Anyone even passingly familiar with the restaurant scene in London will be by now well acquainted with the ”steak ’n’ cocktails” concept. Pioneered stateside by big names like Smith & Wollensky, the idea had a lasting renaissance at the end of the last decade with the Hawksmoor Group, among others, in the vanguard. It’s a gratifyingly straightforward idea: you take a (preferably very large) chunk of dry-aged cow, cook it over a scorching-hot grill, and serve it up in an Art Deco dining room with bottles of big-bodied Argie Malbec and lashings of Bourbon. Vegetables optional. It’s so easy, so simple, that only a chef could fuck it up.
The success of the concept led to burger joints getting in on the deal too; the most egregious example being the currently much-maligned Byron, but also including such favourites as Honest Burgers, Burger and Lobster, and the ever-brilliant MeatLiquor. With such saturation in the capital, might the idea find fertile soil outside the M25?
One person who think that it might is Bristol-based Jake Black. Like me, a London exile, Black and his wife gave up the day job to travel around the USA and research burgers. Settling in Bristol, they opened a burger van, CHOMP, near Temple Meads station in 2012 and the rest, as they say, is history. They opened the restaurant, bearing the same name, in a former nightclub near St. Nicholas Market in 2014, and it’s fast become a local favourite.
The restaurant’s tagline – “BEEF | BEER | BOURBON” – isn’t so much a description of what one may find within as a searing statement of intent, like the brands burned into the skin of the beasts that CHOMP serves. Not for them the alienation of a swank London dining-room; no, CHOMP is a restaurant that wants you to know that takes its food seriously. From the (now somewhat overdone) mock-industrial interior to the pared-down wine list dominated by big Malbecs, CHOMP is consciously rejecting overly-long menus, overly-fussy décor. For all the stripped-down bluster, how did the food compare?
Being a huge fan of offal in general and black pudding in particular, I made a beeline directly for the beer-battered black pudding beignets. Sold in quantities of three, six, or nine, these deep-fried nuggets of unctuousness were a fantastic start to the evening. Hot, savoury, and with that characteristic metallic tang of pig’s blood, they were accompanied by an adequately executed garlic and chive mayonnaise that provided just enough tang to serve as a foil to the punchy meaty flavour of the beignets. I just can’t help but think the dip lacked a little something, and if I really want to be picky, the batter was a little thin and wet. Other than that, I was very pleased.
The bavette that I ordered to follow was again well-executed. Cooked medium-rare at the suggestion of my waiter, the meat had just the right amount of chew without the toughness one can sometimes find with bavette and was full of wonderful beefy savoury flavour. Having been spoiled by Hawksmoor I felt that the steak could have done with just a touch more salt, but the flavour of the meat was allowed not just to shine through, but to dazzle. The chips that were served with the steak were good; crispy, fluffy on the inside, and well-seasoned. No complaints here.
Needing to be up early the next morning for a job interview, I took a pass on the wine, but other diners reported very good pairings. The Old Fashioned that I did drink was well-mixed and a classic of the genre, though a little over-sweetened to my tastes. That having been said, I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth.
Overall, CHOMP does live up to its stripped-back, no nonsense image. While I have my reservations about the décor, which does look a little too much like a branch of Byron, the food is very near faultless. If, like me, you’re a committed card-carrying carnivore and you find yourself in Bristol of an evening, you could do a lot worse than to give it a visit. Just don’t take your vegetarian friends; there’s not an awful lot for them here.