Chop Bloc, Chelmsford

Let’s be honest here, Marina O’Loughlin of the Guardian did not like Chop Bloc.  Her review was withering more than scathing, but as dismissive as they come.  This is her conclusion:

“There are two things about Chop Bloc that jar: one is cost – we pay over 50 quid a head without over-boozing (one small carafe of pleasing Chilean merlot between four; two terrible martinis – the request for ultra-dry and lemon twist in the first ignored, the second still over-vermouthed and brandishing the world’s most passive-aggressive, giant twist). Steak cuts are priced by weight, which means the prime rib blazes in at £42 for the smallest on offer. (And, yes, I do know that good steak costs money.) Sides are all extra: pallid cauliflower cheese, watery tomato and blue cheese salad. “Poutine” that just isn’t – it’s chips’n’gravy with goat’s cheese on top. If you come for anything other than meat: mistake, big mistake. There’s grilled baby squid, scored so it has seized up, on a blob of overprocessed sorta guacamole and teaspoon of tomato salsa. A pungently whiffy crab dip served with (good) cornmeal flatbread has all the allure of elderly Whiskas. A weaselly, gelatinous cheesecake.

“For now, Chop Bloc stands out in Chelmsford’s homogenised, could-be-any-high-street. But if they continue to pack ’em in as they’re currently doing, I’m pretty sure branches two, three and 27 can’t be very far away. Then Chop Bloc can join all the Giraffes, Cafe Rouges and La Tascas, mid-casual-concept restaurants run by accountants for people who are not really that bothered. Only the bill will be bigger.”

In short, she believes we’re back into steakhouse chain land:  one or two steps beyond the Berni Inns and Beefeaters of yore, but much the pricier.  Is this the case?  Millward investigates…

Chop Bloc has a whizzy website and is evidently keen on marketing, in which they take care to demonstrate a high quality product. Since we are all more careful about the provenance of our meat, this is what we are told:

All our steaks are sourced from Hereford cattle.  Hereford cattle live on farms here in the UK. They graze freely on grass on farms that adhere to strict animal welfare practices.  The Hereford is one of the UK’s oldest native beef breeds, originating in the County of Herefordshire in the mid 1700s. Hereford cattle reared in the traditional way produce quality beef that is naturally marbled, succulent and full of flavour.

We source premium‑grade grass‑fed Hereford beef, which is internationally renowned for its natural flavour, tenderness and succulence. All cattle are reared happily in the British countryside.  There’ll be no cutting corners at Chop Bloc, as all of our meat is aged on site and sliced to order by our chefs who are expertly trained to butcher meat in-house.  Herefords raised on grass produce an excellent ‘marbled’ beef that is higher in the essential fatty acid omega‑3 and is full of flavour.

The restaurant also espouses the now ubiquitous Josper grill, essentially a professional charcoal grill/oven adept at cooking steaks.  But then, Marina does not especially question the quality of meat or cooking of the same, other than the price charged.  She does question the sides, all charged independently on the menu.

So the question is this: who is right?

Let’s start with booking.  I booked for 5:30, they asked for the table back by 7 – in spite of the restaurant being virtually empty by the time we got there.  Sorry, but anything less than a 2-hour slot is not good practice.

Then the premises:  Chop Bloc is built into a gorgeous listed former warehouse. The restaurant is on the ground floor, allowing anyone walking through the door to peruse the kitchen and racks of fine beef joints on display nearby.  It seems a comfortable dining room, though our table succeeded in being wobbly, flimsy and unpleasant, not helped by being exposed by the lack of proper table linen.  The management evidently skimped a bit there.

You want to go to the bar?  No problem, we will put you in a slow-moving lift where you will trundle to the top floor; the staff will also make sure you are safe to return back to the ground afterwards.  Apparently stairs are not good enough for customers, but we let that pass.  The bar itself was deserted when we were there, other than a barman who poured us glasses of water from a Bombay Sapphire bottle – neat trick, that one.  We selected a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and a “Chop Bloc Aperitivo”.  What’s that, I hear you ask?  Clementine, Campari, Lemon, Prosecco, says the menu.  Very nice too.

Back at ground level we are shown to our table by the same front of house manager who saw us into the lift on the second floor (he had rushed down the stairs.)  Perusing the slightly over-long menu we went for balance: one spiral-cut churrasco marinated rib eye (in the Argentinian tradition), one Josper grilled swordfish steak, black olives, plum tomatoes, avocado, red onions, sweet chilli dressing, plus from the sides “homemade mac & cheese”, sweet potato wedges and green beans – each of which is decidedly at the pricy end of the spectrum at £4 apiece.

I have an issue with creeping Americanisation here: so far as I’m concerned, there is no excuse not to call this age-old comfort dish “macaroni cheese” in the best British traditions.  This version was a perfectly decent miniature served in a dainty pot, possibly not as cheesy as I would have made it but evidently better than Marina’s “pallid” cauliflower cheese.  But for the naming convention I’d have been reasonably happy to endorse the product.

The green beans were a generous portion, plenty for two, evidently much soused in butter but served al dente in the French tradition.  Sweet potato wedges came distinctly overcooked and having acquired a brown, coarse reptilian skin in the cooking process.  They tasted better than they looked, but if presentation and visual appeal is 50+% of the dining experience, they failed the test before they started.  Two out of three ain’t bad though.

But it’s the meat you really want to know about: in hindsight I would have gone for a more conventional steak rather than the spiral cut, since it arrived on the plate flattened, medium (I asked for rare or medium-rare but was ignored, though the waitress did try to explain in advance) and barely the 300g advertised weight (10.58oz in old money.)  It was tasty and tender, to be sure, though it did not taste strongly of the garlic, parsley and olive oil in which it had allegedly been marinated.  At £22 it was also far from cheap, though I too acknowledge that it’s worth paying for first class ingredients.

My companion’s swordfish steak was meaty and, in her words, perfectly cooked.  Its bed of  tomato, avocado et al worked a treat and she was well satisfied.

Next problem came with the loos.  Yes, they have loos on one of the upper levels, not an uncommon experience, but my companion spotted a toilet sign in the far corner of the ground floor.  Great… except it was locked.  Our waitress came running with the key, explaining as she did that it was the disabled loo, which was not obvious from the outside.  So it might have been for the disabled (remembering that I have an arthritic ankle and don’t negotiate stairs that well), but is that any reason to keep it locked?  Just don’t get caught short at Chop Bloc…

Perhaps the true test of this restaurant is getting into the big cuts on the bone, which will have to wait for another occasion, by which time my credit cards may be ready for the exercise.  On this occasion we did not eat and drink a great deal – it was essentially a pre-theatre dinner eaten in less than an hour – but still cost £85 including service (they don’t trust us to decide how much to give the staff, who were all willing and enthusiastic, sometimes excessively so.)

In summary, I think Marina was more than a tad harsh.  What Chop Bloc does well, it does very well – but there are too many flaws in service and dining experience as yet to describe it as a memorable venue.  If they aspire to Hawksmoor standards as Marina suggests (and the menu suggests this is a very close me-too resemblance), they have further to travel en route to the best in terms of attention to detail, thereby to justify the premium – especially deep into Essex.

PS.  This is the response of Steve Patten, co-owner of Chop Bloc:

Thank you for your review. I think it painted us in quite an accurate light and it was a refreshing change for the author to forward it across to us.

We have signed up for the Radar Key Programme which essentially means that our disabled toilet door is locked by default and a key is needed to open it. Many disabled people have their own keys to open the doors, however we also keep one ourselves on the host stand if other people ask for access. The reason behind this is simply that it reserves use for the people who require extra room and equipment and they do not have to wait to use the facilities behind able bodied guests. We have no issue unlocking them for anyone, of course. The signage for our toilets could definitely be better though, as we often have people wandering about looking for them. I think it is the problem of essentially having two buildings bolted together into one and the male and female toilets in two separate areas – The available spaces for signage are quite awkward and sometimes lead to confusion.

Our platform lift is DDA compliant so, unfortunately by law, it isn’t allowed to move any faster than it does. We really wanted a larger, faster lift but due to size constraints we were forced into what we have in place. I don’t know the reasons why you were ushered into it, most of our guests tend to use the stairs as it is actually much faster!

It’s good to hear you mostly enjoyed your food. We don’t cook the churrasco steaks below medium as, due to the nature of the cut, they cook too fast in the josper oven to accurately cook to either rare or medium rare. I will investigate with your server why this wasn’t flagged up to you as you ordered. The cooking temperatures will be on our new winter menus (which were incidentally delivered today) as we’re doing a few more marinated steaks. We have experimented with the marinade time and recipes, we’ve tried to go for a slightly more subtle flavour as we received a lot of comments initially that it was a bit too strong tasting. Much like yourself, I prefer a stronger tasting marinade and so have put on a chimichurri marinaded steak that has a fuller flavour, and also a chilli bone-in sirloin which is served with a spicy sauce on the side.

We’ve tried hard to get the perfect flavour for our sweet potato wedges. Most restaurants that serve them will buy them in frozen and coated in cornflour or another substance as this achieves a crispy end product. We like to buy fresh, high quality ingredients so steer away from these. Due to the water content sweet potatoes are rather hard to crisp up so we fry them to a bit longer which, while perhaps not giving them great visual appeal, does make them taste great.

Dave and I are not from a restaurant background and our grounding is in the beef industry. While we know good beef, the last 9 months of being open have been a deluge of new experiences and we have gained a lot of knowledge and insight into what Chelmsford wants. We are continually looking to improve and hopefully that was reflected in the difference between what you and Marina O’Loughlin experienced. Fairly or unfairly, it seems Marina came in with an unfortunate preconception of Essex as a whole which soured her review to both us and many of our guests that read it. She came in during the first few weeks we were open as well, and as is always the way during a new restaurant opening, we experienced a significant turnover of both chefs and front of house staff so it was a real period of instability. Now we have a stronger team who we are continually working with to improve the restaurant as a whole.

Many people compare us to the likes of the Hawksmoor (although I do note their lack of tablecloths too!), however they are in a somewhat easier position than us due to having a prestigious name in the centre of London, meaning that they have a glut of people looking to work for them. In a time when the hospitality industry has a massive skill and people shortage in both the kitchen and front of house, restaurants struggle to fill many positions they have available and we are no different. We have to take the time to train skills into chefs that perhaps the restaurants in London would expect their new hires to already have. While we have no issue doing this, unfortunately it takes time to establish a culture of both learning and teaching in a high energy environment such as a kitchen. We are looking to sign up to some apprenticeship programmes so we can get some young chef with a passion for the industry into our team.

The Hawksmoor was established in 2006, and for us to already been mentioned in the same sentence as them after just 9 months means that we must be on the right path. Marina was wrong about our ultimate aim, we don’t ever envisage becoming a chain. We age all of our beef on site, have our own mincing equipment to create our own burgers to which we add nothing but meat, and slice our own steaks in house by knife and band saw. Doing it this way requires a high amount of skill, care and attention to detail, things that are great lacking in the world of chain food. While we may one day expand to a handful of restaurants, they will always be overseen by Dave and I personally.

Once again, I’d like to thank you for sending your review over to us. We’ve had several bloggers write about us now and we always like to extend our welcome to them. If you are ever heading in, feel free to email me and it would be great to have a chat over a beer or glass of wine in the bar.




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