Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When a little goes a medium way: The Black Thorn

Ah, the Byward Market. High rents, spiky tourist traffic and the endless desire to be on trend characterizes Ottawa's busiest entertainment district. There are some Ottawans that pointedly eschew any of the Market's establishments under the pretense that they will be "busy" or "overpriced." It isn't true of course; I happen to believe that you have to take the good with the bad in a popular entertainment area. I think we fare quite well in the proportion of good places to avoidable ones. Historic Québec City or the Old Port of Montréal grapple with lucrative tourist traps feasting on the legions that go for their respective coolness.

Amy and I went to see the excellent Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada with two friends of ours. Looking for a quick bite for lunch, we settled on the Black Thorn pub on Clarence, as it was close by and we had a serious case of museum legs. That's how a lot of people feel about this place; it was lovely decor, has an extended patio perched on one of Ottawa's prettiest squares, and has a respectable compendium of alcohol on order. I think the Thorn aims a bit loftier than the Irish village assortment of pubs in terms of decor and food offerings; their dinner menu certainly carries a level of sophistication that's just a bit higher than their competitors.

It's pretty underwhelming upon presentation.
I have to say that my expectations were hovering in the basement, given that this market staple is owned by the same folks that now own the Earl of Sussex, where I previously had a disappointing burger. It took reminding from my friends that I write a burger blog and must suffer the lesser to appreciate the greater. I can't just eat at Absinthe Cafe every night; both my financial future and the integrity of my craft forbid me. But here my expectations were kept basement-dwelling as the burger on the menu was pretty boring - it was a simple beef burger with garnishes and the dreaded "house burger sauce" I hear so much about. That's it. This won't be a very long review; you'll probably be able to finish it while riding the 95 between Bayview and Lebreton (check out my Ottawa reference).

Simple burgers like that rely heavily on the quality of the meat, bun and garnishes. Someone who selects specific cuts, grinds the meat themselves, bakes the buns in-house or at least procures the best and erects a two-mile "no iceberg" zone can pull this off. The Black Thorn? That dedication was so improbable for a pub that it was bound to be a disaster.

Only, it wasn't. Click past the break to find out why.

The burger

The patty comprises 7oz of beef and only beef that has been well seasoned. It manages a good amount of sear whilst remaining soft and slightly juicy in the middle. This is certainly not a burger that emphasizes the quality of beef, but it isn't a withered puck either. You won't find much evidence of pink when you bite into the patty, likely because it has been constructed by a patty press and so ends up bit on the wide side to cook faster. And that's about it. There are no tricks here, no herbs or spices that attempt to lift ordinary meat to the extraordinary, but avoids the pitfalls of its Earl of Sussex cousin.  Both had teeming summertime pub patios with burgers being served up at adjacent tables but a defter eye kept watch on this burger, and for that I was grateful.

The burger and burger sauce components.
Garnishes are garnishes - iceberg (shudder), tomato, pickle and red onion. Nothing too offensive except the lettuce. There was supposed to be burger sauce on said burger but alas there was no such eponymous sauce hiding under the patty. Most often burger sauce is a euphemism for condiments mixed together in a bowl; if you're lucky they'll throw in some paprika or chili powder for sophistication. Interestingly, the burger came with three additional ketchup, mustard and mayo-filled dipping cups that one could theoretically use to create their own version of said sauce, though absent of the required relish. I really don't hold this lack of burger sauce against them even if it is technically false advertising simply because its application is so often unwarranted.

The bun was a large, soft, white "rustic" bun that was quite good and encapsulated the meat nicely. It was lightly toasted, firm and clean to handle. There wasn't much of a juice challenge given by the meat so the bun worked out nicely. I reiterate how a simple investment in a good-quality, fresh bun can help an average burger be quite enjoyable.
Yep, that's a rustic bun all right. Fashioned in a wooden shack without electricity
or running water. That's a lie.

Overall the burger was only fine because the meat and bun were fine. $14 was a bit much for a burger with little imagination devoted to it, but was completely understandable given the context of the bar and its Byward location. It isn't extraordinary value and you can clearly do better in more local-focused neighbourhoods but in the Market you'd be hard pressed to find a better burger at that price point outside of Chez Lucien.

So there you go: a middle-of-the-road, anticlimactic review of a middle-of-the-road, anticlimactic burger.

The sides

I ordered a side Caesar salad and it could barely be called that. There wasn't much dressing or parm, so it wasn't really a Caesar.


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