By James Eaton
Burgers, burgers, burgers. Everyone, everywhere is seemingly obsessed with varieties of meaty patties in bread (sorry, brioche) and the seemingly endless possibilities they can bring to a menu. I’m not knocking it – I love a burger and am not particularly fussy about what’s in it as long as it tastes good and doesn’t disintegrate after two bites (which an excess of filling can often cause, regardless of bun quality). Brixton’s own Honest Burgers are still marching onwards and setting the bar for quality and value across London and this standard is something that many places need to take note of and strive towards. And some certainly are, from pop-ups in pubs and bars – The Miller at London Bridge are currently hosting the excellent Bunsmiths and The Craft Beer Company’s Clapham branch are being catered by the brilliant Forty Burgers – to more serious eateries like the Hawksmoor group.
However there are some BAD burgers out there which hide behind descriptions like ‘hand-pressed’, ‘brioche-style’, and other such pretension. We’ve all had at least one, most of us have had many – dry meat, bland cheese, sad fillings, crushing disappointment and despair – so we should be taking more care when selecting where to get a bready meaty (or veggie) treat that tickles the taste buds and satisfies the stomach.
Bukowski has been a Brixton fixture for some time (they have another branch in Shoreditch) – nestling in Market Row opposite Casa Morita and within a few yards of the venerable Franco Manca. Every time I’ve been past it, the smell of meat being cooked over charcoal has wafted out and subtly tempted me to give in to its seductive charms and order a big plate of meat. And so, finally I did.
Meaty times ahoy.
In comparison to other eateries in Market Row, Bukowski is smart and slick. Wood, metal, and brick but not in an outlandishly chic manner – they’ve made good with what they had and made an effort to make it work. It’s not too dark, nor too loud, and the welcome was friendly (I know I use that term all the time but most alternatives sound either patronising or inappropriate – ‘affable’, ‘gracious’ – you get the idea). We were dining relatively early so it was quiet when we arrived but it soon began to fill up and we were thankful of our chosen spot by the window. The drinks list was perused and we shunned the offer of cocktails or beer for a pretty decent bottle of cabernet sauvignon which was both good value and easy drinking. They also have a nice selection of soft drinks that go beyond the usual Coke and juice options which certainly worth exploring.
The menu is very burger-heavy but includes some other BBQ staples such as pulled pork and ribs – both cow and piggy varieties – and so we felt we should sample as wide a selection as our stomachs could cope with. Luckily, both types of ribs are available in small or large portions so we opted for a small helping of each to serve as a starter while we considered the burger options.
Unlike some, the menu at Bukowski is varied but not overly long which is a good sign – alarm bells begin to ring if the number of burger combinations is pages long, it often smacks of lack of culinary skill or imagination (the excellent Atomic Burger in Oxford is a notable exception to this rule) – and we were genuinely stumped for a while as it reads very well indeed with promises of ‘everything we could smoke in our kitchen’ ‘candied bacon’ ‘jalapeno mustard’ making choice tricky. We finally made our decisions – the Smokey Beast and the Californian – and sat back to await our feast, wine flowing and taste buds ready.
The ribs were, well, not entirely what we expected – not necessarily in a bad way but they certainly took both us (who are hardened BBQ veterans) a little by surprise. The pork ribs had a deeply savoury rub that had hits of unexpected flavour that took them away from traditional BBQ themes and nearer to, well, Brixton I would say. Spicy, exotic, exciting. Well, well, well. If you are expecting the kind of smokey BBQ you get in other establishments you will be disappointed but that is not to say they aren’t good ribs. Just different and hurrah for that.The tower of Waldorf salad they were served with was pleasant but didn’t really add much however.
The beef rib was, again, not quite what we anticipated – we’d imagined a slab of bone with hunks of slow-cooked, juicy meat just clinging on, begging to be shredded and devoured as quickly as possible. What we got was certainly slow cooked and juicy (and indeed, a big slab of bone) but rather than being shreddable and unctuous, it was the kind of meat that needed carving and more like a Sunday roast than a BBQ. Certainly not a bad thing but could take some (like us) by surprise. And it tasted good. Very good. It had all the best parts of a short rib and a thick steak rolled into one and came with a huge mound of crispy onions that were alarmingly addictive and we were soon fighting over the last scraps. I almost cancelled my burger order to have a big one all to myself – it was that tasty.
Sadly the burgers themselves were less of an event. The Smokey Beast is described as a beef patty topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, onions, gherkins, lettuce, and finished with scotch bonnet mayo (you can see why I had to have it) and, on arrival, looks every inch as good as it sounds. However, after a couple of bites I began to notice problems. Small problems but problems nevertheless. Although the beef patty was perfectly cooked and tasty, the pulled pork began to compact itself in a thick wedge at the top of the burger and thus losing its juicy, shredded texture. The BBQ sauce was unremarkable and I couldn’t detect very many scotch bonnets in the mayo although I did my best to try – a big dollop on its own was tingly rather than fiery. It all tasted fine but not the explosion of flavour I had hoped for. Similar issues with the Californian which comes with crispy bacon, cheese, avocado, and chipotle mayo – nothing particularly wrong with it but the flavours weren’t that distinct and didn’t raise it high enough to be especially memorable.
The biggest problem however was with the buns. Oh dear. Now, the bun is every inch as important as the meat and filling inside and Bukowski offer a familiar toasted brioche to house theirs. Brioche is a good choice for burgers as the enriched dough can stand up to big flavours and lots of juice but sadly these ones did not deliver. They didn’t disintegrate which was good and the flavour was fine and they were perfectly capable containers for meat and accessories in that respect. The problem was that they were, well, a bit cold and flabby – like they’d been toasted that morning and left to sit about for the rest of the day. At first I thought maybe one burger had been ready before the other and thus the bun had suffered as a consequence but my companion agreed that something was not right. A return visit and a simpler burger yielded similar disappointing results. What a shame.
There are sides and these are very good – on a different visit I had the triple-cooked beef dripping chips which were amazing – but not quite enough to make up for the failings in the burgers.
I really, really wanted to be blown away by the food at Bukowski – the menu looks great and all of the food sounds (and smells) incredible. It’s a nice place to eat in, the staff are lovely, the drinks are varied and well-priced and some of the food is pretty good. But if you have burgers as the core of your menu then it’s the burgers that need to reflect the quality of the place and, sadly, this wasn’t the case. If you are in the area and fancy some ribs and tasty sides with a few good drinks (hard or soft) then Bukowski is certainly worth seeking out but if it’s patties and buns you require I’m sorry to say you may do better elsewhere.
James tweets @cradlefish