Our Richard heads down to Kings Cross for a feast of meats – minus the wallet bashing that comes with the top-level steakhouses…
After work carnivores seeking big portions of well cooked meat. People who love Hawksmoor but haven’t been paid yet. Premier Inn residents looking for a quick and simple bite…
Bar + Block has one of the hardest jobs imaginable in the restaurant trade. This is what owner Whitbread (which also owns Costa and Premier Inn) has decided to position as the update to the old Beefeater brand of steakhouses and pubs. Ever been to a Beefeater? I can pretty much guarantee you won’t have been twice. A typical haunt of the 80s Sunday lunch crew, it was a collection of old pubs, decorated in the style of your great aunt’s front room, serving mediocre meats, cooked with little or no passion and care, limp veg and stodgy mash.
Bar + Block wants to upgrade that image. It’s making a big play for lovers of quality meats – focussing attention on the fact it hand-cuts its steaks onsite, giving customers the option to customise their dish, and placing significant emphasis on the time spent making every mouthful perfect for every diner.
The competition across the UK for upmarket meat-focussed eateries is fierce. Bar + Block has a tough job in a saturated market and it’s coming at it from last place.
The new flagship site in Kings Cross, the third Bar + Block to open in the past 12 months, is absolutely nothing like the old Beefeaters. It’s modern, vibrant, feisty and feels like somewhere welcoming and fun. You walk into noise – laughter, chatter, the busy thrum of the kitchen, and the clashing metal of the cocktail bar. It’s lively and it feels like people are enjoying not just their meal but their experience as a whole.
It’s been carefully and sensibly decked out – a lot of wood and leather making it feel accessible and homely. There is an open kitchen at one end leaving nothing to the imagination and exposing the busy team to the people they are feeding. It’s clearly a chain – everything is far too neat and planned for it to be anything else – but it doesn’t try to hide it.
There is no pretence here. Bar + Block knows what it is and it plays that role well. It has nothing to hide. It wants the food speak for itself.
A pleasant little surprise…
Our waitress arrived to introduce herself armed with one of the best chef’s treats I’ve had in ages. Beef dripping popcorn sounds ominous. It was, in fact, delicious. Made by the Bar + Block team from their own ingredients it’s rather heavenly. A fresh warm portion of popcorn lightly dusted with a powder of such ferocious beefiness it defies description.
This was no Golden Wonder flavouring , it was rich and real – clearly refined from the juices and fats of the meats cooked in the very kitchen behind us. It was an excellent start and whilst we nibbled and discussed the meal to come the anticipation built nicely.
Beefy! Like going to the movies with a medium-rare sirloin
The range of ales, beers, soft drinks and cocktails is excellent. Being both a bar and a restaurant gives this venue a chance to bring both drink and food to bear on the customer in equal measure where competitors would be lacking on the former.
My colleague chose a craft beer but I went a little off piste and chose a mocktail – a Fake Red Head made with ginger beer, strawberry puree and cinnamon. It came quickly and was deep pink and delicious. A perfect refresher before the task ahead.
We ordered the empanadas and a portion of the intriguing raspberry and Tabasco™ chicken wings. Unfortunately, they did not live up to the hype created by the popcorn. The empanadas came with a cheeky fresh tomato salsa but unfortunately no real filling. The meat was lacking in quantity and it couldn’t make up for that through its excellent flavour or moist light pastry due to the fact the former is not present and the latter is actually a heavy stodgy dough that smothers everything in its path.
A waste of £6. The chicken wings are better – the meat is succulent and beautifully charred. The meats falls from the bone easily and there is plenty to enjoy in the portion. But whilst the innovation in the flavour is to be commended, it’s hard to find it in the dish itself. There is a hint of raspberry and a slight kick from the Tabasco™ but you’ve got to concentrate pretty hard to get either. A real shame as the idea has such promise. It’s not a fail (like the empanada) but it makes a promise on which it cannot deliver.
This is really what it’s all about. In a steakhouse, if the steak can’t cut it, the restaurants’ not going to either. And for a steak-focussed restaurant the menu pays real attention to the big meat itself. It’s slap bang in the middle of the menu, shaded differently from the other options to stand out, almost glistening. I can’t tell you what else was on the menu – it couldn’t see it due to my heavy focus on the beef.
Bar + Block talks a lot about its hand cut steaks. You can order any meat of any size you like up to 20oz. So we both went for a ribeye – 12oz for me and 14oz for my colleague. For me, ribeye is the ultimate test. Yes, fillet is the best cut and rump is the tastiest. But ribeye is hard to do well – to get the fat melting but not demolished to infuse the greatest flavour into the meat. Get a ribeye right, the world is a better place. Would Bar + Block succeed? Not quite.
In short, the meat wasn’t great. Both steaks were ordered medium-rare (as the kitchen suggested) and they came medium-rare. Both were tasty and sizable and looked perfect on the plate. But the meat itself was tough, hard to cut, chewy and a bit of a pain to work with. I’ve eaten a great many medium-rare ribeye steaks in my time and the majority have been of better quality than this.
Bar + Block is aiming to be accessible, it’s not aiming to be Hawksmoor or Goodman or Gaucho and for the price, most punters would have no issue at all. So I can forgive it a little. But if the meat was just 10% better it would start tussling with those restaurants quite easily and that would be a real result for restaurant and customer alike. It’s steaks don’t need to gravitate hugely from where they are so this was a missed opportunity in my book.
Sides we much stronger. A roasted vegetable medley was superb. A range of oranges, yellows and creams were excellently autumnal in look and herby in flavour. I’d have this again any day of the week. A heritage tomato salad was perfectly simple, drizzled with oil, vinegar and herbs that enhanced the flavour of the toms rather than drowning them out.
Chips were fine and sweet potato fries were as good or bad as any I’ve had before but not memorable. What was, was the mac and cheese with fresh crab. A delight – delicate flavours working together in harmony, beautifully presented and a great option for the price. This was a small dish that elevated things greatly and is highly recommended.
We closed with two light options after a heavy meal – a huge chocolate brownie with ice cream and a sticky toffee pudding. I’m still amazed we walked out of there alive. Both were excellently presented and fast to arrive. The brownie was too sweet. It took real effort to finish. First mouthful was fine, after that it became a task, then finally a challenge. In my experience, a really good brownie is rather simple – crisp on the outside, dense chocolate in the middle that pushes back when the fork attempts to breach, and does not contain fruit nor biscuit nor cereal.
This was a bit complex – and as a result wasn’t the best. The pudding, however, was. It was one of the great surprises of the night and truly one of the best steamed puddings I’ve had in years. Dripping with sticky salty sweet sauce on the outside, moist throughout and sizeable on the plate. The honeycomb ice cream alongside it was fine in its own right but didn’t need to be there. It added an extra sweetness that simply wasn’t required. It didn’t ruin the dish – the pudding was so excellent it couldn’t. It was just moved to the side and left to its own devices.
Value for money
This is not an expensive restaurant but I can’t say it’s cheap either. It’s accessible and inoffensive and that is probably why it will do very well. A three course steak meal for two with drinks and coffee will come to about £40 per head. Go for a non-steak option and you’ll cut that back by a tenner. The quality of most of the food makes this worth the visit but with a slightly better steak on the table it would be an absolutely steal.
I came to Bar + Block with a simple message in mind. There is a lot of competition for steak in this town so this had a tough challenge ahead if the Beefeater brand is to be effectively rejuvenated. But as the meal went on I started to realise that this might not be the case. This isn’t a cheap steak chain – it’s not a Weatherspoons, a TGI Fridays, or an Angus Steakhouse.
It’s FAR better than this – incomparable in fact. A definitive step up. But it’s also not a top level steakhouse. It can’t compare to a Gaucho or a Hawksmoor or a Black and Blue. It’s very nicely placed in between. Decent steak, for reasonable prices. And as such the more my colleague and I tried to find a comparable chain of restaurants or even a comparable independent restaurant we simply didn’t have an answer.
Could it be that Whitbread has found a rather useful niche? It’s very possible. The food is not without fault. There are imperfections and quality issues but for the money, it’s worth a visit. Because if you have £40 and a ravenous carnivorous appetite that only steak can quench, there are going to be few other places that do the job as well for that money. If you want the cheapest – don’t come here. If you want the top level – wide berth. But if pretty good and tasty will suffice – this kind of nails it.
Bar + Block, 26-30 York Way, Kings Cross
0203 889 8888