2014 will go down in history as the year the Isle of Wight was served its last bender in a bun. Local businessman and franchisee Wayne Whittle removed the final Wimpy sign at his beachside burger bar, and rebranded the venue The Big Kahuna. And thus all things pass. Or do they?
The burger is considered a food staple (just ask any teenage boy), or an occasional treat, or even a thing most reviled – thanks to John Selwyn Gummer and latterly the horsemeat scandal. Now, a seemingly-endless series of such scares has led to a certain cynicism, and if you read one particular British newspaper any foodstuff could be the next enemy within. But these days consumers have become a bit more savvy about the origins of their meat, and beef of good quality can once more take its rightful place on our menus. There is an argument to be made about the sustainability of local food versus mass-production, but that is a drum well leave others to bang.
Thus the humble burger, once the sole preserve of the fast food generation, has gotten all grown up: from sliders in swanky Shoreditch sham-shabby pop-ups to the Isle of Wight. Once again the burger is king. Although by the time Matt and Cat write this the metropolitans will have moved on from trendy tiny burgers to fish finger butties, macaroni cheese or crispy pancakes (two of these Saturday tea time standards have already been re-imagined by the foodniks). Its possible that the penny-farthing-riding beardies will one day wake up and smell the coffee, then instead of having their brew created by a faux-chemist using a titchy bunsen burner, theyll settle for a spoon of instant in a chipped mug. Or blown up their backsides with a pair of goatskin bellows. Or something else. It’s anyone’s guess, really.
One evening in Newport Matt and Cat set out for supper at the Rendezvous in Holyrood Street. Only eight months after it had opened, it was time to give it a try – but alas, Matt and Cat were out of luck. Having already once found this venue closed on Monday, they came back specially the next day, only to find the same thing on Tuesday. A solid gent was standing in the doorway, discussing the world cup with a passer-by; but the door behind him was firmly closed, and the lights off. Having arranged to meet a friend there, M&C had to stand there slightly sheepishly listening to the football gossip, until their pal rolled up and all three of them passed on down the road.
‘The Smokehouse’ burger £7
‘Save the beef’ burger £6
Gourmet slaw £1.50
House salad £1.50
‘Dirty’ fries £3.50
The first alternative place to eat that they encountered was the brand new Smokehouse Burger Company. Here a small piece of trendy London dining had popped-up in Newport. Indeed, some had suggested that it actually was just a pop-up restaurant, as this venue had opened during the Isle of Wight Festival week. But it still seemed to be trading weeks later, when evidence of the Festival was just a few forlorn shopping trolleys in hedges. Whilst clean and comfortable, the Smokehouse’s fixtures could be described as pretty basic; clean wooden tables were made of actual pallets, the chairs were straight out of a school hall and others were church cast-offs. The decor was minimal, save for some Banksy canvasses and a few bits of brown paper taped onto the windows to attract custom. It was hard to tell if this whole concept was contrived austerity chic or the result of a meagre budget. When the ebullient waitress scampered over and set her new clients at ease, it was clear that there was nothing to worry about here. When the service is that good, the wise diner will just sit down and go with the flow.
The short menu bore one thing: burgers. For these purposes pulled pork served in a bun counts as an honorary burger. There were also three Isle of Wight beef burger options, one veggie, and various side dishes. The hungry trio chose different burgers each, and different sides, with the idea of sharing them. Cat chose the vegetarian burger, waggishly called ‘Save the Beef’. The eponymous Smokehouse Burger was Matt’s choice – like all the others, it was served in a big, shiny brioche bun, with a rudimentary salad garnish. Bacon, cheese and BBQ sauce finished off what was a solid, tasty burger.
The side dishes like the mains were eloquently described, satisfying and simple. The alluringly-titled ‘Dirty Fries’ was skinny chips in a tin-foil dish, decorated with bacon strips, chopped iceberg and what were euphemistically described as ‘house sauces’ – squirty mayo, bbq and American mustard. But actually, this tasted good, so why complicate it further?
Taking her cutlery from an old pickle jar, Cat tucked into her veggie burger. In keeping with the rest of the venue’s upcycling, the brine from the pickles was apparently available with a glug of whiskey, in the Smokehouse’s own ‘Pickle Back’ cocktail shot. Another time, perhaps. Having removed the burger’s greaseproof paper doily Cat loaded her little plate with fries and salad. The dinner was moist and sticky; the burger itself was pretty tasty and a far cry from those miserable nut burgers Cat remembered from her years in the vegetarian wilderness. There was plenty of foliage: peppery rocket, a little tub of homemade ‘Gourmet Slaw’ and the ‘Dirty Fries’. Cat got herself into an uncharacteristic mess as she enjoyed chowing down on her dinner.
In fact, the whole place delivered a pretty enjoyable experience. It teetered on the edge of being too pretentious to work, but it never quite crossed the line. The reasonable prices and the indefatigably perky service made sure of that. The Smokehouse Burger Company looks as though it intends to do one thing, and do it well. This is a good strategy so far; although trading at the bottom of Holyrood Street in sunny June is quite different from the same scenario in winter. If the Smokehouse is still serving up the burgers next February that will be proof that people are lovin’ it.