For 7 months this year, I was working a contract in central Watford. Since I last worked for the same client a couple of years ago, their business has expanded quite a bit and staff are now split across three different buildings along the same road; meaning I was no longer 30 seconds away from the staff canteen in the original office building. This proved to be a good thing, as it forced me out of the office every day (and the canteen was never very good in any case).

But although the office is right by the shopping centre, Watford isn’t blessed with many decent, quick and affordable lunch options. The addition of a branch of Pret a Manger helps – I went through a a phase of rotating between their meatball wrap and bang bang chicken baguette for weeks on end. But there’s little else that appealed and it didn’t take long for me to bore of their offerings.

A few weeks in, a colleague mentioned a “great sushi place” inside the Watford Market and insisted I should go. Aware of my interest in food and relatively recent obsession with Japan, he was confident I’d like it. I put it off for a few more weeks; my memories of Watford Market were anything but positive and I couldn’t imagine finding great food within its walls. But when I finally checked it out, I was immediately hooked and visited at least twice a week every week for the rest of my contract! (Keep in mind it’s only open 3 weekdays per week…)

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Watford Market has changed over the last year or two; one end has been cleared out and space assigned to a mini-food court with three stalls – the Japanese plus an Indian and a Caribbean (which are looked over by a butcher, two fishmongers and a Turkish sweets and olives shop). The Japanese place has high stool-chairs at the counter and handful of regular tables just opposite; during the months I visited, this little business became more and more popular, and soon we made sure to head over at noon to be in with a hope of getting a seat. They are only open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday lunch times and if you can’t get a seat, they do takeaway too from a small fridge next to the till area – the sushi selections are far tastier, more generous and much less expensive than supermarket or sandwich chain offerings.

The sign above the kitchen reads Sushi No Mai (“Sushi Dance”), which is expanded to Sushi-no-Mai Japanese Grandpa’s Sushi Takeaway Shop on their business cards.

Grandpa, in this case, is Chef N Shimo and a framed document proudly declares his recognition by Sanchokai, the Japan Sushi Association. I believe he used to be a chef at Harrods before launching his his own business here in Watford. Throughout service, he quietly mans the sushi counter, occasionally querying an order or nodding greetings to a customer. His daughter (I think) cooks and plates tempura and teriyaki orders behind him. Two or three additional staff look after customer orders, payments and service.

Not only is the food delicious, it’s also extremely good value.

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Tempura don (£5) includes two or three prawns (depending on size), two or three pieces of fish (white fish and salmon), a slice of sweet potato, a fan of aubergine, slices of sweet pepper and a seasonal green vegetable such as courgette, green beans or asparagus. A generous dressed side salad is also included.

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Pork teriyaki don (£5) comes with salad and a boiled egg and plenty of sauce. The pork is tender, fatty and full of flavour. Salmon teriyaki don is similarly good.

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A sushi and sashimi platter called Scent of Scotland (£4.80) includes four pieces of salmon nigiri sushi and four of salmon sashimi. I’ve added a sweet omelette nigiri (£1) to my order, above. The fish is super fresh.

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The Edomae Set (£5.80) is one of the best value dishes on the menu, containing several pieces of nigiri sushi (including eel, salmon, tuna, prawn and seabream) as well as four large rolls labelled as Watford sushi which include both tuna and salmon as well as a selection of crunchy vegetables. Again, a generous salad is included.

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Chirashi Sushi is a couple of pounds more expensive but includes scallop sashimi and sweet omelette as well as the other types of fish already mentioned.

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Sometimes, if feeling extra hungry, I’d add a tuna roll to my order, for less than £2 this is another bargain and, like the rest of the sushi, comes with wasabi and pickled ginger. Soy sauce is already on every table.

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The only dish I don’t rate very highly is the ramen (£5), which I shied away from anyway, given my propensity to spill food all over myself and the need to go back to work looking half-way respectable! But when I did order it, it didn’t blow me away, perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the recent openings of great ramen restaurant in central London.

Green tea and soft drinks are £1 each.

 

Please note, a few of the prices have gone up (very marginally) since my last visit.

Sushi-No-Mai, Watford Market, Charter Place.

 

Mac n cheese sushi style”?

Er… what the hell is that?

Well, for one thing, it’s a menu item guaranteed to cause sharp intake of breath amongst those convinced that classics must never be meddled with and that twists and fusions are an abomination… But I think life’s too short to be too narrow-minded and proscriptive about food so I was very intrigued by this dish and many others on the menu.

When a journalist and blogger friend tweeted that he was dining in Watford’s self-described “best restaurant”, I confess I stifled a giggle. I’m actually a big fan of Watford but in my (not exhaustive) experience, much of the culinary landscape consists of boring chains, ranging from the awful through to the mediocre and acceptable but seldom showcasing greatness. The independents aren’t a great deal better on the whole, though there are exceptions such as the gem that is Grandpa’s Sushi in Watford Market (review soon) and Taste of Lahore on the High Street.

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Details soon emerged and I was even more surprised to learn that my friend was talking about Rodell’s, just a minute’s walk from my previous office and maybe 2 or 3 from my current one. Not surprised because I’d been there myself or because I’d heard anything about it (good or bad) but because I didn’t even realise it was a restaurant!

It turns out that Rodell’s has had quite a varied history: Back in the 1960′s, two business partners named their new haberdashery shop by combining their family names, Rodriguez and Martell. José Rodriguez was current owner Mario Tavares’ uncle and the property passed to Mario via his mother who took over in the 1970s. She diversified Rodell’s into a general corner shop to sell groceries, cigarettes and confectionery. Her daughter, Mario’s sister, helped evolve the business again by introducing sandwiches and catering for local offices.

In 2004 it was Mario’s turn. After an exciting and successful career spanning both performance and production of music, TV, arts and digital animation, Mario wanted to focus instead on his love of great food and cooking, especially the many cuisines he’d picked up travelling the world for work and pleasure.

Mario converted Rodell’s into an organic deli, serving breakfast and lunch to the local area. His simple no-menu approach was ahead of its time — think how popular no-choice menus have become today, both in underground restaurants and commercial ones. With the lack of menus and signs in the window, and it being closed when I passed by early morning and at the end of the working day, I had no inkling that the shop was actually a hive of activity during the day!

However, as many business owners found, the recession started to bite and in 2009 Mario closed shop. It was not until 2011 that he re-launched, this time as a bar and restaurant, with the intention of creating a vibrant and friendly community hub.

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Downstairs, a bar sits to one side of the small room, exposed brick and wooden floors creating a warm inviting little space. Particularly popular are the two draft taps, not for beer but for Prosecco! Mario was one of the first in the UK to install these.

Staff are friendly and the three we chatted to during the evening clearly share our love for great food and drink.

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Upstairs are two dining rooms, also simply styled. Pale wooden tables and walls make the most of the light flooding in from huge windows. A mix of old and modern furnishings and knick knacks give a touch of homeliness. Mario’s favourite films are projected onto one wall – Hairspray and Pink Panther during our meal. Also playing is a music tape, quite unrelated to the films, which makes for some surreal moments.

Mario explains that he’s not a trained chef but has learned from many different sources and in many different places. His menu is essentially a very eclectic and constantly changing mix of sharing plates and he is not constrained by notions of what goes with what. Instead he makes what he likes to cook and eat, confident that others will too.

A born host, Mario tells us how he wants his customers to help him shape what Rodell’s is to them. In return, customers quickly become regulars; some from just around the corner and some from further afield.

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He’s one of those genuine happy people it’s impossible not to warm to immediately. His giggle actually is infectious, clichéd though that may sound.

A childhood in the Philippines meant he learned to love great food at a young age. Since then he’s lived and travelled all around the world and found more delicousness in each place.

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So, what about the food?

I can see how some might be alarmed by the way the menu meanders right around the world from dish to dish. Surely Malaysian should be served with Malaysian, Chinese with Chinese, Spanish with Spanish? Bah humbug to that suggestion – I relish the eccentric menu and am happy to trot the globe with my palate.

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Savoury bread and butter pudding (£4.50) is served with a small cup of thin soup. The soup is OK but the pudding is magnificent – imagine crispy light layered puff pastry top and bottom, around a melting savoury cheesy custard interior, with a little pesto slathered on top. Yeah!

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Dry spicy Cajun ribs (£8) are so big I wonder if they come from a dino-pig. The quality of the pork is evident as they are tender, tasty and with a beautiful thick layer of fat. The cajun spice rub has a kick!

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Fritto misto (£6) is the weakest dish, for me. I’m just not convinced that it works with such tiny pieces of seafood and I definitely don’t like mussels served this way, though I like them in other recipes. I’d also suggest serving it with aioli alongside, such as the one served with the chicken.

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Spanish pollo ajillo (£6) (garlic chicken) wings are served piping hot, superbly tender and juicy on the inside with a crisp exterior; perfect dipped in the aioli provided.

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Lemon prosecco risotto (£6) divides us. We both agree it has great flavour, but I find it far too dry and stodgy. Pete likes it but I much prefer a looser, more liquid risotto.

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Malay beef rending (£8) is fantastic! It has a superb balance of flavours, the meat is as soft as you could hope for and the heat is enough to make itself known but not so hot it masks the rest. My only comment would be that for £8 the portion is small given that no rice or bread comes alongside. A flaky roti canai would go down a treat and make it better value too.

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And finally I want to tell you about that mac n cheese sushi style (£8). Macaroni tubes are neatly (dare I say obsessively?) arranged and glued together by a cheese sauce, then breadcrumbed, fried and served in slices that resemble rolled sushi. To my surprise, the cheese sauce is liquidy soft and melting – I can’t imagine how the slices don’t disintegrate into a slop on the plate! I often hear people claiming that there is nothing new under the sun and that any real twist to a classic worth trying has been tried already. This dish proves them wrong because it’s bloody genius and even if I hadn’t fallen for any other dish I’d go back for this alone.

You can see we ordered seven dishes between us but five or six would have been plenty, as we started hungry but finished so full we could hardly roll ourselves back down the stairs.

As well as the prosecco there’s a nice range of fairly priced soft and alcoholic drinks. And Mario’s just converted some outside space into a little drinking and eating deck, perfect in the current heatwave.

What do you think, abomination or genius? Or do you need to try it for yourself to decide?

 

Kavey Eats were guests of Rodell’s.

Jan 242011
 

ThaT Burger opened on Watford High Street in August 2009.

It’s an odd location for a new burger joint that’s bringing American-style fast food burger culture to the UK, not least because Watford is not renowned for it’s dining scene – the local market for genuinely good fast food is relatively small. I know many burger obsessives willing to travel clear across London for a good burger. I’m not confident the same applies to Watford!

Still, I’d read good things about them and I work just a few minutes walk away, so I finally made my first visit on my first day back at work, in January.

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Inspiration for ThaT Burger comes from from US chains In N Out, Five Guys, Sonic and others, none of which I’ve visited but all of which I’ve read lots and lots about. The photos in this post on Five Guys, Chicago makes that clear, from decoration alone.

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The interior is very much a regular fast food burger joint with a simple red, white and chrome colour scheme.

The full menu is located on the pillar; the meal deal options on the overhead boards.

A standard burger (with two patties) with a regular soft drink and fries, comes to £4.55. You can down size to a single patty burger meal for £3.80 or pay more for additional toppings (including different types of cheese, bacon, jalapenos) or to substitute onion rings for the fries, or a milkshake or J20 for your regular fizzy drink.

Alternatively you might fancy a chicken burger, a falafel veg burger, an order of buffalo chicken wings or a portion of homemade cheesecake.

We experienced a minor frustration with placing our order, working through the numbered panels on the overhead menu boards: we tried to order a burger meal, then give our chosen toppings, followed by our drink and then our side. Unfortunately, the till software is not set up to match the menu boards and the member of staff who served us insisted on skipping ahead to fries and onion rings, which threw us a little bit. Not a big deal, just a minor detail.

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Orders made, you will be given a pager to let you know when your order is ready for collection – orders are prepared freshly for each customer. You can choose to grab a seat or pop back out onto the high street, if you prefer, though it’s unlikely you’ll have to wait more than a few minutes.

Our order was ready very quickly and we got stuck in.

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The burgers were pretty good! Pete went for a standard two-patty burger plus American cheese. I chose the standard plus guacamole and mushrooms.

The patties were fairly thin (to allow for fast cooking, given that orders are cooked fresh) so a double patty is the minimum number I’d want. The beef was good quality, with a pleasant flavour.

Pete’s American cheese was just as you’d expect, with that strangely plastic quality of its kind. My guacamole was rather nice but didn’t go that well with the gherkins, lettuce, onion and tomato also included. I’d ask to skip the gherkins, at the very least, if you go for guacamole yourself. The mushrooms, I’m not sure about – they were actually too strong and reminded me of rehydrated dried ones. I picked most of them out and then my burger was just right.

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Fries are hand cut on site, with the skin left on. They were good.

Onion rings were a thing of beauty and absolutely fantastic. Probably the best that I can remember having, certainly in the span of my working memory. The onion was sweet and cooked just enough to be both soft and have a bite. The batter was very, very light and crispy and only just clung to the onion. A thing of wonder!

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On my second and third visits, I opted for the chicken burger instead of beef. Oh, my goodness me! Like the onion rings, this blew me away – easily the best chicken burger I can remember! A generously sized, moist chunk of chicken, evenly bread crumbed and freshly fried and served with the same default gherkins, lettuce, onion and tomato. Really, really excellent!

My only request would be to have homemade coleslaw as an additional topping – my very favourite thing to have with a chicken burger.

Oh and can I say a word about the milkshakes? ThaT Burger use high quality ingredients and stir real fruit into the frozen drink before serving. My banana and chocolate milkshake had a wide straw so I could suck up chunks of soft, fresh banana and broken up pieces of chocolate bar – yes I needed to chew now and then! It was mighty fine, as was the strawberry milkshake Pete had on a later visit and the strawberry banana one I had another time.

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For a regular meal deal, with some additional toppings, you’re looking at about £5. If you go for onion rings, milkshake or more toppings, you’ll hit the £6 mark. Of course, you can make it a blow out by adding chicken wings and cheesecake, if you’ve got the room!

Whilst the prices are a little higher than the main high street fast food burger chains, especially when those chains are running one of their price promotions, I’d say they are very reasonable for what you get. What you get is good.

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Judging by the Wall Of Fame, some of the regulars haven’t held back from ordering extra patties or competing for the fastest 10-patty burger eating time!

Having had such a great experience on our first visit, I made a quick phone call and arranged to pop in the following week meet and interview one of the owners, Justin.

Justin launched ThaT Burger with his brother Ian, plus a couple of other investor partners. He tells me he and Ian are “partners in everything we do” and work together on their various businesses. Ian runs restaurant businesses The Rotisserie and Delisserie; Justin runs an internet business; they also have a catering business.

How did ThaT Burger come about?

Justin lived in California for 10 years. He tells me “there are quite a few [burger restaurant] concepts over there, In N Out being the oldest one, Five Guys is another, which has been an explosion over the last 8 years…

I love burgers, that’s why I’ve opened this… it’s not just that I lived in California! I love burgers, I’ve eaten burgers every day for the last 25 years, probably more than I should have eaten. I know what a burger is supposed to be…

This genuine love for burgers, together with inspiration from across the pond, lead to Justin and Ian developing their own brand of fast food burgers for the UK.

Their burgers, Justin tells me, are somewhere between In N Out and Five Guys. Their fries are Belgian style, and the decision to keep the skin on came from asking their Facebook fans for input. The onion rings were inspired by those at a well-known chain in South Africa (where they were born and grew up). The milkshakes take a leaf from the fresh fruit ices and smoothies at Sonic. All were refined by the brothers and trialled (with the help of Facebook fans again) to appeal to the local market.

Look, we do very few things here but everything we do we do better than most, especially in a fast food environment, I’m not claiming to have the best burger in the world, I’m claiming to have the best fast food burger in England, without a doubt!

On those I’ve sampled so far, I’d have to agree with him!

The biggest question mark for me is the location.

I mean, this is a concept that needs a sufficiently large audience who appreciate a really good fast food burger and are willing to pay a little more than they might spend at BK and McDs for the privilege. There are certainly some of those punters in Watford, but clearly not enough.

Justin candidly agrees that location is their biggest mistake and that he’s somewhat frustrated. Their very loyal fans visit regularly but the masses are not beating a path to the door.

There’s something about a burger that is cool, for me at least, but Watford is not the right place.

He has confidence in the concept and tells me that they are talking to investors and looking for other sites.

I’m gunning for London, maybe Soho or Camden… I shall keep my fingers crossed.

ThaT Burger is located on The Parade (a continuation of Watford’s High Street, at the East end).

For those coming from out of town, it’s a 10 minute walk from Watford Junction station. Direct trains from Euston take less than 20 minutes. Journeys are charged for zone 8.

ThaT Burger
15/17 The Parade
Watford, Hertfordshire
WD17 1LQ,

ThaT Burger on Facebook

Please note that my first and third visits were made anonymously. I met and chatted to Justin on my second visit.


Sadly, ThaT Burger is closing. Its last day of trading is Sunday 6th February. I shall keep my fingers crossed for a London location in the future.

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