have great fun into the bargain, instead I'll just repeat the one point that I believe they have spot on:

  • If we receive an item for free or if we are recognized during our reviewing process, we will mention so in our review.

And with that in mind, let me tell you about a lovely evening I had eating free food at Byron Hamburger on Kings Road.

Tom Byng, the manager of Byron, had invited a small group of eager foodies along to their Chelsea branch to sample their menu and chat about burgers. The Quest for the Best Burger in London had brought me far and wide, but it's surprising it had taken so long to get here - after all, they are proud winners of the 2009 Observer Food Monthly Awards (Best Cheap Eat) and are the only really decent competitor to Haché in this price bracket. The Hawksmoor burger may be a work of genius, but at £15 it's a work of genius that comes with a corresponding price tag - the Byron burgers range from just under £6 to £8 for one with cheese and bacon, and so you can get away with a whole meal for around £10.

Much like the aforementioned Mr. Creosote, except of a much slimmer build, Tom started off the evening by instructing the waitress to bring us "one of everything". So along with our burgers arrived such treats as delicious Cerignola olives, a very impressive Caesar salad and a lovely pot of macaroni cheese, which at £2.75 was a very generous portion and counts as a bit of a bargain in my book.

All of which would have been to naught if the burgers were no good, but fortunately a great deal of care and attention has gone into the patty side of things too. Tom explained that they didn't have the luxury of resources to throw into burger production that places like Hawksmoor did, and so their formula for a successful restaurant was to carefully and intelligently source good beef (the precise mixture of rump, chuck and brisket is ground into patties at a special butchers off-site but still in London and then shipped to the restaurants) but keep the cooking method as easy and possible. I've made clear before my thoughts on Aberdeen Angus beef in steaks (mass-produced, inoffensive but dull), but it makes perfect sense to use a reliable breed in burgers to maintain consistency across a small chain of restaurants.

And these burgers were very good - cooked perfectly, dripping gorgeous bloody juices and not too thick. My one complaint was with the bread, which although apparently delivered daily by a small East-End baker, was too heavily floured and dry for my liking. It came, as well, with a lovely sweet and crunchy pickle (quite an interesting idea leaving it up to the customer whether to pop it in the bun or eat it separately) and good tangy cheese. My favourite of the array of sauces was the spicy BBQ sauce, which had a great note of liquid smoke and fresh tang of vinegar. They apparently make it themselves - it's not bought in. And you can tell.

After working our way through literally the whole menu, we reached the desserts, and found a little room to try an impressive Knickerbocker Glory, complete with Cherry On Top. I should probably also mention the wines, which are organised on the stripped-down menu into categories such as "Good", "Better" and "Best" and included a lovely Californian Pinot Noir called Jargon, and if beer's more your thing, they sell the peerless Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The one section of the menu I didn't get a try of was the milkshakes - they do one with Oreo biscuits in for £3.75, so that has to be worth a pop.

I honestly believe that anyone would enjoy the burgers at Byron. Whether it's better than Haché, well, I'll leave that particular can of worms alone for now, but suffice to say I can think of worse burgers to be had in London for £10 and no better ones. So yes, it was a free meal and I'm bound to be quite well disposed to it after a chat with the owner and a bottle of Californian red, but, well, at least I've been honest and told you. My Food Ethics, for the moment, remain untarnished.


Byron on Urbanspoon


tehbus said...

I like the Oreo Milkshakes more than the burgers. And I am a big fan of the burgers! Check out what I thought of them, if you please:

Ollie said...

I have to say I agreed with you about that absurd 'Code of Ethics' the moment I saw it. Tim Hayward posted a very sensible response on WoM which I'm sure you saw:

It was a terrific evening, Chris - many thanks again.

Chris Pople said...

tehbus: Glad to hear we're more or less in agreement!

Ollie: To be perfectly honest, that's the first time I've read Tim's piece. How silly of me - missed the boat by a couple of weeks.

Gastro1 said...

I think the burgers are very good and made with a decent combo of beef cuts.

However as I have told Byron via twitter ad nauseum 6 oz is far too small to produce the perfect burger in terms of mass and thickness.

I understand they are focused on a certain segment based on average cost to the customer or whatever but they should at least offer some choice 8oz and 12oz and charge accordingly.

Chris Pople said...

Gastro1: I actually liked the size of the burgers. If they're too huge they don't sit inside the bap properly and you can't eat them with your fingers.

MMan said...

I agree with your comments on the code of ethics.

Food blogs are simply one person's view of a restaurant - readers can (& probably should) take them with a large dose of salt on occasion. Anybody (good or bad at writing, with excellent or poor taste) can start a blog, and there are some bloggers out there who think that their blogs are the be all & end all of food commentary and perhaps it is because of this that the notion of a code of ethics has arisen.

Blogs are slowly becoming a 'mainstream' way of people obtaining information, which can be dangerous if readers aren't aware that at most basic form a food blogger is simply someone with a healthy appetite & an opinion (oh & a camera of course!).

I read quite a few food blogs, some of the posts are great (and have me salivating over the food in question) whilst others can fall into the ‘holier than thou’ category. It is up to the reader to distinguish between those blogs (& individual posts) that they want to rely on. Would anyone rely on just one positive review on Amazon? I doubt it.

Le laquet said...

A code of ethics? For a hobby? Do you reckon they'd expect you to eat there twice even if you hated it? Pah!

That burger looks delicious - like the best homemade burgers should be and lead me on to the knickerbocker glory!

Krista said...

Excellent post! For a while, I did have a code of ethics on my was simple, "Londonelicious doesn't accept free food unless there's a lot of free champagne involved." Somehow, there was always a lot of champers involved, so I removed it.

I thought your comment about pickles was odd. But then again, I'm a Yank. In America, most places will give you a pickle and you can decide if you want to eat it straight, throw it on the burger, or leave it alone. (I'm not a pickle person, personally.)

Helen said...

I can't be bothered to comment onthe ethics sorry but the bread - what is it with London burger bars and the bread??! You know I have an issue with it and I know you are quite particular too but we only have one request really - use a proper burger bun! Hawksmoor have taken it to the next level with the brioche obviously but it is still in the sweet and soft style. A floury bun is not a desirable casing for a burger. I guess its all down to personal taste but then, a burger bun is a burger bun for a reason!

Graphic Foodie said...

I actually thought that the pompous Code of Ethics was a joke when I first came across it! I was a little sick in my mouth when I read the "We the People" bit.

I agree with the picked out points assembled in the "alternative" code here:

Right, now off to go to the theatre to see the same play I already saw last week to make sure it was as rubbish as I thought it was.

Unknown said...

I am also a fan of the alternative code of ethics:

1. Don't Be an Asshole

2. Don't Make Shit Up

3. Ask Before You Use Someone Else's Stuff

4. Dude, Karma

Also agree with making it clear when you get something for free. Btw the burger sounds great.

Unknown said...

Interesting post.
I do reviews for a site, not my blogs, in which I get the feeling I should soft peddle any criticism. If I hate something, how I deal with it is by saying what I didn't like, but picking out something I do like. It's generally pretty obvious whether I liked it or not.
If I thought somewhere was appalling, well of course I'd say so.

I did review a restaurant recently, which I paid for and someone commented on my blog that as a cook I should not critisize another chefs cooking. Do you know of any rule like that?

Jeanne said...

ROTFLMAO - I'm off to sign up to Gourmet Chick's alternative code of ethics right now!! As should everyone ;-)