Big Fernand, Issy-les-Molyneaux, Paris

A juicy Gallic smashburger (smashburgé?), worth travelling for.

Burger source

Ok, I’ll freely admit – I googled ‘burger restaurant’ near the hotel we were staying at for a business trip and Big Fernand jumped out. I liked the pictures so we headed down.

However, having Google translated the copy on the webpage for this review, I’m SO pleased we went as would TOTALLY travelled for this even if it hadn’t been convenient:

“In the middle of a small Parisian street, at the end of a restaurant of district embalmed with the smell of herbs and fresh bread. A band of mustachus is busy at the rhythm of the sizzling meat just chopped to revisit a dish known by all: the hamburger. Their Hamburgs caress the sweet dream of seducing the most refractory skeptics and offer a second romance to the lovers convinced of the burger. This is how Big Fernand was born: a mixture of popular culture of a dish that brings together people from all backgrounds and products gleaned throughout France.”

There’s only one right reaction to this: wow.

The burgers are cooked as ‘smash’ burgers -a healthy portion of the mince is rolled into a ball and squished down onto the grill with a heavy spatula, cooked in its own fat until crispy, scraped off the grill, flipped for a lesser version of the same treatment before being topped and stacked on the bun, then wrapped in grease-proof paper to serve. By coincidence, my favourite food blogger/scientist Kenji Lopez-Alt has just released a video on the art of a smashburger which explains this technique in a bit more detail (although Big Fernand use MUCH bigger patties and manage to carry it off).

The order

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Pat and I both had the Bartholome, Beef, Swiss Raclette, bacon (lots of bacon), caramelised onions and chives, topped with Big Fernand’s own BBQ sauce. I admit, I ‘doubled up’ for €4, having only had a salad for lunch, which added a second patty, more bacon, cheese and an entire (totally unnecessary) portion of fries. Pat opted for ‘herb fries’ and I went for Paprika fries. All that for €14 (€18 for my double) – with our choice of soft drink. We were offered a choice of how we wanted the burgers cooked and both opted for medium.

The meat of it

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Holy moley. This was a monster. The slightly floppy, very simple seeded white burger bun barely stood up to the heft of a single patty, much less my double. The raclette was copious and melty, and the bacon in plentiful supply, providing a salty chew. The BBQ sauce provided a necessary sweetness, cutting back on the incredible umami from the rest of the burger. Whilst Pat detected a hint of sweetness from the onions, they were lost in my behemoth of a burger. Not a terrible thing given the general deliciousness of the burger as a gestalt.

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The meat itself was a cooked a bit over medium (unusual for France, where the colour ratings on meat are usually one down on what we order in the UK – i.e. medium is usually medium rare etc)., but the high fat ratio of the beef (essential in a smash burger) meant it was no less juicy for it, and the cheese, bacon and BBQ sauce complimented it beautifully. I think they could improve the bun – a sturdier potato roll or even a brioche bun might have stood up to the burger slightly better – but this is really a very minor concern in what was an otherwise magnificent mound of meat (and stuff).

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The fries… were slightly chewier than I’d expect for ‘freshly’ cooked fries (perhaps our batch wasn’t that fresh), and Pat’s herb fries were reminiscent of Honest Burger’s rosemary fries. But the seasoning was nice. They were served with a garlic aioli which was unnecessary (chips needed sweetness, not further saltiness!). Not bad as a combo at all!

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  3/5
Build – 5/5
Burger – 5/5
Taste –  4.5/5
Sides – 4/5
Value – 4/5 – €14/€18 translates to around £12-£15  for the burger, side and drink, and that’s definitely not bad, but probably a little on the high side vs. the very good value burgers you get in London these days. That said, this includes the ‘Brexit’ depreciation tax, given the value of the pound now vs June 22nd 2016…

Burger rating – 4.5/5 – I am totally going back the next opportunity I have to be in range. Fresh, delicious burgers, great service with amusing, interested staff happy to practice their English with us… and lots more to try.

The deets

Big Fernand has lots of locations, but the one we went to was here:  30 rue Ernest Renan, 92130 Issy-Les-Moulineaux. +33 1 41 90 72 55.

There’s even one in London if you can’t wait for the next Paris trip!  12 Percy Street W1T 1DY Londres, +44 207 81 32 586.

Atomic Burger, Cowley Road, Oxford

Decent burger in poor bun; amazing sides.

Burger Source

When Oxford was identified as a destination for a “lads’ weekend” away, one of the first things I did was Google ‘the best burger in Oxford’… and up came Atomic Burger. Clearly an exercise in effective SEO as much as a in burger design and innovation, the restaurant claims “the highest quality meat”, “burgers made by hand daily”, “food cooked to order”, “secret recipes” and “local suppliers”… so we were duly sold on it. As it happens, having a drink across the road at the Big Society, the staff tried to sell us on eating a less… unconventional burger in their establishment, but at this stage we were committed.

The order

The menu is extensive; dozens of standard and eccentric burger combinations. Most of us went for the fairly conventional and hard to argue with ‘Dead Elvis’ – crispy bacon, American cheese & fried onions listed as the key ingredients. We were reassured by the waiter that not only were the burgers cooked medium as standard but they’d happily do them medium rare for us. So far so exciting.

A side came with each burger, and we split onion rings and regular fries between us so we’d get to try it all. We also got in an order of ‘Trailer Park Fries’ which we were assured were awesome – fries topped with pulled pork, cheese sauce and barbecue sauce. Yeah, I know. Had to be done.

The meat of it

To start with the bun of it; the bun on this burger is poor. A slightly stale, dry-looking, powdery white bun that seems simultaneously too large and too porous to hold itself up to anything. The top half was immediately discarded as dead weight.

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The patty itself; surprisingly thin, not cooked to  medium rare (a healthy medium though), a decent slice of melted-in American cheese and not quite crisp streaky bacon topped it; there was salad in but you’d have to look closely. The sides – onion rings that were breadcrumbed, but vegan (rolled in beer, flour and breadcrumbs, no egg) – were crisp and golden brown. The standard fries were reasonably thin cut from whole potatoes, partial skin on, and crisply fried. The Trailer park fries, as a separate full-sized side order, were a sight. Laden with meat and sauce, this was a side fit for a main. Drink-wise, I went for a ‘Hobo mojo’ – Bourbon, lemon & lime & maple syrup shaken over ice and served in a paper bag.

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As to how everything tasted: the sides were the star of the show. The trailer park fries were incredibly moreish; the cheese sauce somehow not as chemical-tasting as you’d expect bottle-style squeezey cheddar to be; the pork moist and savoury and the sweet barbecue sauce binding it together beautifully. The chips were crisp enough not to be soggy throughout – often a challenge for this type of dish. Delicious. The standard fries were good but a pale candle to these; not quite enough starchy bite to them. The onion rings were amazing; large, sweet slices of Spanish onion rolled in flour, Peroni and possibly a panko breadcrumb, they were crisp, sweet and savoury in one, and delicious. The Cajun ones were particularly good, with a light hint of heat underpinning them. There were some other fairly non-descript sides on the plate – middle-of-the-road pickles and bottom-of-the-road oversweet, over-mayo’d coleslaw.

The main event; the burger? Well-seasoned, loosely ground meat – but the patty was too thin and the bread too big, so the flavour was somewhat lost (even with a discarded top half). The American cheese gave savoury goo to it all and again helped mask the meat flavour, and the bacon wasn’t crisp enough for crunch, so just added a sort of stretchy chewiness. The onions seemed sparse and added little sweetness. This was one of those situations where a brioche might have done some good. We had an extensive conversation with the waiter about the buns – apparently the owner knows they need changing but hasn’t got around to it yet. Best of luck to him, and hope he prioritises it soon.

And finally, the Hobo Mojo – it’s a fancy name for bourbon with 7-up and maple syrup, but it’s a HECK of a combination and I’ll be making this one at home at some point soon. Maybe minus the paper bag. Delicious.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  1/5
Build – 3/5
Burger – 3/5
Taste –  3/5
Sides – 4.5/5
Value – 4/5 – £20 a head for burger, sides & cocktail, & tip – valuelicious. But I guess that’s what happens when you’re not in London.

Burger rating – 3/5 – Let down by a bun that poorly complemented the fillings, sadly, and a pale shadow of things like Dip & Flip’s equivalent burger. Next time we do Oxford, we’ll have to try a Big Society burger…

The deets

247 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1XG was the branch we visited, though we gather the owner has a Pizza place elsewhere in Oxford and another burger venue in Bristol. Check them out over here and make a booking for the Trailer Park fries and the Hobo mojo alone, if needs be.

Side note: the geek kitsch around the place was phenomenal; a wall full of starships, a few intriguing sculptures and lots more. It’s a fun place.

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Fat Hippo Jesmond, Newcastle

Fat Hippo Jesmond – St George’s Terrace, Newcastle

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Burger Source 

A small disclaimer before we begin. Fat Hippo Jesmond is located a mere stone’s throw from my family home, and while I haven’t lived in the city permanently since the place first opened its doors back in 2010, I have been quietly admiring its prosperity from afar. Everyone loves to have a successful home grown neighbourhood restaurant on their doorstep, after all. At a time when NIMBYs still have a disturbing level of influence in blocking anything remotely interesting from setting up shop in this part of town, small restaurants like Fat Hippo are a great example of how good Jesmond can be away from the Osborne Road strip – when they’re allowed to launch.

I’d also been told by a reliable and well-travelled ‘sauce’ that Fat Hippo serves the best burgers in Newcastle, and popular local opinion seemed to support this. It is worth noting, of course, that a sizeable proportion of the Fat Hippo’s regular clientele are the guffawing students with more money than sense that have long colonised this corner of Jesmond. So, do the burgers stand up to the reputation?

The order

I’ve developed a fairly terrible habit of fully poring over menus online hours (if not days) before I arrive at booked restaurants recently, which does dampen the whole eating out experience somewhat. This was no exception – a full five days before I returned to Newcastle, I’d already scoured the Fat Hippo’s menu from my desk at work. There’s plenty on offer here, and pleasingly the menu balances the fine line between offering safe and basic items and the over-the-top ridiculousness that many burger places are adopting, as they desperately chase ‘innovation’ and the novelty factor.

For me, the choice was clear. The Ranch: double 4oz patties topped with cheese, chorizo and garlic mayo. I’m an absolute sucker for anything food–related that says Ranch on it. ‘Ranch’ as a sauce concept has taken its time becoming a menu staple in the UK, but like its classic US junk-food cousin Buffalo Wings, most places over here that claim to serve it can still only offer a pale imitation of the real deal. So what was in store here? Rich and creamy goodness slathered liberally around the sandwich, or a teaspoon of Hellmann’s with the ghost of some garlic hidden amongst the cheese? Make no bones about it, this was a big test.

As I’m rarely satisfied with a simple order of plain ol’ chipped potatoes these days, I opted for a side of the ‘Dirty Fries’ (topped with bacon pieces and Fat Hippo sauce). Well, everyone needs a break from onion rings once in a while. As if this wasn’t enough to clog my arteries for the evening, I also kicked proceedings off with a starter of mac n’ cheese balls.

The meat of it:

Let’s begin with the starters and get this out of the way. The mac n’ cheese balls were far and away the most disappointing part of this meal. I was absolutely ravenous by the time they arrived and couldn’t wait to get stuck into what would surely be a few dead-cert globules of comfort food splendour.

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The mac n’cheese balls (apologies for blurry image – my hands were shaking with anticipation)

My anticipation took a slight hit when they arrived – although the breadcrumbs were a pleasant golden colour, the balls had simply been lumped on top of a couple of plain lettuce leaves, served with a side of Alabama White BBQ sauce. Given that we’re talking about indulging in a beige feast here, a little bit of colour wouldn’t have gone amiss (you know, something like brown – like conventional BBQ sauce?). Sorry Fat Hippo, but to me this whiffs a little bit too much of another hipster joint trying anything to be different.

Mac ‘n cheese balls aren’t exactly gourmet cuisine: all I was really hoping for were gooey, cheesy bits of pasta encased in a crispy breadcrumb shell. Hell, isn’t that all anyone ever wants? Instead, once I’d cut into them I was faced with a stodgy, clumped up mess.  Across four balls, I only found a couple of bits of what was discernibly macaroni. The rest was just a sort of half-baked mulch, all too dry and stodgy with no real flavour. A shame.

I should point out that most of my fellow diners started with ‘Freddie’s Fingers’ (southern fried chicken strips with buffalo hot sauce), which looked fantastic and seemed to go down a treat.

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Freddie’s Fingers

Fortunately, it’s also better news for the main event. Fat Hippo’s Ranch is a well-packaged, no BS burger. It doesn’t have time for any pretence, like a token salad. It just does exactly what it promises: two patties, cheese, chorizo and garlic mayo.

To the bite – and what a bite it was. I’m not normally too fussed about burger buns (unless they’re too big or the patty-to-bun ratio is off) but my, this was a good bun. Soft, fluffy yet sturdy, with just the right kind of sweetness and a precise fit for the contents. Bun perfection has been achieved.

Onto the patties themselves, which were simply delightful. They were nicely cooked throughout, wonderfully juicy with a good thickness. The flavour was solid without being outstanding. This was packaged up with an (un)healthy smothering of melted cheese that was similarly succulent and warm without just being dried out.

Despite being this particular burger’s main event, the chorizo was just so-so – it added a little extra texture and a smoky flavour, but I could honestly take it or leave it. We’re talking about the thin-sliced, wide slivers of cured pork here (that most people simply accepted as ‘pepperoni’ for the last 30+ years until the foodie revolution insisted on rebranding every food item to appeal to pseudo-hipsters) rather than the small, fat garlic-infused oily chunks of meat that I regularly fantasise about when someone mentions chorizo. But that’s probably just my fault really for having unrealistic expectations.

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And what about those dirty fries? Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the genuinely outstanding ‘bacon bacon’ fries at Almost Famous in Manchester, with their bacon mayo and ‘bacon rain’, but I found these to be a bit weak. The chips were a little underdone and definitely under seasoned, while the thin shavings of bacon were chewy and lukewarm, rather than hot and crispy. The tangy fat hippo sauce redeems these a little, but overall this was an average side.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 5/5

Build – 4/5

Burger – 4/5

Taste – 4/5

Sides – 2/5

Value – 4/5.

Burger rating – 4/5 A good all-round burger, slightly let down with a few small issues on the side. At just under £19 for the whole lot though (excluding drinks), this is certainly good value.

The deets

Fat Hippo is a genuine North East institution, with three restaurants across Newcastle and Durham.

The Jesmond restaurant is right in the heart of things, just off Acorn Road in part of a converted house. Upon entry, it’s possible to immediately tick off a good number of hipster joint clichés: exposed brickwork, low-hanging mason bulbs, deliberately mismatched ‘old’ furniture and food served on novelty trays are all part and parcel of the experience. However, the Fat Hippo is infinitely more interesting than any of the predecessors on site that I can remember since moving to Jesmond in 2000, so ignore me.

In addition to the generous range of burgers and sides on offer, the menu also features a good selection of beers from the local Allendale Brewery. In a prime case of ultimate hipsterdom, these include the Fat Hippo IPA and Fat Hippo Hillbilly (both brewed exclusively for Fat Hippo’s restaurants) but again, I’ll get over this since they were pretty tasty.