Monday, 7 January 2019

HILLS, Brecon, Wales

We start with a tight close up of a burger. Slowly we pull out and begin a slow-motion tracking shot, as a server picks up the plate and carries the burger to our hero. We cut to his dark eyes widening lustfully at the sheer size of the thing. He picks it up, admires it; he puts it down again. He takes up a knife. He begins cutting. As the blade enters the bread, the music begins: a hard staccato rhythm of  interlocking bass, guitar and drum synchronises with the sawing. He starts to pull the two pieces apart after 7 seconds: at precisely 10 sec, when the wailing vocals start, he pulls it apart to show... this. 

Burgers in Brecon with Brad: this may be my most alliterative trip of 2018. It's a substantial trip, too, a good hour and a bit from the capital. It turns out to be time well spent.

It's a beautiful setting for former teacher Owain Hills to run his meaty fiefdom. A core menu of favourites is supplemented by seasonal specials, the emphasis squarely on a range of burgers and the odd steak, although there are several non-meat options if your life depends on taking a baconshunner with you.

Portions are on the hefty side of generous- each burger holds two 3oz patties, so be aware that if you 'double up' you'll have something pretty formidable, something to put you in mind of that old wives' tale about snakes dislocating their jaws to swallow huge prey.

Breaded Camembert (£5) start us off: the outside all admirably grease-free crispness, the inside all ooze and funk, the tangy chutney rounding things off promisingly. It's an agreeably off-piste side for a burger joint.

Even if you usually avoid the ‘c’ word all December, there are times it tempts: so ‘Christmas’ fries (£6.50) deliver a hot mess of shredded turkey thigh under a proper Sunday roast gravy and a snowdrift of cheese, with pigs in blankets lurking here and there. Sure, you could complain the fries lose their crispness under this deluge: but you'll soon forget that. It’s almost a meal in itself, if you have any self-control. Me? Not so much: but what would be the point of a restaurant blog written by someone cursed with that virtue?

The burgers have to be the star turn, obviously: all of this bounty will be mere window dressing. Some buy their patties ready-made and ready to go, their bread from the cash & carry: here the beef, locally sourced from Brecon's Paddy Sweeney is minced freshly every day and hand-smashed. It is also- and what a treat, when Cardiff's regulations are so prissy- cooked pink by default-  ‘as it comes’ or the house style. This is a promising sign. 

The buns are by Alex Gooch, strong enough to hold together but noticeably light in the bite, a challah bread which makes a refreshing change from Death By Brioche.

The Juan Hilario (a house standard, and the first ever on the menu (the owner has Spanish roots, his great grandfather moving from Bilbao to Merthyr to work at the iron works). It's  clearly a burger that is very close to their hearts. It shows.

Other burger joints would just sticking a slice of chorizo on top- but here it is more sobrasada than chorizo in spirit, the essence of the spiced sausage melting into the patty as it cooks, oozing over the cheeses (Monterey Jack and American) before the final steaming. There’s a faint but resolutely beefy haze in the air here, a meaty fug, testament to the beef dripping used for so much of the menu, including the six hours' worth of cooking devoted to their onions) 

Mine is slathered- and it's the only word, here- in a thick old school gravy, a deep dark concoction 
I'm bored with words like 'dirty' thrown around with this type of food- but this has me reaching for 'filthy'. I find myself resorting to the heinous act of using knife and fork to finish mine off, hating myself, but only because I have already littered our table with enough gravy-stained napkins for it to resemble some kind of dirty protest. Crucially, the challah has held, despite the gravy. That's impressive in itself.

In the spirit of thorough research, I have the buttermilk chicken breast on the side, and very good it is too. The mushroom duxelle in the Beef Wellington 'burger'- a special- brings an unmistakably properly earthy tone, the gravy tangy with red wine and thick (too thick for some around the table, over-reduced a touch, but with impeccable depth of flavour.)  There's salt and snap from Carmarthen ham and a star turn from a flat iron steak. The gravy is a treat, good enough to grace a 'proper' meal: a hefty, tart-sweet reduction of red wine, vinegar and local honey, glossy with animal fats.

Recommended? Absolutely. HILLS has a mission in mind and boasts a quiet dedication to getting it right.  You sense they are not content to sit on their deserved laurels, and if they were to tweak these patties- perhaps with even longer-aged beef- and consider moving south, Cardiff burger specialists would be have sleepless nights. This menu would dominate the burger scene like Cassius’ Caesar, bestriding the narrow world like a Colossus and rewriting all current standings. Yes, they really are that good; that I mention them in the same bracket as Hereford's Beefy Boys should tell regular readers (yes, both of you, and bless your souls) how highly I rate this visit. 

I left HILLS more burger than man. A leisurely drive back makes for a memorable evening all round, despite the regrettable seasonal knitwear. You may get many things in Hills: juice-spattered, sauce-mottled. My fingers were sticky for some time; and yes, I licked them clean. Several times. But you won’t leave hungry. Or unimpressed. 


01874 611714



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