Bottle of Sauce, Ambrose Street, Cheltenham

One of the best burgers in Britain

Burger source

A group of friends were going away for a weekend; naturally, with me as one of them, we googled for the best burgers in town. And Google told us about the Bottle of Sauce. Just over a year old, the pub/restaurant is clearly gaining a cult following – it was packed, with everyone from people on dates to large groups of friends who had it pegged as the perfect location to start their night out.

There’s not much information about the pub, or the ‘Dodo family’ it’s part of on its website, but the parent site tells us that it is part of a small independent chain of social-centric pubs called the Dodo Pub company. Founded 8 years ago, the owners seem to be on a mission to reinvent dilapidated pubs as community hubs, with great food and booze:

Our mission is to set up unique neighbourhood pubs for local communities, all the while continuing to develop our interest in good food, good drink and good design and sharing this passion with our wonderful and loyal customers.

They are onto something good… with their burgers made from dry-aged prime cuts of beef, ground in-house and served pink by default and… well, wait for the meat of it.

The order

Simples – we’d already been out for a few hours, so couldn’t deal with overcomplicated ordering. 6 ‘Big D’ burgers, 5 fries, 3 portions of buffalo wings and one portion of buffalo fries between the six of us. The Big D burger has a seeded bun, the beef, crispy bacon, cheddar, dodo burger mayo, caramelised onions, lettuce. Simples.

The meat of it

HOLY CRAP. This was unexpected. We’re in a pub in Cheltenham, but somehow the medium rare bite of this burger is one of the best balanced, juiciest and, frankly, most gloriously sumptuous burger eating experiences of my life.

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I’ll wind back. Delivering burgers on a tray as they did mean the presentation impact isn’t about an elegant plate but more a ‘wall of meat’ experience. It was an imposing delivery; we weren’t complaining. The stack was fine – no issues with construction, though the juiciness of the meat was combining with dodo sauce to drip onto the tray. A good sign, on reflection. The bacon, two long, crisp strips of perfectly flat, is arranged in a cross hatch. The rest of the toppings are underneath the burger. The bun is seeded, non-brioche.

And the taste…. Whilst, being extremely critical, I would argue that the patties could have done with marginally more seasoning, this is some of the finest meat I’ve ever had in a burger. Coarse ground, loose packed, perfectly pink and with a high fat ratio (I’d guess 70/30), melty cheese and crisp, crunchy bacon, every mouthful is a delight. The caramelised onions and salad, melded seamlessly in with the dodo sauce, provide a sweet counterpoint, and the sturdy seeded bun holds up admirably. I practically inhaled the burger.

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The sides; the fries (Rosemary sea salt fries, sorry!) are crisp on the outside, squidgy on the inside. Thicker than regular fries, I won’t pretend I noticed the rosemary taste (milder than Honest Burger’s take on this), but really very well done. The Buffalo fries were extraordinary; unlike chilli fries the buffalo sauce doesn’t make them too soggy, but the slick, spicy tang of buffalo sauce melded beautifully with those near-perfect fries.

The wings were good too – nothing extraordinary, I’d have liked a bit more crunch to them under the sauce, but the sauce was perfect, and the blue-cheese dip was fine too. The chicken was high quality, juicy but not too fatty, and perfectly cooked.

Wow. Go to Cheltenham *just* so you can spend a few hours in this pub. As a bonus, the atmosphere was jumping, the staff were friendly, and the drinks (we had a house Bourbon cocktail) weren’t bad at all.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  5/5 – held up admirably
Build – 5/5 – beautifully constructed
Burger – 5/5 – possibly tied with Dip & Flip and marginally ahead of Bleecker Street  my mind
Taste –  5/5 – better than the some of its parts
Sides – 4.5/5 – buffalo fries FTW!
Value – 4/5 – Sides are pricey but good, cocktails are cheap, burgers are average by London standards.  But it’s probably expensive for Cheltenham – about £25 for burger, sides and a drink a piece

Burger rating – 5/5 – Just amazing.

The deets

Ambrose Street is fairly central in Cheltenham. If you’re a group of more than 8 people, you can book a table, otherwise just turn up. We got there around 8pm on a Saturday and had little problem finding a space (though we were sat in the outdoor courtyard area). Book your trip now!

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Fur and Feathers, Herriard, Hampshire

An exceptional gastropub in the Basingstoke surrounds.

Burger Source

All the menu says is: “Home Made 7oz Beef Burger  or Grilled Chicken Breast with Chips, choose either Chunky Potato or Sweet Potato Chips Served in a Brioche Bun with Tomato, Dill Pickle & Our Own Tomato Relish, Mayonnaise & Watercress (GF, please specify)”

There were a variety of toppings on offer; from bacon and Tunworth cheese, stilton & bacon to chilli jam and guacamole; these people are putting a serious twist on the gastropub burger. But would it live up to the impressive sounding menu? The presence of gluten free options and the option of regular chips or sweet potato chips gave me the impression, rightly or wrongly, that this was a place that took its burger seriously, so I once again broke my no-pub-burger rule and rolled the dice.

The order

The beef burger, obviously, with bacon and Tunworth cheese (whatever that was), tomato relish and regular chips. Accompanied by a lime and soda, because, #datenight #designateddriver.

The meat of it

On arrival, I discovered quickly that Tunworth cheese seems to be a relative of Camembert (a guess later confirmed by a quick Google search) and that it came deep fried. A healthy,  crispy wedge of cheese oozed out on top of a large patty and thick, crisp slice of back bacon, which in turn was sat on top of a layer of thin dill pickle slices and a slab of tomato. The brioche, a not-oversweet representative of the genre, was heavily toasted (charred, some might say) and the burger was served open, as if to say “I defy you to close me up and take a bite.” A coating of watercress covered the facing half of the bun, adding to the challenge.

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I managed to get the bun on. Check out that oozing cheese!

As to the taste; well I started with a nibble of the Tunworth cheddar; it had somewhat exploded but the light creaminess was delicious and a very exciting teaser for the feature presentation. The crisp coating added a marvellous textural contrast. I squidged on the top bun (the brioche was soft despite charring on the inside), dolloping on a thick layer of the chunky tomato relish that was served on the side as I went.

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The cross section revealed a densely packed, medium-well cooked burger (less pink than I’d like, and denser – with more chew than strictly called for), excellent coarse ground beef and wonderfully seasoned. It was juicy, to the point of slipping somewhat within the brioche. And the taste somehow made up for the slight flaws in the burger; the umami from the cheese and bacon hits your mouth like a burger firecracker; lighting up your taste buds in all kinds of different directions simultaneously. The bacon was crispy, surprising for thick-cut back bacon and I’m not sure how they managed it. The Tunworth cheese – SO MUCH FLAVOUR. The relish brought a much needed sweet relief to the salt-splosion that the rest of the burger represented, as did the pickles and sweet tomato. The watercress, to my mind, would have been better swapped out for mustard and some fresh onion… but that’s just me.

As to the chips; they were plentiful and crisp on the outside, squidgy on the inside. Absolutely perfect examples of what a British chip should be, and how it can be superior to the French fry when cooked perfectly. My only criticism was that they could have been delivered with a tad more salt, as the coarse ground table salt didn’t stick to the fully-cooked chips very effectively.

On balance, a very, very satisfactory burger. Despite the minor flaws in the burger, the overall experience was remarkable and I’d recommend the pub – and this burger – to anyone in range.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 4/5
Taste –  5/5
Sides – 4.5/5
Value – 4/5 – £15 for the burger and chips – expensive by the standards of the burger scene, but cheap for a gastropub meal.

Burger rating – 4.5/5 – truly the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The deets

This lovely gastropub is hidden away in the village of Herriard, about 5 miles from Basingstoke, in what feels like the middle of nowhere. It’s lovely and they server a LOT of different types of gin, but sadly only two types of bourbon and they were out of the one I wanted.

Find it here: The Fur and Feathers, Southrope, Herriard, Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG25 2PN. Tel: 01256 510510

The Falcon, Rotherwick

Well-cooked and assembled Wagyu beef burger for £15? In a pub? Yes please.

Burger Source

OK, it’s another pub burger. But when a pub boasts of Wagyu beef, and has it alongside a regular burger on the menu, I’m thinking this is worth a try. This is a pub that takes its burgers seriously.

In fact; it was incorrectly billed as Kobe Wagyu beef on the menu. For the uninitiated, Kobe beef is beef from a specific strain of ‘Wagyu’ cattle, raised in Hyogo prefecture in Japan. This is why it struck me as so incredibly unlikely that a pub – even a nice pub, like the Falcon, in a lovely village like Rotherwick in North Hampshire – would be selling it in burgers. It’s famed for its tenderness and marbled texture, and is not exported in vast quantities – in fact, there are only 3,000 Kobe cattle in Japan, according to Wikipedia’s (admittedly dated) version of events.

This would make the £14.95 price tag seem incredibly unlikely… and in fact, on correspondence with the manager, it transpires they have been slightly misled by a Wagyu beef supplier called ‘Kobe Cuisines’ so will be editing its menu accordingly. Still, Wagyu beef. Yum.

The order

We were celebrating my mother-in-law’s birthday and arriving late to lunch after an ice-rink expedition, so were all famished. Some bread tempered appetites, and a Jim Beam on the rocks furnished me with a drink (I’m still on this bourbon kick and the pub was lacking in alternatives, though it had a wide selection of Scotch).

The main meal was the burger alone; I was offered toppings (bacon, avocado, cheddar, blue cheese etc.; blue cheese and avocado were recommended), but went for the pure burger from a desire to actually taste this highly acclaimed meat. This seemed to impress the manager.

The meat of it

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You can see from the picture that this was not an imposing burger; substantial but not enormous. The pickle was nice but eaten separately given it’s pointless positioning atop the stack; the bun was eggwashed but not a brioche as far as I could tell. It was slightly too big for the burger, and so held up to the burger’s heft… but only just. Perhaps due to wagyu beef’s lower fat melting point, the burger was not as juicy as an equivalent burger made from a different beef?

It was accompanied with a nicely savoury mayo, deliciously crisp and fresh, sweet tomato and salad, and bacon jam – which is hard to describe, but more sweet than savoury and lacking in any kind of crisp bacon texture. Nice, though, and a good counterpoint to the well-seasoned patty, which was beautifully crisp but slightly too well done for my liking; a medium-well rather than a medium verging on medium rare. I’d guess 5-6oz for the patty; well seasoned, coarsely ground and loosely packed. Definitely winning on more levels than it’s losing.

The taste. The taste confounded me. Beef that well-done shouldn’t have been this juicy; there was a slight gaminess to the flavour and tonnes of umami from the seasoning, despite no bacon or cheese actually in the stack. The mayonnaise was clearly a good accompaniment and the bun didn’t distract whatsoever. Cheese would have been unnecessary, and believe me that’s not something I say lightly. Because, y’know, I love cheese.

The fries, thin, hand-cut, skin-on fries, were very well cooked and seasoned to perfection. They went beautifully with the bacon jam, in fact, and the fresh side salad was wonderful, alongside a slightly less inspiring but mildly pleasant, light coleslaw.

In all, it was an inspiring experience. Despite the beef being Kobe-style rather than Kobe, it’s instantly made it to the top of my pub burger league table and will motivate me to head back to Rotherwick for future lunches in the not-too-distant-future.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 4/5
Taste –  4/5
Sides – 4.5/5
Value – 4.5/5 – Wagyulicious: an outstanding burger for £15.

Burger rating – 4.5/5 – Top of my pub burger league table. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The deets

There are two pubs on Rotherwick’s main street and they both serve a burger, so make sure you make it to the Falcon if you want to try this one. You can find it here:  The Falcon, The Street, Rotherwick, Hook, Hampshire, RG27 9BL.

Shoulder of Mutton, Hartley Wintney

Country gastropub vs. London mainstream – a different burger experience.

Burger Source

The Shoulder of Mutton is a classic country pub, upgraded to Gastropub cuisine standard with the accompanying reviews and crowded tables you’d expect of an excellent pub. The burger seemed to feature reasonably prominently on its menu, and I thought – why not, this place has amazing reviews, the burger should be interesting.

And it was interesting, if a completely different experience from the London scene, for a number of reasons which I’ll get into in this review.

It’s also 15 minutes drive from me, so a perfect location for a night out with Amanda; thanks to Sophie for the recommendation.

The order

The ‘home made beef burger’ is billed as: “fresh minced beef infused with our blend of herbs & spices, tomato, lettuce on a grilled bun served with baby leaf salad and hand cut chips.”

The critical point here is the ‘blend of herbs’ – most burgers these days seem to emphasize salt and pepper over all other herbing and spicing, something I don’t tend to argue with. But I was interested in the treatment this pub would give it…

The meat of it

The preparation and the presentation made for an interesting display. The burger sat atop a bed of thick cut, likely double fried (and duly crispy) chunky chips. The soft white roll was warmed (possibly grilled as promised?), making for a soft yet surprisingly capable foil to the 6oz burger patty. The thick cut bacon sat on top of the meat, coated in a thick layer of cheddar which had not simply been melted on but also crisped up under a broiler, giving a good crust and crunch to the cheese, which was unexpected. The burger itself had a good crust, made of coarse ground, loosely packed beef (my fave), with a pink medium-well shade to it (I like them slightly rarer, but it wasn’t bad at all).

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Such a thing as too much cheese?

The meat was relatively lean (which explains why the standard white bun survived) and unadorned by further sauce or relish. For some reason the promised tomato and lettuce wasn’t in there and I didn’t notice at the time so didn’t make a point of it.

The taste? Well, it was definitely herby, which was an interesting change of pace. Tasty; though my palate couldn’t figure out what was involved but I suspect parsley featured centrally (it was scattered liberally around the plate too). The lean meat (or possibly the broiling?) meant the burger wasn’t as juicy as it should have been but it was still pretty tender. The cheese was somewhat overdone, and the bacon could/should have been crisper in my book, but they were all quality ingredients.

The chips were outstanding, though an excessively large portion. The salad was unnecessarily dressed with a thick squirt of salad cream, which should have been applied more sparingly.

The overall impact? Not as good as it should have been. The burger needed pickle or relish, and – for my mind – a different sort of flavouring. The herbs alone make it taste slightly medicinal (or at least, more meatloaf than burger) and the lack of sweetness in relish or salad or pickle within the burger itself made it overwhelming salty – too much cheese and bacon, a phrase I never thought I’d say, much less write. A better fat/lean ratio would have improved the taste of the burger as well.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 3/5
Taste –  3.5/5
Sides – 4/5
Value – 4/5 – £50 for two including pudding and a round of drinks, incl service. Pretty good.

Burger rating – 3.5/5 – It’s really not a bad burger, but the peculiarity of the flavouring and the slightly unsatisfactory toppings mean it’s only maybe something I’d order again. I think maybe the steak next time; the service and atmosphere is outstanding so it’s definitely worth a return visit.

The deets

Whilst the Shoulder of Mutton claims to be part of Hartley Wintney, it’s clearly far closer to Heckfield, just off the A33 between Basingstoke and Reading. Full details: Hazeley Heath, Hartley Wintney, Hook, Hampshire RG27 8NB. Phone: 01189 326 272. Recommend booking – it was busy on a Saturday night.

The Salusbury, Salisbury Road, Queens Park

Gastropub tries to do good burger, doesn’t quite manage it.

Burger Source

If you read my appeal to publicans, you’ll know that I don’t generally review pub burgers. I made an exception for the Salusbury as the pub clearly makes a feature of its ‘aged short rib burger,’ so I thought I’d give it a try.

An independent pub under the same ownership for 15 years, the Salusbury boasts the talents of Andrew Fila, former head chef at the Medcalf, Exmouth Market. The aim to deliver the best food, drink and service. The service is excellent, and I can’t talk to the drink… and the food is generally OK.

But how did they fayre with that pub kryptonite, a genuinely good burger?

The order

Just one burger on the menu, the ‘aged short rib’ burger served with chips. I was asked how I’d like it done and opted for medium, which was a good sign. I was eating with family, who ordered fish and chips, amongst other things, which looked excellent.

The meat of it

This burger should have been good. It was clearly good meat; it was cooked perfectly – look at the cross section shot. But a few crucial things went wrong, sadly.

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The meat was underseasoned; so didn’t taste of much. The toppings didn’t add enough to counter it (not even that substantial pickle), and the (very, very) firm eggwashed roll just added too much chewiness. I abandoned half of it immediately.

The burger wasn’t juicy enough; I put this down to too high a lean/fat ratio. It was slightly too tightly compacted too, despite being coarsely ground, which means it was a dense thing to eat your way through.

This sounds incredibly nitpicky, but the end result was a substantial burger that tasted of very little. Not bad… but not good either. And it’s frustrating because the ingredients were clearly top quality.

The chips, however, were crisp, fluffy and delicious with the provided mayonnaise. Which, to be fair, also helped bring the burger together somewhat , packed as it was with salty goodness.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  1/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 2/5
Taste –  2/5
Sides – 4/5
Value – 1/5. This thing is not worth £14.50.

Burger rating – 2/5 – A few things for the Salusbury to fix; they clearly have the technical skills but some of the core ingredients – in particular the bun and the beef – need some thought.

The deets

If you’re keen to stop by, the Salusbury is near Queen’s Park tube station in North London; 50-52 Salusbury Road, NW6 6NN. I’d have the fish and chips.

White Ferry House, Sutherland Street, Victoria

White Ferry House cheese burger and fries

Well-seasoned, surprisingly juicy, very brioched burger. Soggy fries.

Burger source:

White Ferry House is part of the small pub chain ‘Pub Love,’ which seems to own a few erstwhile independent pubs across London.  As well as an extensive gin menu, it gains admission to the Burger Source staple as it does many of the things I asked of publicans in my recent missive in its ‘Burger Craft’ kitchen, and more. Specifically; fresh, locally sourced beef, fresh burgers handmade daily, course ground, well-seasoned meat etc… but I’m getting ahead of myself. You can be reassured that the burger’s heritage here is of quality.

It’s a regular fixture of my company’s ‘night out’ schedule and always features great, speedy service.

The order

I went for a basic cheeseburger with bacon (and fries), weighing in at about £9.50, which, given its location less than ten minutes’ walk from Victoria station, is pretty remarkable. Skin-on fries came as standard. The menu also features a double burger – the Juicy Bastard – that may be cause for a return visit at some stage.

The meat of it:

The ~5oz, course ground patty is well seasoned and delivered sandwiched between a very melty American cheese, topped with tasty, salty, chewy thick cut bacon, sat on a bed of  wilted salad… all of which is sandwiched in a sweet brioche – which is a good counterbalance to its salt-tastic contents. Like many of its kin at the moment, it’s an ‘add your own sauce’ burger (ketchup helped even out the savoury explosion further), and it was surprisingly juicy, given it was cooked medium well, if not well done.

White Ferry House burger cross section
Look at the melt on that! Surprisingly juicy for a medium well burger.

I’d have to be hunting to criticize, and – as such – I’d probably only be able to improve on this burger with some thought  on the sauce situation. Perhaps some mustard cooked into the beef and/or relish for the burger. But I suppose then it would be a different burger!

The fries, sadly, were undercooked – they look lovely but were a bit greasy and soggy, so were donated to the colleagues I was out with. The overall presentation was a bit flat as – essentially – it was just a burger and chips on a plate. Only so much you can do with that, but it was – at least – a very nice plate.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 4.5/5
Taste –  4/5
Sides – 2/5
Value – 4/5

Burger rating – 4/5 – A very solid burger outing which would probably get a 4.5 overall had it not been for the mediocre fries. Worth a stop.

The deets

The White Ferry House Victoria is to be found at 1a Sutherland Street, London, UK SW1V 4LD. Map etc., here.

An urgent missive to pub landlords and restauranteurs around the UK on the humble burger

Dear publican, restaurant owner / manager / chef,

You’ve doubtless noticed that London, and increasingly the UK in general, has undergone something of a renaissance when it comes to burger fayre. No longer are we satisfied with an overcooked hockey puck of beef, wedged into a floury bap and presented with a bottle of squeezy ketchup by way of condiments. That doesn’t mean we’re all pretentious gits who should order something else (well, maybe it does, but nonetheless); please consider the following attributes of a good burger, easily managed in virtually any kitchen, which will turn your ‘burger’ option from a tedious, seldom-ordered staple to a featured attraction.

After eating burgers at well-thought of pubs and hotels in the area out of curiosity (given I write this blog), I’ve been nothing but disappointed, so felt the need to offer some genuinely well-intentioned advice for chefs to consider. One of these disappointing venues, incidentally, is a five star luxury country hotel and the other is a local pub that boasts a chef who worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant in its kitchen, so these aren’t amateurs. Which makes their burger offers all the more mystifying in their mediocrity.

See what you make of the following:

  • If you freeze your burgers, freeze them well. Wrap them individually, seal them (zip lock if possible, cling film is porous apparently) limit moisture lose through sublimation when they’re awaiting cooking. Otherwise the juiciest burgers will become dry and powdery when you take them out to cook them. It’s perfectly possible to make a delicious juicy medium burger from a frozen patty – cook it slow and finish it fast.
  • If you’re buying your burgers in, get them to do all of the above! If they don’t, switch your burger supplier! I found an excellent supermarket burger recently, am sure they’d be available wholesale nationally.
  • The fat/lean ratio is important. Again, don’t feel the need to use lean meat. 20-25% fat vs 75-80% lean seems to be the magic number. People have to cope with the fact that a burger isn’t the healthiest option on the menu.
  • The grind is important. If you’re making your own burgers, don’t pack them full of finely ground meat and squash them till they hold their shape. Course ground, loosely packed. Makes for a less chewy mouthful and that melt-in-your-mouth experience.
  • Burgers shouldn’t be served well done. You’re not allowed by law to sell them below ‘medium’ so go with that. It’ll add a juiciness quotient that is well worth striving for. If you sous vide, this is easy to do for large groups too – just char them on a hot grill for a quick finish and those vital flavours. Unless you’re going for a different burger style (smash-burgers and sliders have different rules).
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You can see all the things that are wrong with this burger. Dry, overcooked patty. Tightly packed, fine ground mince. The thick cut bacon? Flavourless and insufficiently charred for my liking. Bun? Stale. Sauce? Ketchup on the side.
  • It needs seasoning! At least the salt and pepper, the rest is for fancier burgers, but the ‘natural’ flavour of beef is quite bland so help it out.
  • Think through the sauce. A good condimentary [sic] partner  for your burger may not be the cloying sweetness of ketchup or the sharp bite of mustard. A relish, a mustard fry – lots of easy, great options to plan a burger around.
  • The bun matters. Dry, slightly stale floury baps – won’t do. I’m partial to an egg-washed soft white roll, toasted on the inside only. Has to hold up to juicy beef, and depending on the sweetness of your relish/sauce, you may not want the sweetness of a brioche or demi-brioche (much as they are all the rage, it seems).  The bun/patty ratio is important too – except for,dehydrated frozen burgers (the bad kind) most fresh burgers shrink as they lose moisture, so plan your patty size/bun size accordingly. Unlike the BK ads, meat doesn’t need to overhang the bun (you’ll have a problem with bun structural integrity if you do) but less than 95% bun coverage and you start to have plain bread mouthfuls and that’s not a good thing.
  • Cheese needs to be melted on. Nothing else needs to be said here. A lid and a bit of water work well here without needing to overcook the burger (I witnessed the dirty burger chefs do this, also softening the lettuce and tomato slightly at the same time – a great trick).
  • Everything else is an accessory. But accessories matter! Whether you include a pickle. Raw or cooked onion or caramelized onion. Chicken-skin fries, triple or double cooked. Lettuce or slaw. Just think it through in the context of a plate. Less is definitely more.

I think that’s most things, but if I’ve missed anything, I’m hoping the burger community will help me out in the comments, and I’ll update this post (with attributions). It seems like a lot but… it’s not really! Change your burger supplier and your baker (or at least, your order from the same!) and brief your chef and you’re away.

In a year with Brexit, Trump, terrorist attacks and celebrity deaths, the last thing anyone needs is a mediocre burger to top it all off.