Lot’s of Attitude and No Meat

London Eats, Restaurants
The ceiling at Meat Liquor – you get the idea.
I know it’s been a while, and that upsets me more than I’m sure it upsets any of you, but I’ve been chained to my computer transcribing interviews about the financial crisis and that’s enough to put any girl off her food, let alone tap out a single keystroke more than necessary.  It also means that I haven’t done anything inspirational with my knives or braved the Tube to catch a meal out.  Really, the February doldrums, if ever there were!
This past Saturday night broke my dry spell though, as I met friends out for a casual birthday meal at the newest hotspot in town, Meat Liquor.  Apparently, the birthday boy’s eyes, upon hearing the name of the restaurant, lit up as these are maybe his two favorite things on earth jammed into one catchy name.  
Meat Liquor used to be one of the food vans that roam the East End of London, particularly on weekends, tweeting their upcoming location to faithful followers.  Those faithful then show up between the appointed hours, a lager or cider in the rucksack, and perch on dirty street curbs while eating the meal they’ve been anticipating. See, this is where I’m showing my age, although truth be told, I have never been much for eating food standing up while balancing my food and drink and trying to avoid rivulets of grease mussing up my blouse, however, all of these seems even less appealing to me these days. This was particularly frustrating because the trucks seem to have the delicious food I crave. There’s a hot dog van, a BBQ van, a hog roast van, a Mexican food van – I’d just have to take along my bib. 
However, it seems my frustrations are quickly coming to an end as many of these popular vans are finding homes in very permanent buildings in the center of London.  Shortly after Meat Liquor’s van (then known as Meat Wagon) was featured on Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain program, the word went out that the burgers would be available under a roof, no need to bring your larger in your purse.  As I watched Jamie’s program I’m sure my pupils dilated as they do when they say you’re attracted to someone.  This burger looked to be the burger I had been searching for since I came to London.
Dinner here last Saturday was my second time here, fourth attempt.  Back in early November I received word from the ever-faithful Daily Candy that the restaurant was opening http://www.dailycandy.com/london/article/114280/Meatliquor-Opens-in-Marylebone-Meat-Wagon-Meateasy  On the appointed day I made my way via tube and bus to the tucked away location only to be met by a locked door and unhelpful staff smoking outside in chef’s whites who said the website (even their own) was wrong and they weren’t opening until that evening.  I went and had a very unsatisfying falafel salad at a Lebanese spot around the corner.
A couple of weeks later I suggested meeting here for early dinner with a friend.  It was really early, like 6pm, and I snagged a table inside.  I sat and waited for her for quite some time, taking in my surroundings and even being moved to take a picture of the outrageous ceiling.  Just a couple of weeks old, you could see that the building’s finishes were all beautiful, clean and new and then some mad designer had come in and tried to make it look like an Eastern European den of iniquity with some red paint splattered around for good measure.
David Chang of the Momofuku empire in New York would be proud.  Although this is burgers (and arguably much less refined), Chang’s screw vegetarians, screw customers, screw the world kind of attitude is proudly mimicked here (as is Momofuku Milk Bar’s famous Crack Pie which was listed as such on the menu on my first visit but they must have received the cease and desist letter in the mail because it’s now called Quack Pie). The salads are listed under “Rabbit Food” The rest is just what it says it is but full of unnecessary hipster references, sarcasm and an underlying sense of resentment towards the mouths it feeds.  All of this anti-establishment fervor and yet a very posh Marylebone location right behind a big department store on Oxford Street.  
The service on my first visit was chaotic and the food was ok, but the burger didn’t taste nearly as good as it looked when Jamie Oliver featured him on his show. The bun was a good old plain white bun, good unidentifiable cheese product, thin pickles and ketchup, however the meat was littered with gristle.  This is my one real hang up about ground meat here in England. For some reason, no matter the quality, there are little hard bits where there shouldn’t be.  It truly puts me off the entire rest of the meal. The French fries were skinny not thick cut English style chips, thank goodness, and the onion rings were passable.  One standout of the meal was the deep fried pickles with a blue cheese dip.  I would have loved a slice of red onion and a little Dijon mustard for my burger, but alas the waitress looked like another request might send her over the edge, so I decided to make do.
Once we finally settled our bill we walked back out into a cold London night and I was shocked to see a line 2 blocks long, snaking along the sidewalk.  I sort of wanted to tell them it wasn’t worth the wait.
The birthday dinner was a good three months later and I thought surely the good people of Meat Liquor had worked out their kinks.  Eight of us were meeting and it was a Saturday night, so we met to queue – that’s line up to you and me – at 5:45.  Even at that early hour the queue was a mass of young, hip, foodies eager to line their bellies with grease and get a start on the night with a few well-mixed cocktails.  And as our time in the queue went on, the line just kept stretching out behind us. 
Once admitted, my experience here didn’t differ much from the first, I’m afraid.  More gristle, more grease, good pickles again, and meh, on the Philly Cheese Steak my friend ordered (lots of green peppers and no cheez wiz).  Even at just £7 for a burger, it’s not worth putting up with the pseudo-aggressive, rockabilly, hipster atmosphere – unable to carry on a conversation for the ear drum shattering noise and waitresses who seem put out that they actually have to wait on people.
Perhaps my disappointment is because I’ve always taken the burgers in my life for granted.  Starting out in Decatur, Illinois, with Elam’s Root Beer Stand where the girls would bring the burgers and fries on a tray that hooked over the open car window.  Or even better, Krekel’s, with its wafer-thin patties cooked on a griddle so they were crispy and perfectly seasoned (a cherry flavored milkshake on the side helped it go down) http://herald-review.com/news/local/article_1f91e565-27bc-5c94-856d-b743378ba05d.html.  Standing in line for a burger is something I’m happy to do and I’d be curious to know the many hours I’ve spent waiting to eat this humble sandwich.  I’ve waited with beer in hand at the Corner Bistro in NYC’s West Village, enjoyed the first days of Spring waiting for a burger the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, slipped out for a lunch break at Taylor’s Refreshers in the Ferry Building in San Francisco.  Why is it so hard to replicate here?   
Sadly, we do not have a garden, aka yard, at our apartment, so a grill is out, so when I do want to make a burger at home the grill pan is my friend.  I go to the butcher for my meat and usually ask for sirloin steak and ask him to put it through the grinder twice for me.  When I lived in Primrose Hill no one raised an eyebrow to this request, however in our new lower-rent neighborhood the butcher said to me, “That’s quite a posh burger, love! You sure you want me to grind up this lovely meat for ya?” I assured him that I do.  I add egg yolks, a la the Barefoot Contessa, and some Montreal Steak Seasoning that my mother sent over in a recent care package. The burger turns out OK, but is never quite as good as I want it to be.  I need the griddle or the well-seasoned grill of a burger joint, I need the refined flour, soft, white buns and crap cheese.  Maybe what I need really, is just a good trip back home. 
Krekel’s in Decatur, Illinois shows us how it’s done. 

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