Byron Waterloo, 41-45 The Cut, Southwark

Byron started the gourmet burger revolution for me. Does it live up to my memory of it?

Burger source

Byron was founded by Tom Byng, who, according to its website, spent many a night in the US eating burgers he couldn’t find in the London of 2007… and so he set up. In my mind, this man, and this chain (now owned by a private equity firm with upwards of 60 locations Nationwide) kick-started the burger renaissance London is currently undergoing and showed GBK – then the only ones with a claim to the gourmet burger – that it had no idea what it was doing.*  In my memory, their ‘pure cuts of British beef’ were always cooked to a perfect medium, delivered with super-melty cheese in a soft brioche, and were just plain delicious. They even have their own cheese for extra meltiness – Freddar, a cheddar hybrid named after one of their chefs!

 

*mind you, I haven’t been to a GBK in years!

The order

We were there for a work related do, so shared a variety of starters (buffalo wings, nuggets served with BBQ sauce and nachos topped with sour cream, salsa, guac and melted cheese) and sides (fries, courgette fries). For my burger, I went for the B-Rex, medium rare (more common now than I thought it was in London!) – which is a bacon cheese burger with jalapenos, pickles, onion rings, BBQ sauce and mayonnaise. What’s there not to love?

The meat of it

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The burger looked perfect. I mean, look at it! A perfect stack, layered up as you’d expect it. The patty looked a bit tooperfect, holding together in a slightly suspicious way and I feared it might have been overcooked…

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…but look at that cross section! A perfect medium rare! Strong melt to the cheese, brioche holding up admirably against the sauces and one would assume burger juice.

Then a bite. The meat’s slightly underseasoned, or at least struggling to cope with the sweetness of BBQ sauce, onion and brioche. It’s also slightly low on the fat ratio (I’d guess an 80/20 lean/fat at best), which means it’s not as juicy as you’d hope. The grind is good, though, the texture melt-in-your-mouth perfect, the cheese glorious, the japalenos and pickles a sweet, crisp counterpoint to the crunchy onion ring. The bacon gets somewhat lost in all of this, but it’s adding salt to the hot sweet mess of this burger, so isn’t without purpose. The jalapenos are reasonably non-descript, adding the faintest hint of heat. Unfortunately… whilst all these elements are coming together well, the overall balance of this burger is a bit off – too much sweetness, not enough umami. Add to this the fact that the beef is just fine – unexceptional if good quality ground beef – and there’s no longer any specialness about this Byron burger. A serviceable output of a decent chain… but little to write home about.

As to the sides…

  • The wings are good. On the mild side of standard buffalo, suspect either they weren’t using Frank’s hot sauce but some poor imitator, or overdid the butter. Crisp and tender, though, and not bad for London.
  • The fries were fine – a small portion for the money (£3 for a portion about the same size as a small fries at McD’s), crisp french-fry style, well-seasoned.
  • The courgette fries are great – sweet, crispy and salty all in one go. Don’t even pretend they’re healthy, but they are delicious!
  • The chicken nuggets and nachos – meh. Chain fayre, nothing exceptional, except for the BBQ sauce which seems eccentric and different to standard, mostly in a good way.

Drinks-wise I was having Woodford reserve off its decent bourbon list. Burgers and bourbon – a killer combination. Or you can have craft beer if you prefer…

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5
Build – 4.5/5
Burger – 3.5/5
Taste –  3.5/5
Sides – 4/5 – courgette fries bump it up half a point
Value – 3.5/5 – £9, £3 sides, expensive drinks… a little overpriced for standard fayre.

Burger rating – 3.5/5 – it’s either gone downhill to ‘average’ or I’ve been spoiled by everything else that’s cropped up since 2007!

The deets

Everywhere in London (and some beyond), but this particular one was on the Cut, which runs from Southwark to Waterloo. Nearer the Southwark end. Find your own here.

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Dirty Burger Shoreditch, 13 Bethnal Green Road, London E1

Has Dirty Burger peaked?

Burger source

For me, Soho House’s Dirty Burger is part of the great opening salvo of London’s battle against burger mediocrity. I rememer being distinctly impressed, one Friday lunchtime jaunt out with colleagues to the Vauxhall Branch. It introduced me to some key burgering techniques, including the mustard fry (mustard on the grill with the patty, a key tenet of In&Out’s Animal Style), I vaguely recall. They also use the ‘lid technique’ to ensure a good cheese melt on the burger, covering cheese topped burgers on the grill plan and squirting water on to create a cloud of steam that does the necessary work. Invaluable in home-burger creation. I was looking forward to revisiting with a review in mind, so post a team shuffleboard session (more fun than it sounds), we braved a torrential Summer downpour and headed to the Shoreditch branch.

The order

A Dirty Bacon (a cheese burger with bacon), naturally. And crinkle cut fries, because – why not? And onion fries too, because I remembered these being legendary.

The meat of it

As it’s basically a take-away, service was expectedly rapid (if not up to the speed of a lesser fast-food joint). We were the only customers on this particular rainy day. The burgers initially looked glorious – check out the stack!

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Unfortunately, first tasting did not live up to the glamour picture. The “bacon” is really a gammon steak, half an inch thick and adding ludicrous saltiness to this already well-seasoned burger. The cheese was delightfully melty, as remembered… but the burger itself unfortunately was overcooked and a little chewy, with little pinkness on cross section.

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This meant that the bun, sturdy as designed to cope with a juicy patty, was actually a bit too dry. The salad was fresh and sweetish but the ‘bacon’ overwhelmed everything, including the pickles – which went entirely unnoticed. My memory of the mustard fry was either mistaken or they’ve changed the recipe as the only flavour coming through was the salt. The beef might have been great – but overcooked as it was, it didn’t impart huge amounts. Ketchup and mustard added after-the-fact improved the balance somewhat, but sadly on this occasion, Dirty Burger missed its mark.

As to the sides…

As per my recollection, the crinkle cut fries were a limpid offer – slightly soggy and underwhelming. They came unseasoned, so self-salting is necessary. Fortunately, my memory of the onion fries was accurate; they are a savory, crispy enigma. How does something so crisp, crunchy and delicious, contrasting perfectly with sweet thick rings of onion, emerge from the same deep fat fryer? Spectacular, if greasy, indulgence.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5
Build – 5/5
Burger – 3.5/5
Taste –  3/5
Sides – 4/5 -bump for the onion fries
Value – 4/5 – £10 for burger and side, ish.

Burger rating – 3.5/5 – didn’t live up to its erstwhile glory. But I’d go back on the offchance they were having a bad day, and perhaps not order the gammon burger…

The deets

Dirty Burger is increasingly all-over. The Shoreditch branch is at 13 Bethnal Green Road, just opposite Box Park (where you’ll need to go if you need the loo, as the tiny restaurant has no facilities). Fortunately Dirty Bones just around the corner is a good place for a cocktail after, if you want to keep the theme Dirty…

Marks Bar @ Hixter Bankside, Great Guildford Street, London SE1

Sumptuous, meaty glory

Burger source

The “rib steak” burger (it’s rib-eye cut, according to Wikipedia, unless Mr Hix puts ground up bone in there) and fries announces itself with little ceremony on the menu. Mark Hix’s reputation as a chef and restaurateur promised an ‘upscale’ experience, but I really didn’t know what to expect.

The order

So, eating with the effervescent Mr Sullivan is an experience as, whilst we were offered blue cheese and bacon as toppings, once he established that customisation was possible, a world of opportunity was unlocked. Namely; the option of mushrooms and of regular cheddar. I went for the latter and bacon, and we ordered some sides to top up the table – onion rings, chicken popcorn and chicken skins. Just to see! And of course the burger came with fries. As a surprising bonus, our waiter allowed us to order the burgers medium rare (often disallowed in London, presumably for food safety reasons), so that was exciting.

The meat of it

So this burger doesn’t look that special on arrival. I mean, it looked good, but not extraordinary.

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A single slice of back bacon (surprising in itself – usually streaky’s the choice for burgers) resting on well melted cheese, resting on the 6oz patty… whilst all veg and burger sauce lies deconstructed around it… some assembly required. In some ways I can understand this – I immediately dispensed with the tomato, it has no place in my burgers – whilst Craig left the red onion to one side, a judgement call I understand but don’t agree with.

Anyway, some light assembly later, tomato-based burger relish, onion and pickles manually inserted and bun topped, I went for the cross section.

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Wow. Look at that pinkness. The meat was practically melting just after the cut. The bun – which looked somewhat dry from a distance – is necessarily sturdy to withstand the juicyness of the meat.

And then the taste. Funky, meaty, juicy… melty texture… the crunch of the bacon was totally unexpected from back bacon, the crisp sweetness of the pickle a delightful contrast and even the tomato relish added to the overall gestalt. The bun withstood the onslaught of flavour and provided the necessary starchy contrast and you tasted the high quality beef with every mouthful as there was clearly some restraint in the burger’s seasoning – no doubt for this very reason. This is one of the best burgers in London, without a shadow of a doubt.

The sides – well, the fries were outstanding if conventional french fries. The dipping sauces – some kind of parsley aioli, a rich curry sauce and ketchup – helped cut the edge of the generous salting they’d had. The chicken skins – like ‘healthy’ pork scratchings, provided a delightful savoury crunch. The onion rings were a revelation; seasoned, crispy, spicy, flecked with pepper and running spicy and sweet as the seasonings contrasted with the natural flavour of the onion. The only disappointment is that “chicken popcorn” was, in fact, chicken flavoured popcorn… not popcorn-shaped chicken, as we’d mistakenly assumed. I didn’t even try it in protest at my own folly.

Oh and Craig and The Bond wanted mushrooms… they were special; garlicky, buttery, sweet and savoury.

Drinks wise – was mostly consuming Hixter’s Old Fashioneds. They were outstanding, and served with a hefty single block of ice to help them linger.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4.5/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 4.5/5
Taste –  5/5
Sides – 4.5/5
Value – 4/5 – £14.95 for the burger and fries, £10 for three sides  for the burger plus a share of delivery.  So it’s not a cheap burger.

Burger rating – 5/5 – the whole is really greater than the sum of its parts at Hixter. This is a very special burger indeed.

The deets

Marks Bar is in the basement of Hixter Bankside, tucked away on Great Guildford street just by Southwark Street. Lovely ambiance and home to a rather eccentric bar billiards game we utterly failed to understand despite quite clear instructions on how to play. Find it here.

Bleecker Street Burgers, Pop-Up until Sept 30th 2016, South Bank

The best burger in London? Very possibly.

Burger Source

Zan Kaufman, American founder of Bleecker Street burgers, came to London in 2011 and launched Bleecker Street with a van and a mission to serve the best American style burgers on the streets of London. Having learnt everything she could from an East Village burger joint called Zaitzeff, she wanted to bring the same experience to London. As to the beef itself, and the burgers? She puts it better than I could: “There is zero compromise with our ingredients. Burgers are about the beef. We use rare-breed, pasture-fed beef from small farms in the UK. It comes to us from the geniuses at The Butchery in Bermondsey, where it is dry-aged for about forty to fifty days, giving it an intense, beefy flavour. The finishing touches: a sesame seed bun, scratch burger sauce and good old American cheese. We like to keep things simple.” Does the Bleecker Street reality live up to the promise?

The order

The menu is simplicity itself, especially at the South Bank pop-up where the Blue-Cheese special is not available – single, double, bacon and the Bleecker Black – a black pudding slice sandwiched between two substantial burger patties. Having seen people being served singles, which looked like 4.5oz patties at most, my hunger conquered me and I went for a double – and, because I’m greedy – added bacon, alongside the skin-on fries. The South Bank pop up does a good trade in  American beer, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The meat of it:

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Now for my close-up

The burger doesn’t look that extraordinary there’s little to the presentation, the sesame seeded bun is toasted and looks very standard fayre… and the patties look surprisingly small. The camera adds a few ounces of flattery in the picture above. Even a double doesn’t have the heft of a P&B burger, for example. And mine, surprisingly, was cooked medium well rather than the medium rare a friends’ Bleecker Black came with. I suspect the guys struggle with consistency in the small confines of the pop-up kitchen as other friends’ doubles were also rarer than mine. The fries come in a generous sized cardboard cup and are crisp, well-seasoned and delicious dipped in the plentiful ketchup, mayo or mustard that adorns the few small tables outside the Bleecker Street Shack.

As to the burger… OMG. The aged beef delivers a gamey taste and, despite being cooked medium well, the coarse ground meat is unbelievably juicy – literally spilling onto the cardboard plate as I took my first bite. It’s really well-seasoned too; though simply – no unusual flavours, spices or herbs. The American cheese singles are completely melted in to create wonderful mouthfeel, and whilst I had initially feared that the sesame seeded bun was dry and overtoasted, in this world of soft brioche, in the end it proved necessary for it to stand up to the juicy intensity of the burger. There was some onion in there, but it didn’t really factor in the taste behind the beef. The bacon – thinly sliced, not-entirely-crispy streaky bacon – was somewhat lost in the beef-fest, which is probably why they don’t do a double bacon cheeseburger as standard. Occasionally the burger got dipped in mustard or ketchup (wow), but it was fine on its own too. I suspect a fat/lean ratio of 75/25, and the result on the taste and the texture… well, wow. I want to go back. This, Honest Burgers, and Lucky Chip are currently in top contention for my personal best burgers in London, but there’s still far to go on this burger gastronomic adventure.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4.5/5
Build – 5/5
Burger – 5/5
Taste –  5/5
Sides – 5/5
Value – 4.5/5 – I missed out on the ‘deal’ by ordering a custom burger. You save a quid or two otherwise.

Burger rating – 5/5 – very possibly the best burger in London. I want to go back for lunch.

The deets

The pop up supposedly runs until 30th September. You can find it under the Hungerford bridge, by the Royal Festival Hall on the Queen’s Walk, right by the river. A straight walk over the bridge from Embankment tube. From 11.30am to 11pm daily.

Surfin’ BIRD – BIRD Restaurant, Camden

One of the greatest pleasures in a week night activity like a gig is the chance to roll up one’s sleeves and unashamedly indulge in a new greasy restaurant experience.

So it was when Little Comets performed at Dingwalls in London, prompting my housemate and I to roam Camden in search of some pre-gig warmth and fatty food. The many restaurants of Chalk Farm Road appear particularly toasty and enticing in the evening at this time of the year, and none more so than the orange shades of BIRD.

Burger source:

BIRD is the brainchild of Canadian husband and wife team Paul Hemings and Cara Ceppetelli. It opened its doors a couple of years ago, as the bargain bucket-shunning duo sought to reinvent the classic greasy-fingered fried chicken experience for a grown up London audience.

So, everyone knows that the bird is the word, but what do BIRD serve, in their own words? “The best free range fried chicken you’ve ever tasted.” A brave statement indeed for an establishment in Britain. I’ll be the judge of that, thank you…

The order

I opted for the Bacon & Cheese, which aside from the obvious ingredients, comes slavered in BBQ sauce & house kewpie mayo. Hold on, house what mayo? Call me ignorant, but I have to admit that I hadn’t come across this variant of mayonnaise before – and I was too busy drooling over the menu to investigate there and then. For the similarly uninitiated, Kewpie mayo is actually a wildly popular Japanese condiment, made with rice wine vinegar (rather than distilled). This results in a pathway to mayonnaise that some consider to be smoother, creamier and more flavoursome than your usual white stodge. Personally, there wasn’t enough here to reach a satisfactory judgement, but I’ll happily take it to the test again when I visit Japan in a couple of months – ideally in a quiet room with just a full jar, a spoon and a couple of idle hours.

But enough about the mayo. I’ve overlooked one of the critical selling points of BIRD’s Bacon & Cheese burger: it’s made with thigh meat, rather than breast. If you know your chicken, you’ll appreciate that thigh meat presents a significantly juicier bite than the average breast. On the flipside, this also results in a generally smaller, thinner cut of meat (more on that later).

I also opted for the Cheesy Korean fries on the side, along with a Coke and a healthy pot of buttermilk ranch sauce for dipping/swigging/downing (because somebody stop me).

The meat of it:

BIRD’s Camden venue is a recent addition to this growing chain, and the sheen was still evident even underneath the requisite thin layer of grease that you’d expect in such an establishment. Many of the standard British ‘hipstery’ small-chain paraphernalia were present: long wooden benches and stools, an excess of tiling and exposed brickwork, low-hung bare lighting… you’ve been here before, even if you haven’t. Putting personal prejudices to one side, however, the venue was undeniably tidy, warm and comfortable.

Despite warnings to the contrary from easily-offended TripAdvisor reviewers, we were quickly greeted and seated with a warm welcome. Orders followed swiftly, and all in all the food was with us in under twenty minutes. There was one heart-stopping moment when it appeared they may have forgotten to bring out the buttermilk ranch, but these fears were undone when a pot of the stuff was plonked on the bench shortly after the mains arrived. Otherwise, the staff were in that idyllic zone of appearing friendly and attentive – without being overbearing.BIRD 1

The main event arrived well presented, with BIRD’s decision to serve their mains on genuine plates being particularly well received. The brioche bun was a rather sturdy affair, which will undoubtedly please many but I found it to be unnecessary chunky (there was no beefy juice to soak up here) and a little dry, but not offensively so. The bacon was suitably hot and crispy and I was pleased to note that it had already combined well with the cheese (there’s nothing worse than still fridge-cold cheese ruining a burger). But what of the chicken itself? First, the coating. This isn’t your usual spicy breadcrumb or batter affair: the clearly Asian-influenced* approach to frying results in a pleasant and intriguing coating that was impressively crispy and flavourful. This gave way to the incredibly juicy and tender meat to produce some of the best fried chicken I’ve tasted. Unfortunately, as noted the thigh meat does mean that the burger felt smaller than it should have. Or perhaps I’m just greedy.

I have mixed feelings about the Cheesy Korean fries. The chips themselves were nothing particularly special, just your standard perfectly acceptable thin-cut crispy strips of potato. But no one ordering this dish came for the fries alone: it’s all about the topping. That said, the cheese sauce was fairly run of the mill while the gochujang glaze was really more of a spicy tomato paste. Altogether the result was certainly pleasing and fairly unique, but not enough to bring me back in itself. Marks have also been deducted for serving the fries in a mini frying pan.

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Finally, a word on the buttermilk ranch: this was disappointing. Perhaps I’ve become accustomed to the rich gooeyness of the likes of Newman’s Own Ranch, but I found this offering to be watery and strangely lacking in flavour. Given that BIRD offer a veritable smorgasbord of side sauces and glazes (including blue cheese – hello, blue cheese), I wouldn’t order this again.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 3/5

Build – 4/5

Burger – 4/5

Taste – 4/5

Sides – 3/5

Value – 3/5 – The burger, sides, sauce and soft drink came to a princely £18 (including tip). Personally, this is fairly de rigueur for this kind of restaurant but some may baulk at such a sum for what is essentially glorified fast food.

Burger rating – 3/5 A very solid fried chicken burger, in a world packed to the rafters with chicken burgers.

The deets

BIRD is expanding and now lays claim to three restaurants across London. I say across London, but somewhat predictably they’re located in Shoreditch, Islington and Camden. Influential folks at BIRD: if you’re reading this, we’d love to see you and your ilk south of the river too! Until then I’ll just stick with trusty old Sam’s, thanks.

They Tweet here, and if looking at glossy, overly filtered photos of fried chicken and doughnuts is your thing then you can follow them on Instagram too. Want some Facebook with that? Sure, they’ve got you covered.

*BIRD insist that its product is “not Southern fried chicken.  It’s not Korean fried chicken.  It’s BIRD Free Range & Fried.”