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Could this be the best burger of your life?

Fridays are Wagyu Burger Night at Off the Menu Food Emporium in Port Elizabeth and St Francis Bay. Our patrons love this treat cooked on our Big Green Egg and we invited local wine writer and food aficionado Sam Venter to try out the experience and report back:

 

A Friday night invitation to sample the signature Wagyu burger at Off the Menu in Walmer, Port Elizabeth. Gleefully accepted.

First, of course, there’s the promise of Wagyu – with that marbled fat, glorious fat, that melts into the meat for a rich, buttery, tender and intensely meaty bite. And the promise of the previously-unknown delights of “Sumo fries” alongside.

Then there’s the elegant charcoal and pale wood interior with its warm lighting and chilled music, where you feel cocooned from the outside world and can shop shelves laden with local and global deli delights, speciality ingredients from across the world and premium South African wines while you await your meal.

A kitchen designed, and the kitchen brigade and front-of-house trained, to the exacting standards of a Michelin-starred chef in food preparation and service.

The Wagyu burger patty is cooked outdoors on a Big Green Egg, that wonder of a ceramic-encased charcoal grilling machine that delights both high-end chefs and home barbecue enthusiasts.

The attention to each and every detail of building up the layers and serving of this extraordinary hamburger is phenomenal.

The brioche bun – crisp, egg-polished exterior holding a soft buttery crumb that soaks up the meat juices – is lightly toasted on the Big Green Egg, then drizzled with a perfect swirl of truffle aioli to await its meaty companion.

No fridge-hard tomatoes and soggy lettuce here. A tomato slice is given a light grilling to warm and soften it, releasing its sweetness that complements the crisp freshness and slight bitterness of a handful of micro herbs and salad leaves.

You are asked how you would like your burger patty done (don’t even think of asking for well-done).

As the burger patty nears the desired state of done-ness – the exterior perfectly charred and crisp, the interior melt-in-the-mouth umami meat deliciousness – a slice of raclette cheese is applied to add its earthy savoury-sweetness in a slow, oozy melt.

Meanwhile, indoors, the finishing touches are added one plate at a time.

Duck eggs, locally reared, richly flavoured, are fried to your specification in perfect one-egg-size pans and added atop the melty raclette cheese.

The Sumo fries – perfectly even, thick batons of potato have already had their first fry in hot oil, now they are ready to be twice-fried to order. Just six or eight stacked in a neat block next to the burger. Crisp outside, meltingly fluffy inside, deeply flavourful with their drizzle of more truffle aioli and soft drifts of grated Parmesan, they are potentially addictive.

Miraculously, with all the components and the singular efforts to get it to your plate, it is a burger so perfectly layered and contained within its bun that you can actually hold it in your hands and eat it as a burger should be eaten. No bits oozing messily out of bun-containment, dripping down your chin and having you leave the restaurant wearing your dinner down your front.

Although, for a burger like this, it would be a badge of pride.

As a diner with a deep distrust of the current trend of food being presented on wooden boards topped with some form of greaseproof or wax paper that turns instantly soggy with the addition of food, and gets torn to shreds by a steak knife, with the shreds then incorporated in your next mouthful – the presentation at Off the Menu bears mentioning.

Because, yes, I did use my steak knife to cut my burger into more manageable handheld portions, in an attempt to match the classiness of the surroundings.

Presented on a thick wooden board, like a smoothed-down and sealed piece of tree trunk, that had been topped with the dreaded paper stuff, this was a different experience entirely – no sogginess, no tearing, no paper clinging to the food. In fact, by the end of the meal, the paper looked almost as good as it did at the start.

Clearly, this is the real deal of restaurant-quality greaseproof paper, and another illustration of the restaurant’s fine attention to detail.

Off the Menu has an exceptional offering of wines to accompany your Wagyu burger, either by the bottle or the glass, selected from boutique wineries and estates and independent producers that you’re unlikely to find in your local liquor store.

By the glass, a Raats Family Wines Red Jasper, AA Badenhorst Secateurs Red, Ken Forrester The Gypsy, or a Van Loggerenberg Break a Leg Rosé would make great companions to the deeply savoury, hearty, layered flavours of the OTM Wagyu burger.

At R185 for a burger ‘n chips, this is not what you might call a cheap date. Then again, this is definitely no ordinary burger, and when you consider some other options, it’s actually great value.

In South Africa, the top-end burger at a steakhouse chain will cost you only about R40 less (ordinary beef, mind you, no mention of grass-fed let alone Wagyu, and probably slathered in an in-house BBQ basting sauce to cover up tasteless meat).

Port Elizabeth tends to be a less expensive city than Cape Town or Jo’burg for eating out, so a quick look at some of Cape Town’s fashionable specialist gourmet burger eateries finds prices between R160 and R190 for a burger from grass-fed beef (again, not Wagyu), or R250 for a Wagyu burger takeout from a mid-range Jo’burg restaurant.

For those with international price ranges in mind, the Off the Menu Wagyu burger comes in at around $12, while my sources in the US tell me that diners in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago would not blink at paying $30 for a Wagyu burger (and at seriously/ridiculously high-end spots in NYC, you could pay $85, admittedly with some unnecessary foie gras added).

A Wagyu burger in London is likely to set you back around £14, compared to around £8.80 for UK holidaymakers landing at Off the Menu in Port Elizabeth or St Francis.

Yet another great reason for international travellers to visit South Africa, and for locals to step out of their comfort zones and experience the fine cuisine that we are spoilt with on our doorsteps.

Was it the best burger of my life? Hell, yes.

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