De Vrije Burger

06 Mar 2019

Posted on the Facebook restaurant group Cape Town Restaurants – the good, the bad and the nastyyy…

December 19, 2017

I want to post a review about a burger I ate yesterday at De Vrije Burger in Stellenbosch.

First though, in terms of the group rules, I have to declare my bias. I have written or photographed numerous stories on Bertus Basson and his restaurants over the past decade. Last year I published his cookbook: “Homegrown”.

I like Bertus. I consider him a friend. I deeply admire his approach to contemporary South African food and his innovative restaurants. Which is why I found myself standing outside De Vrije Burger at 11:15 yesterday morning.

Group Captain Lowe, please take the necessary action if you deem my bias inappropriate. The rules are perfectly clear and reasonable, and simple professional integrity also requires that the reader is aware of my connection when reading what follows.

So here goes...

Vrije Burger is a little shop opposite the ABSA Bank in Plein Street. It is small, neat and simple, built around one thing - turning out a perfect burger.

There were two beaming counter staff backed up by a silent but grinning griller in the shiny depths of the open-plan cooking and scullery area.
According to his Instagram feed, Bertus is often to be found there with his sleeves rolled up, flipping burgers when it’s busy. But not on Monday.

Much like David Chang’s celebrated new chicken sandwich shops, Fuku, in New York, Vrije Burger offers a main attraction, some sides and drinks.

It’s simple and direct. You can get a burger. You can add a couple of things to the burger itself. You can order 3 sides – fries, onion fritters, and salad.

A while back on this group I was doing a bit of a wander through local burger offerings. As a basis for comparison, I always chose a cheese burger. As it happens, that’s all there is.

Bertus Basson has crafted his perfect burger here and offers it for what I believe is a reasonable R75.

It’s a doozy. Two slices of cheddar cheese, pickles, shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato, fresh onion and a 200g free-range beef patty. As you can’t have a burger without fries, I ordered some hand-cut fries. (I chose regular, as they are offered with BBQ spice, cheesy, or peri-peri.)
I also ordered spiced onion fritters.

The order arrived pretty quickly in a brown paper packet. In fact while I was paying, it was already on the grill. Part of the innovation here is that Vrije Burger is a completely cash-free environment.

You can pay with Snapscan or a card using the Yoco system. (Yoco has grown to include cutting-edge point-of-sale software with their smartphone-linked card readers. We use the reader for card in our little restaurant, and it’s a fantastic system. In the hands of an operator like Bertus, when used to its full potential, Yoco is fabulous. The transactions are easy, and there’s no cash on the premises which provides easier accounting, banking and safety for employees.)

And now – the moment of truth. I would guess I was sitting for no more than 5 minutes when my brown paper packet arrived. Look at the pictures to see what was in it.

The burger is a beautiful thing. Fresh lettuce, onion, tomato and the pickle give it tremendous visual appeal. The bun is perfect, lightly toasted and absorbent enough to keep much of the juice from the patty in check. It’s definitely a burger you have no trouble eating with your hands.

I really don’t like excessively saucy burgers for this reason, and De Vrije Burger delivered on my preference. I ate it exactly as it arrived and didn’t feel the need to season or sauce with the salt, pepper or All Gold tomato sauce provided. Just delicious.

On to the fries… They are of the twice- or thrice-cooked, hand-cut persuasion. However, they managed not to be too stiff or bite-resistant, bridging the divide between fancy chips and slap chips perfectly.
The onion fritters, or should I say “ONION FRITTERS” in a Morgan Freeman voice? Holy shiftworkers!

I smelled their gloriousness when I opened the bag and decided on a little nibble before tackling the burger. In a trice, they were gone.

And I was alone.

(Except for the burger, fries and three staff members that is.) But I did feel desolate that they were gone.

The fritters are essentially onion bhaji. They are things of rare and fragile wonder. Onion and gentle cumin-led spice. Oooh!

The underbelly of burger sub-culture is full of self-proclaimed experts and aficionados. I should know, I’m one of them. De Vrije Burger adds a scintillating jewel to this realm and I will be back again and again for more, just as I revisit Clarke’s Diner regularly for my fix of their extremely fine burger offering. A wonderful burger and a superb experience in an innovative food concept shop.

I can’t leave without mentioning De Vrije Roomys.

With every burger purchased, patrons are given a coupon to redeem at their convenience for a soft-serve cone with sprinkles. Just hilarious and such a genius twist.

I took mine to go and enjoyed it on the stroll back to the car. I haven’t had a ‘draairoomys’ since I was a kid, and it was just a perfect, nostalgic end to the experience. I had thought that the enterprise lack milkshakes – the obvious accompaniment to a burger. But the free cone jumped right in there and rescued the maiden.

A great experience from arrival until the last crunch of the ice cream cone.