Note: This was an invited tasting – well, more of an invited gorging. For that I am grateful to the hosts and fellow tasters.
Everything in moderation – including moderation.
— Oscar Wilde
The first thing that catches my eye in Butchers Club Burger, even before I’ve set foot in it properly, is the big ageing fridge up against its rear wall. That it’s got severed hands and legs in it, I am assured, is merely an artifact of the Halloween festivities; the actual meat inside – large, hulking primal cuts of chuck, loin and ribs – is where the real spooky stuff is happening. I cannot help gawping. And I cannot help wondering the same thing I wondered when I saw the website of this new arrival from Hong Kong. If they’re bringing in meat like this, and working their voodoo on it so convincingly, why are they then grinding it up and serving it to me in a burger?
Well, as it turns out, the process of Butchers Club’s arrival in Singapore is working in reverse order to how they grew back in HK. What we’re seeing is a new franchise of an established, if young, brand. Their origin story, though, starts simply, then just ran with the consequences. First it was really just butchery, and a focus on good meat – sourcing Black Angus from a single Australian source, shipping the whole carcass in, then hacking it up and ageing it. That dry ageing beef is becoming a thing over here fills me with joy – give it 30 days in a carefully controlled environment, cool and dry, and the meat dries, its muscle fibres break down and its flavour gets more concentrated. In the mouth, it is to ‘fresh’ beef what a butterfly is to a caterpillar.
So, after getting this part of the process down, new ideas started coming. First came the private dining table. Then came the steakhouse, and with that the other cuts that then became the burgers. You know how it is – first you make good merchandise, then you get tangled up in an expanding web. It’s material fit for a TV series. Breaking Bread, if you will.
But, uh, I digress. Behind the spacious, minimalist decor of the Singapore joint, with long, high tables and clanging metal seats, the same operating principle – namely a devotion to the source material – animates them as it does the Hong Kong original. The all-important burger patties are made with the same dry-aged beef from a combination of the chuck, brisket and rump – mixed, minced and shaped in house. Fillets of ling – a deep sea fish which looks hideous – are sourced from New Zealand, and like the beef will never see the inside of a freezer. When this is the base you work with, there isn’t really a need for great variation, and the menu is short – there’s the burger, the duck fat fries, and then a five-item ‘secret menu’, subject to experimentation and collaborations with other chefs.
Still, it all starts with this, the prototype. The Burger doesn’t look very intimidating when it arrives on a wooden platter, so I ignore the advice to have paper napkins at the ready. My mistake. On cutting, the juices leak out immediately, and the meat is just as promised – the core a warm shade of pink, oozing yet more of its essence. And an astounding essence it is – its beefiness rich and concentrated, yet mellow. It is not a stampede but a herd at peace in a meadow, with the occasional, salted oink of bacon, creamy white cheddar curling around the back of the mouth.
And fine, if you must, there’s vegetables in it too. The most significant vegetables on the platter, though, are the chips. More like wedges in scale, the hand-cut strips are excellently crisp, minimally seasoned so that the dominant flavours are smoky char and the combined sweetness of duck fat and potato starch.
The next two burgers we try are variations on the theme of that beef patty from the heavens. Or at least the Wu Tang Style burger is. We are told that, in Hong Kong, this is the item that they simply could not shake from the secret menu; they keep trying to swap in something new, only to give in to whimpering customers. In Singapore, on the other hand, the pairing of kimchi with beef has met with some resistance from the punters. Me, I’m definitely with the Hongkongers in this debate. The key is the choice of kimchi – they use the well-matured stuff here, with less fire and aggression and more of the complex, lingering acidity. Add that to the slices of tempura sweet potato, and the burger really becomes a different approach to the beef at its heart.
If the Wu Tang Style is an actual variation, the Double Happiness is more the same theme but played fortissimo. The bun is replaced with grilled cheese sandwiches, filled with punchy red cheddar; besides that much is the same as with the burger, with a double helping of that beef. Four cheese and two beef! It feels as if it should be overwhelming. And yet it isn’t; everything just feels even more emphasised, bacon crunching into the minced beef, the pinkish onion mayo lending a tangy contrast. A civilised person may balk and go for the normal one-pattied burger instead. But then, to the hungry, civility is overrated anyway.
After all the lowing, animalic robustness of the beef, the Captain Ahab – made from that New Zealand ling – feels like a palate cleanser. But it’s all relative; by any reasonable standard of fish burgers, this is still a ponderous, deep-dwelling beast. In fact the ling, also known as the cusk-eel, is a deep water species; we are shown its beautiful, pale-greyish fillets in the kitchen, where they are cut, breaded with panko and fried. The result is a fish that is somehow fall-apart tender and also provides plenty of bite, flaking like a cleaner version of cod. Unfortunately, in this case the bun-mates are lacking – the tartar sauce lacks any punch and is forlornly liquid, trickling down my fingers. All things considered, though – and by that point in the meal there was plenty to consider – it is a very minor disappointment.
Like many an import from elsewhere, Butchers Club has the advantage of springing full-formed across the seas; despite being less than a month old as of writing, they bring with them a formula that has worked for a city of arguably better-fed people. Instead of remaining within this bubble of their own wonderful formulas, though, they are also open to collaboration with other Singaporean chefs, opening up a spot in the secret menu for guest chefs at regular intervals. The first collaboration is already up, in fact, courtesy of Bjorn Shen from Artichoke.
It’s an admirable spirit – not to mention one that works in everyone’s favour. And there is even a good cause involved; 10% of proceeds go to a charity of the guest chef’s choice. I like that. But given the quality of their patties, what I’m really waiting for is when the way is cleared for the rest of the Club to arrive here too. There’s plenty other parts in a cow, after all – and I expect it will be a pleasure to have these folks handle it.
Butchers Club Burger
3A River Valley Road
#01-01B Clarke Quay
Sunday – Tuesday: 12pm – midnight
Wednesday – Thursday: 12pm – 2am
Friday – Saturday: 12pm – 4am
Website (Hong Kong)