Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Merrywell, Burswood, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Having little interest in gambling and a dislike for the stop-start nature of East-West travel along Canning Hwy, Alissa and I rarely find ourselves at Crown Perth. With so many exciting restaurants opening in the massive Complex Formerly Known as Burswood Casino in the last few years, our wishlist of places to try within Crown has only been growing and growing, so a day spent with some friends in nearby Kensington served as a perfect excuse to finally get around to ticking one of those establishments off the list. With no reservation on a Saturday night and our fine dining budget already allocated to other meals, the likes of Nobu, Rockpool and Bistro Guillaume would have to wait, with an early dinner of Dude Food at the Merrywell proving to be just the ticket. Having eaten the Mini Burgers from the Merrywell's Dude Food on Wheels food truck at the inaugural Food Truck Rumble, as well a recent meal at Perth burger institution Alfred's Kitchen, I was interested to see just how good the burgers of their brick and mortar establishment would be.

 Arriving before 6pm meant thankfully avoiding some of the worst of the Saturday night dinner rush, however the main floor of the stylishly decked out restaurant was already packed by this time, with the outdoor area looking equally crowded.

Thankfully, after a quick chat with the waitstaff we were offered a table in one of the reserved side rooms as it wouldn't be required until 7:30pm. Not being someone who enjoys big crowds, this quiet and relatively empty area was a nice and comfortable alternative to the unknown waiting time of the the main space's waitlist.

Having had a field day picking lemons and making lemon products at their home in Kensington, we were delighted to have our friends Ben and Anita join us for the meal. Both are educators, with Ben having taught swing dancing with Alissa for many years. He also plays keys and trumpet in Perth band The Tigers and, in a typically Perthian 1-degree-of-separation-from-everyone, Ben is also friends with fellow Perth blogger Ai-Ling of Food Endeavours of the Blue Apocalypse fame. With a gift for witty repartee and comedic timing, Anita is a great conversationalist, something she undoubtedly brings to her classes with the Sugar Blue Academy. One of the great tragedies of the written word and my memory is that this post will not be able to adequately reproduce her humorous commentary that accompanied our meal.

The Merrywell's menu at Crown Perth is surprisingly different to the Merrywell in Melbourne; there is no upstairs/downstairs division, just a single menu with all-day items and dinner-only options. While there are common signature dishes, there are many items that are unique to the Perth menu and vice-versa, and some of the cheaper burger options of the Melbourne downstairs menu are not available. The overall spirit is much the same however; high calorie American Dude Food with a strong meat-centric approach - and very few concessions for vegetarianism (more on that later). While there were other items on their menu that piqued my interest, it was the signature Merrywell Burger I had come to try, served with a side of shoestring French Fries. Visually, the burger looked impressive - far less ugly than the Mini Burgers from the Dude Food on Wheels truck, and the fries served in a a mini-fryer basket similar to the artisanal chips served at Typika.

The Merrywell Burger is basically a gourmet version of a classic hamburger with bacon and cheese - an Angus beef patty, aged cheddar, bacon, the Merrywell's secret sauce, caramelised onions, lettuce, tomato and pickle in a burger bun. Optional extras I didn't go for include egg, avocado, pineapple and beetroot and going for a triple bypass with the 'Man-up and make it a double' option.

This is a seriously huge burger, but thankfully it is still of a reasonable enough height clearance for one to be able to take a bite of the whole thing in one go. The first thing I noticed as I took a bite of the burger was the quality of the bun; it was super soft and fluffy as a burger bun should be, willingly giving way as I sank my teeth in. Interestingly, the bun was cut asymmetrically with more weight at the bottom to cleverly maintain the structural integrity of the burger with such a pillowy soft bread. But of course the make or break star of a burger is the patty, and the Merrywell Burger's patty delivered in spades. Unlike the vast majority of burger joints, the burgers on the Merrywell menu are all served 'pink and juicy'; while caramelised for a nice char, the patty is basically served medium rare, giving it a mouth-watering tenderness you just can't get in meat cooked well done. Additionally, the actual composition of the meat in the patty had the rich level of fatty unctuousness that I would want in a burger, and the strong sharpness of the aged cheddar and the bacon were highly complementary supporting players. The usual lettuce, onion and tomato combination provided even more flavour along with some textural contrast, and the generous serving of pickles meant just about every bite was informed by its pleasing sourness. Finished with their umami-rich Secret Sauce, the Merrywell Burger took the basic idea of a classic hamburger and successfully turned all its components up to 11.

With my order meaning the more archetypical hamburger was covered, Alissa decided to go with the Mushroom Angus - a burger that was, for our tastes, even better than their signature option.

Featuring the same bun, patty, tomatoes and - presumably, as we can't remember - onions, its the very classy (rather than classic) supporting players that made all the difference - mushrooms, brie, balsamic glaze, truffle aioli and rocket. Rocket was an immediate step up, with its peppery flavour beating the crunchy water than lettuce usually represents. As good as the aged cheddar was, Alissa and I love any excuse to eat soft cheese and its creaminess served as a much better pairing with mushrooms. At the end of the day though, it was the combination of the mushrooms and truffle aioli that absolutely made this burger. Tasting the distinctly earthy umami flavours filled me with serious dish envy - if I were to come back to the Merrywell this is exactly what I would order. And its a burger that keeps on giving even after you've had your last mouthful - being such a juicy burger means there is an inevitable puddle of juice left on the plate. Normally this just ends up being waste, but in this instance it can serve as a wonderful truffle-flavoured sauce to dip the pretty decent shoestring fries into.

Being a fan of a good steak sandwich, Ben went with the WA Award Winning Steak Sandwich, consisting of thinly sliced Wagyu rump, mozzarella, mushrooms, onions, truffle and balsamic, with a side of beetroot...

... and an impressively large steak knife. 

I don't usually like steak sandwiches due to what is usually tough steak (and a general preference for alternatives to beef), but the use of Wagyu and then cutting the meat into thin slices gave it a remarkable tenderness - a technique that impressed Alissa and I when we first encountered it at Iggy's in Singapore. Combined with the earthy flavours of the mushroom, truffle, caramelised onion and balsamic the stringiness of the mozzarella and the softness of the bread, this was one of the few times that I've liked a steak sandwich. Tasting a bite in isolation can give you a false impression of what eating the whole thing is like, and a weakness Ben quite rightly pointed out was that the dish was extremely heavy, and that some rocket or fresh red onion would have gone a long way to making for a more well-rounded dish.

The lack of rocket or red onion in the Steak Sandwich was symptomatic of the somewhat anti-vegetarian slant of the menu. Being a vegetarian, Anita was thus quite limited, with a few salads, a soup and a few sides being the only options; other than possibly the French Fries, a vegan would seriously struggle to find something to eat here. Upon going up to the counter to order, Anita discovered the Merrywell Burger could be ordered with a falafel patty instead - though weirdly the Mushroom Angus Burger was offered sans Angus with avocado and no falafel when its probably the most vegetarian-sympathetic of the burger options. Considering they that mention gluten free buns are available, you'd think letting vegetarians know they had options would have been given similar consideration. In the end Anita went with the Yellow Lentil Soup served with a Vegetable Samosa and a drizzling of yoghurt. This was basically a fairly mild dal served with an okay potato-filled Samosa that was decent enough in quantity to serve as a meal, but not a very exciting one.

Thankfully the Mac and Cheese Bites made up for the soup, with Anita referring to them as 'little cubes of cholesterol-filled heaven'. They were as good as Alissa and I remembered them from the Dude Food on Wheels outlet, and if anything it was even better this time around. While I commented that the Bites were not as well seasoned at the Food Truck Rumble, we all agreed it was wonderfully seasoned here in the restaurant. The interior is admittedly a bit bland, but the stringiness of the cheese is marvellous, and the well seasoned outer crumb layer (purportedly made from crumbed Doritos) more than makes up for any interior lack of sodium. Anita was not as keen about the House Made HP Dip, though the rest of us really liked the flavour and artisan touch it provided.

The other side order (and another repeat from the Dude Food on Wheels meal) were the Onion Rings. When Alissa and I ate it from the food truck, we felt the flavour was spot on but that it was let down by simply not being crispy enough. This was not a problem this time around, with the light batter having the desired crunchiness and the onion within cooked nicely by being steamed in its batter casing. The results was far more delicious than the Dude Food on Wheels version.

The Verdict: Excellent
I have to admit I'm not often impressed by a burger - to me a lot of burger joints (gourmet or not) seem a little overrated and not that much of a huge leap from McDonald's and Hungry Jack's to warrant the hype. The Merrywell's burgers were thus a delightful surprise; these were plainly superior burgers made with great produce and cooked with skill and consideration that combine 'high' culture ingredients with 'low' culture dishes in a way that illustrates the value of the Dude Food movement in making something like the humble burger greater than the sum of its parts. While it cannot compete with Alfred's Kitchen for vibe, the Merrywell burgers themselves were streets ahead of those at Alfred's. There are quite a few celebrated burgers in Perth we are yet to try (Butty's and the Rockpool Burger for example), but either of the Merrywell burgers would have to be strong contenders for best burger in Perth. With great sides like the Mac and Cheese Bites and the Onion Rings, there is lot of deliciously unhealthy food to like here - though I would advise vegetarians and vegans that this is not a place that really cares to cater for such dietary requirements.

There is no getting around the fact though that the burgers here are very expensive; my Merrywell Burger was a whopping $25, with Alissa's Mushroom Angus and Ben's Steak Sandwich costing a dollar more. The absence of the cheaper burgers from the Merrywell Melbourne's downstairs menu means the Mini Burgers are their cheapest option at $22 for 3, and it only goes up from there - that's more than twice the $10.20 price of the Bacon and Cheese Hamburger at Alfred's! At those prices, I can hardly recommend the Merrywell as a budget or family friendly alternative. Still, the huge serving sizes and the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves, and if you're a burger fiend for whom money is not an object (or like me, would rather eat better quality burgers less often), then the Merrywell is required eating.

The Merrywell on Urbanspoon

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