Tom’s (or ‘Tom’s Smashed Burgers and Dirty Fries’) is a fascinating proposition.
They say it’s a sign of ageing when policemen seem too young. Brace yourselves for a sense of imminent decrepitude, then, because the eponymous Tomos is 18.
And while you’re wondering whether you could rattle off that phrase after your third Negroni, it was his 16 year old brother Siôn who was cooking during my first visit to Penarth’s Crafty Devil. He’s usually serving (a job for a young man: trust me, I have worked that kitchen and those stairs lose their charm the fiftieth time you run up and down them. Personally, I’d have him tested for mountain goat DNA.)
Let’s spare a thought for the poor eye-rolling Not Another Bloody Burger ‘foodies’, as another one hoves into view. Another smashed, to boot. It’s certainly a- what? Trend? Bandwagon? of late. There is hardly a burger brand in the city now which doesn’t claim to smash. Some of them even understand what that’s supposed to mean: it is such a ubiquitous label, it prompted the tongue in cheek popup ‘Not Another Smashed Burger’ from Helen Gorman at Twenty Six. (And if you get a chance to try their tandoori chicken burger, mango chutney mayo, crispy onion nest, mint and coriander chutney and all- grab it).
Not all smashed burgers are created equal. No one has written more eloquently on the science of this than Kenji Lopez-Alt, whose mantra runs ‘Maximum crust = maximum flavor = maximum craving’.
At heart it should be simple, so here’s what I want: well-seasoned beef, and a palpable crust formed by a hard char on intense heat. For best results the meat should be flattened out to maximise ‘contact points’ on a ferociously hot, ungreased griddle. (Think of the plancha at Hench, custom-made 14mm thick steel built to fit over a 4 burner stove.) Two patties? Even better: more surface area.
I want a big, meaty hit and a minimum of fuss in the build, with little to distract from the evidence of all that contact with the griddle. I’m looking for those frilled, broken edges where flavour builds and frolics. I want them gnarled and crisp, and I want cheese melting through it all. I want it to live up to the promise of its name.
Some are a let down. It’s not hard to spot where they are going wrong: insufficient griddle temperature, indifferent quality meat, dispiriting bread.
But Tom has some advantages. He has spent time working alongside with John Cook on Kapow Ribs, who gave me the initial tip: an enviable opportunity for a young man, and you can only wonder at what he will have learned from a chef whose insistence on high standards has just seen Rocket and Rye win local restaurant of the year from the Good Food Guide.
Yes, I should have got here sooner. And here comes the human angle, because I have always believed every kitchen has a story to tell. Perhaps it’s the generations of hospitality in my blood, but it has always seemed clunkingly, thuddingly obvious to me that the story is in the people, as much as in the food. It’s why restaurants are so much more than merely rooms where you exchange money for calorific intake, and writing about them can reflect that. The reductive copy and paste ‘I went here. It was nice. I ate this. It was nice. Here’s a picture. Isn’t it nice?’ thing is always doomed to miss the wider point.
This is a true family business, with Tom the oldest of five, sister Mali lending a hand and the youngest two busying themselves on downstairs tables. The food is born out of fond memories. When the family lived outside San Francisco, the children’s favourite treat was In-N-Out Burger. They preferred that simplicity, rather than the more ornate ‘add as many free toppings as you like’ choices at Five Guys.
That was ten years ago; but these memories linger, don’t they? So here’s Tom aiming to make the burger his own: not in slavish mimicry, but mindful of sticking to the basics of good meat, good bread, good sauce. Start with the beef, which has the good sense to be aged ex-dairy beef from Olly Woolnough’s Meat Matters; add bread which is strong on our old friend sexy squidgeability, and a classic tangy-sweet burger sauce. Simplicity: oozing, beefy, sloppy simplicity.
Taut, snappy fries, seasoned with smoky paprika, fresh coriander and a scattering of red onion or scallions, come as standard. There is just one burger on the menu, with a few tweaks on offer, and vegetarian and vegan choices.
And it works. Oh, it works. Over three visits I can’t fail to be impressed by what goes on here: leave to one side the youthfulness of the kitchen for a moment, and just savour the cooking. A buffalo chicken burger is very good indeed, lightly crumbed, crisp and dressed with a broccoli coleslaw which feels like atonement for beefy indulgence.
If my second beefburger doesn’t quite hit the heights of the first- there’s a meaty mix-up and they realise their mistake too late, getting in touch when I tweet, or whatever we are calling it now, about my meal, it says a lot about them.
They are mortified at the slip, though I assure them that what I’m served is merely very good indeed, and still preferable to many. I go back a couple of days later and all is well.
Very, very well.
I’m not going to crucify a business which makes an honest mistake. I’ll save that for the lazy, the cynical and the slapdash, not for people who hold themselves to high standards.
There’s a real understanding here of what makes a burger special, and a commitment to getting the essentials right. Whatever comes next for this small family business, it is going to be fascinating to see, because I can’t imagine it’s going to be ordinary. I’d go now, before everyone else does.
Thursdays and Fridays, 5-9pm
Saturday’s from 12
Crafty Devil Cellar, 17 Windsor Rd, Penarth CF64 1JB
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.