CALL me a food snob but a hamburger is not the first thing I’d order if I’m out for a meal, nor the second or third.
But then I’m not Neil Lawrence, a man on a quest for the ultimate cheeseburger. He had it once in Chicago, at a place called Ed Debevic’s on North Wells Street, and experienced a kind of burger epiphany.
After that other burgers were just burgers and he’s been “perpetually disappointed” whenever he sinks his teeth into another.
I’m with you there Neil, I’m that way with curries.
Now I’m just a humble scribe but Neil happens to co-own a chain of restaurants and, as a man who knows a thing or two about burgers, has put his money where his hankering is. He’s opened an eaterie to launch his own answer to Ed Debevic’s.
Which is why were at the Mud Crab Diner on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, for the second time in a month.
Before it was Felicini’s and we chanced to go for a review three days before Neil and his partner Ged Lynch (not the drummer with Black Grape) decided to rebrand.
Oops, but then it’s only the second time a restaurant has closed on me in a quarter of a century.
So we go back. Both times it’s raining.
Mud Crab (the only crab on the menu comes with linguini) is a large comfortable space with a slate floor, muted browns and greys, booths, wooden room dividers and young, stylish staff in pinnies who no longer tell you what their name is, Felicini-style.
The menu is a medley of burgers, pizza, pasta and the odd Asian dish (it claims to be New York crossed with Oz) plus the occasional hangover from the Felicini menu such as the cumin meatballs.
They’re already planning to slim it down.
Let’s cut to the chase and talk about the Mud Crab custom-built hamburger, meant to be the star of the menu. You can have it plain (£9.25), with cheese (£9.95), or pay extra to have it with peanut butter and fried egg (£11) but let’s not go there.
To be honest, after the build-up, I was underwhelmed by my cheeseburger. I’d expected it to be all-singing, all-dancing but the presentation was poor. It lacked impact. It was too brown. It was dwarfed by a shedload of thin chips.
But if you chomp with care there’s a lot to like. Messrs Lawrence and Lynch have not made Felicini’s one of the fastest growing chains in the UK without attention to detail. As Neil says, they agonised and tweaked until the cow came home.
I liked the toasted bun, firm not fluffy, with a hint of sesame. I lifted the lid. There are three small, thin, close-textured patties, three inches in diameter, stacked on top of each other. I thought the Wimpy was back.
The pattie’s better than a Wimpy with a quiet, definite taste which sidles up and taps you on the shoulder.
It’s moistened by what the menu calls roadside onions and I call melted onions, very more-ish, and club sauce, which sounds impressive until you discover it’s a ketchup-mustard mix.
There’s scope to tweak the presentation and the condiments. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Yankees and Uncle Sam’s but a tray of Heinz, Colman’s, Sarsons and Tabasco does not float my boat.
Incidentally, I checked on Ed Debevic’s website and a cheeseburger sells for $10.05 so even allowing for the exchange rate Mud Crab’s copy, what they modestly call the “second best cheeseburger,” is more expensive than the real thing.
No tweaking is needed with my wife’s slow-cooked chilli brisket (£10), soft-as-butter melting meat with only a gentle chilli kick on a slice of cornbread.
We’d started with an OK tomato and charred red pepper soup (£4) and chilli squid taco (£6), which comes in a takeaway style box.
There’s a taco at the bottom, four pieces of battered squid with little wooden toothpics, and Asiatic coleslaw, mango and avocado salsa and what the menu insists on calling cilantro instead of coriander.
My wife liked it, I thought the squid a bit chewy.
I haven’t seen a Baked Alaska (£6) on a menu for some time. It’s pleasant but this is a skimpy version (it misses out the sponge base) and is simply blowtorched meringue over ice cream and overpriced.
Customers are divided over the rice pudding bites (£3.50), balls of rice rolled in brioche crumbs and deep-fried.
I’m a fan although they needed a little bit more nutmeg and to be smaller, so you can dunk them in the pot of strawberry jam provided. Presently they’re bigger than the pot.
Mud Crab is a pleasant, relaxed kind of place. We entered to a hoedown on the speakers and the music stayed Country & Western all night.
There’s a selection of beers but neither bottle of Brooklyn lager or Mexican Modela Especial (£3.90 each) could knock spots off the Old Speckled Hen which they also sell.
The price is the same as Felicini. Food cost us £38.95, coffees £2.50.
Keep tweaking Neil but we’re giving you the same marks as we would have done Felicini.
The Dawes Verdict
521 Ecclesall Road, Sheffield S11 8PR.
Tel: 0114 263 1617.
Open daily noon-11pm (from 11am for coffee). Vegetarian dishes. Credit cards. Disabled access and toilets. House wine £14.50. Street parking.