It’s the inaugural National Steak Day tomorrow (April 25), a new event to mark British Beef Week. The brainchild of Nathan Evans, operations director at steakhouse Smith and Wollensky, the aim is to celebrate quality steak, with a number of brands offering 25% off their meat in honour of the occasion.
Among the single-site operators and chains taking part is Bar + Block, a brand that continues to expand while others are trimming their estate or putting a hold on new openings. Only this week, the all-day-dining concept has launched two new locations: one yesterday in Bristol and one today in Belfast – its first address in Northern Ireland.
Now with 10 sites running and another two scheduled for Reading and Durham later this year, the Whitbread-owned outfit appears to have hit upon a winning way to keep people tucking into their fillets.
So what exactly is the secret to this success?
The meat of the matter
According to Paul Fletcher, the innovation chef who oversees menus across Whitbread Hotels & Restaurants, it’s down to “using such amazing beef with such great provenance and serving classic cuts, plus an everchanging menu of seasonal specials.”
Bar + Block gets its meat from British breeds that are reared in South America’s fertile Pampas region. This is then aged for at least 28 days and delivered into the hands of the specialist chefs on site, who “hand cut and grill to perfection” the steaks. These are served with samphire and a house salad or triple-cooked chunky chips. Alternatively, punters can also upgrade their side to halloumi fries or a baked potato for 50p.
The balance between familiar favourites like sirloin and more novel options is what keeps things interesting for diners, adds Fletcher, who says that the tira de ancho (spiral cut ribeye marinated in garlic, parsley and chilli, served with chimichurri) has been a “great success” recently.
“The classic cuts will always be the most popular, but it’s so important to innovate with different cuts and use all the cuts of cattle,” he tells Food Spark. “By showcasing the different cuts, we can also show diners our expertise on the different cuts and the unique flavours and textures they offer.”
Beefing up the menu
Primarily, Bar + Block tries out cuts through the Butcher’s Block, aka the seasonal special. Sometimes, these are so popular that they are added to the main menu: just last week, Bar + Block unleashed a new spring update that introduced the picanha steak – a Latin American favourite that comes from the top of the rump – as a permanent offering.
But it’s not just the meat that is getting an upgrade on the menu revamp.
“We’ve introduced some new small plates on the starters section, making a great selection of sharing and grazing plates to kick off the meal,” points out Fletcher. These include Korean BBQ pork ribs, charcoal grilled and slathered in Korean-style sauce, as well as Middle Eastern king prawns, served with a harissa, red pepper, tomato and garlic sauce.
Catering to meat-free visitors, the kitchen has even created a veggie version of the classic Chinese dish aromatic crispy duck, substituting the fowl for crispy oyster mushrooms but keeping the pancakes and hoi sin sauce.
Fletcher also expects a pair of freshly minted desserts – espresso martini crème brulée and rhubarb custard sundae – to be “really popular.”
A lot of the time, the chef gets inspiration for dishes like these from the internet.
“Social media is great for menu ideas!” he enthuses. “It’s also important to look at new openings to see what’s up and coming, and as always, we’re inspired by seasonal produce for new items for each menu.”
While “healthy eating is always a key consideration,” Fletcher believes steakhouses still have space to flourish as a treat as long as they offer value for money, adding that the dishes that will be successful are those “with provenance and great quality ingredients, but with simple twists.”