Wahlburgers, James Street, Covent Garden

Including Transformers: The Last Knight, this is the worst thing Mark Wahlberg has ever done

Burger source

Wahlburgers is a chain of growing notoriety. 10 seasons of reality TV, 30+ outlets in the US, a high-profile arrival in Covent Garden and of course – the Wahlberg family – made me curious. And a mixed barrage of reviews (bad from critics, more positive – it seemed – from punters) made me even moreso. Averaging four stars on Tripadvisor and Google Reviews, it surely merited investigation, yes? Not so much, it turns out. But spoilers…

The “fresh Scottish beef” is, apparently, a “signature blend of brisket, short rib and chuck.” Should be good, right? I mean, that’s some tasty cuts right there.

The order

“The brothers each have a favourite,” the menu acclaims. Well, they were all 4oz burgers and we were hungry, so we went for the 1/2 pound “O.F.D” – “Originally from Dorchestah”, featuring a 6oz patty, swiss cheese, bacon, sautéed mushrooms and a ‘housemade tomato jam.’

There were a few of us, so we tried a lot of sides – Mac & Cheese, cola wings, hummus [sic] and tortillas, sweet potato and regular fries, thin and crispy onion rings.

I drank the Wahlbrewski, an American Pale Ale served on tap.

The meat of it

The summary kind of gives it away. This is a terrible, terrible burger. A crime against burgers. Daylight robbery at £12 for the burger alone. Let’s look at it.

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Barely melted swiss cheese. The bun is cold, though inoffensive. The patty is small relative to everything else.

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In cross section: you see mealy, finely ground, tightly packed meat. The pale red tomato jam has a strange consistency. The bacon is flaccid and the mushrooms are an odd inclusion.

First bite. No seasoning. The meat tastes like its from a cow that has been unbundled from mummification prior to butchering and preparation. Dry, tasteless meat is not salvaged my limpid bacon and tasteless cheese. The bun holds up and provides sweetness and body – but that’s about all that’s redeeming about this burger.

Four of us ordered it, and none of us were willing to waste the calories to finish it. Nearly two full burgers’ worth of detritus went back. In my few years of burger reviewing, this is the first time I refused to finish the meal.

The waitstaff were extremely courteous and apologetic. They tried to explain away our dislike for the burger. “I don’t like Swiss cheese either….” The cheese was a small part of the problem. “Our meat blend is very unusual, a lot of people won’t love it, it’s the brisket…” The meat blend, in theory, is fine. Brisket is a little unusual and would have reduced the overall fat content, but shouldn’t have dried it out completely. “Try our double burger, you’ll love it.” We declined to buy any more of the horrific burgers, but in an attempt to win us round the manager brought one anyway, on the house, split five ways for us to try.

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It was marginally better, in the way that a slap to the face is better than a gutpunch. i.e. Both terrible. In practical terms, a more substantial, Big-Mac-esque burger sauce, and a more melty cheese added moisture and umami. But the meat was the same rubbery, leathery awfulness we’d experienced previously.

My first ever nul points. I would not eat this burger again if you paid me its price. Misters Wahlberg, you should be ASHAMED, to lend your family name to this horror, this caloric vacuum of flavour, this insult to burgers, to cows, to your customers.

A rapid fire set of reviews for the sides:

  • The tortilla/hummus [sic] combo was fine but uninspired. You could have been eating Doritos and Tesco houmous.
  • The Mac & Cheese – was flagrant misrepresentation in that it was neither mac nor cheese, but rather standard penne in a mild, garlicky white sauce. Most of this went uneaten.
  • The cola wings – were great. Really crisp, sweet with a hint of heat, juicy meat that fell off the bone. A highlight.
  • The fries and sweet potato fries – were fine. Well cooked, lightly seasoned, good structure and body though not really notable.
  • The fried pickles – were well fried and tasted ok – but the pickle flavour was very light. The slices are too thin and the pickles too weak to hold up to the batter and deep frying.
  • The thin and crispy onion rings – were extremely moreish. Heavily seasoned, they were salty, sweet, crispy and delicious.

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The Wahlbrewski – a light, refreshing, citrusy American Pale Ale – was really nice (to my craft-beer loving palate). A strong partnership with an American brewery, a sweetness takes the edge off the bitterness of the ale, and its light and well carbonated. A good partner for the food, such it was.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 2/5
Build – 2/5
Burger – 0/5
Taste – 0/5
Sides – 3/5 – the onion rings would get 5 on their own, the wings 4, the fries 3.5.
Value – 1/5 – £30 for burger, sides, drink and shared starters for food of this quality in that environment was just too much

Burger rating – 0/5 – all the points Wahlburgers gets – for the service, for the sides, for the beer – it loses to the appalling travesty it claims is a burger.

The deets

Please don’t go there for the burgers. But it’s opposite Covent Garden tube if you want a quiet American Pale Ale and a basket of onion rings, brilliant service and a brightly-lit fast food environment. And I’d definitely recommend it for that.

The Beagle, Barlow Moor Road, Manchester

Very serviceable Mancs Deliveroo burger, with decent skin on chips and craft beer

Burger source

The Beagle seems to be one of that new breed of gastropub; handmade burgers, an excellent craft beer selection, burritos and more.

The menu is relatively low fuss; no indication of the heritage of the burgers or any such stuff; no hand-fed cows on the salt-marshes of Northern Ireland or anything. Picking the order off Deliveroo, you’d be hard pressed (but for the booze selection, and the absence of kebabs) to identify the difference between this place and a kebab shop that also did burgers.

But the ratings were high (90%+) and I thought it’d be nice to have a Northern burger whilst visiting Manchester, so I did. Looking up the website of the pub, it’s clearly the kind of craft burger/beer hipster hangout I love, so next time – who knows – maybe I’ll make it in. But this time I was housebound with the kids, so ’twas not to be.

The order

I went relatively simple – the Maple Bacon Burger, a 6oz patty, chipotle mayo, crispy streaky maple cured bacon, and cheese, on a brioche bun. With salad and skin-on chips.

I had them deliver a craft beer too – a High Wire Grapefruit (Grapefruit Pale Ale is apparently a thing).

The meat of it

The stack is messy; a huge slice of tomato and salad coated in copious chipotle mayo, bacon and burger both spilling out of the side of the apparently undersized brioche, and the burger blackened and flattened to the point I imagined I might need to skip the review – so mediocre was it likely to be.

But looks can be deceiving. Whilst the stack was indeed messy, delivery may account for some of the sliding, and the cross section reveals a coarse ground patty that has decent amount of pink visible. The bacon cuts with an audible snap when I prepped for the cross section shot, which adds drama and excitement – bacon was made to be fried crisp, IMHO.

On first taste, I’m confused. There’s salt from the extremely melty cheese and the bacon, adding to the bite of the burger (simple salt/pepper seasoning on that, and not too much of it). The sweet hint in the bacon couples with the sweet salad and sweet brioche and is countered by the mild but obvious heat from the – very flavourful – chipotle mayo. Of which there is slightly too much, but which adds more than it detracts.

The bun starts to fall apart in my hands as I eat; though the burger lacks real juiciness, the mayonnaise and salad is taking its toll on even the egg-and-sugar enriched bun. The combination is certainly more than the sum of its parts, though; a good bite to the meat, a crisp, salty, gooey texture from the cheese and bacon, the sweetness from the bun and salad and the texture and heat added by the mayo gel extremely effectively, even after being in a takeaway box for 10 minutes. The pros outweigh the cons (slightly overdone, dry meat, slight under seasoning, messy stack, inadequate bun), and the overall experience was very satisfying.

The fries; held up very well. Medium-cut, skin on chips, these taste of real potato, are crisp without being greasy, and are well-seasoned without being salty. Even without ketchup they are enjoyable, which is a good sign.

The beer; I will not attempt to review too comprehensively. My taste in beer is unusual; I favour sweeter drinks with a hint of beeriness and prior to the current craft beer renaissance we seem to be going through, I’d only ever order a beer if there was Hoegarden on tap. This beer is the lovechild of a fairly standard craft IPA (think: Beavertown Neck Oil) and a can of Lilt. It’s not overtly sugary but the hint of sweetness cuts back the bitterness of the IPA to leave a very smooth overall experience. The Grapefruit flavour isn’t overly chemical. I’d have it again, but I suspect most real beer lovers wouldn’t.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 3.5/5

Build – 3/5

Burger – 3.5/5

Taste – 4/5

Sides – 4/5

Value – 4/5 – £10 for burger and side, plus £5 for the beer (!!) with 10% off the lot.

Burger rating – 4/5 – really a very good experience overall

The deets

You can find the Beagle on Deliveroo, or at 458 Barlow Moor Road, Manchester, M20 0BQ. The pub’s website is here.

Thirsty Bear, Stamford Street, London

Exceptional pub fayre

Burger source

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The Thirsty Bear positions itself as the “pub revolutionised” and in many ways it is. iPads adorn many of the tables, which also have beer taps attached, allowing you to order (and pour!) your drinks at the table, get food sent to you, call a waiter for help and so on. It’s a small but effective gimmick, cutting down queue/wait time and certainly makes things work differently.

The burgers are the staple of the pub’s American-themed menu, which also features wings, ribs, slaws, soft tacos and beyond. All we know is about the burger origins is that  “All burgers are a whopping 6oz of prime rib-eye, fillet and sirloin patty.”

The order

I ordered a ‘BBQ bacon’, and colleagues had various eccentric variations; one featuring pulled pork, one peanut butter. The BBQ bacon featured 6 oz beef patty, crispy smoked bacon, Monterey jack, lettuce, tomato, red onion, BBQ glaze, bun. Side of Cajun fries, and we had some wings and ribs too.

The meat of it

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Appearances can be confusing. In the darkness of the pub, what was clear was that this burger appeared to have a rather flaccid bun; there was ample (perhaps excessive) salad poking around the side. The burger was topped with thin-mandolined pickled cucumber. BBQ sauce was dripping around the bun. The cheese had an excellent melt and was glooping around the side. A stray red onion loop makes its presence felt.

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The cross section reveals a fine grind, densely packed. Not sure how this is going to go.

Then the first bite. The crunch from the uber-crispy bacon reports like a rifle shot. The taste is instant; the salt and crunch of the bacon; the slight resistance from the well-charred burger exterior. The juicy drip of its interior – drier than it could have been, but better than many. A smokiness and sweetness, from the meat and the BBQ sauce, peels through each mouthful. There’s a light bonus crispness and sweetness from the salad; tomato and onion, mild lettuce, perfect pickle. The meat blend makes every mouthful tasty, despite the fact that the burger is a little too dense and too chewy, and the lettuce portion is unnecessarily generous…  the overall impression is one of lush, well balanced flavour. This is an excellent pub burger.

Sides were fun: the Cajun fries (and the regular, and sweet potato fries colleagues ordered) were truly excellent. Crisp and well seasoned on the outside, squidgy in the middle, without being unduly salty. Cajun seasoning adds a (very) mild spice flavour.

We also tried some buffalo wings and ribs. The ribs were dry and tougher than they should have been; the sauce a little meanly applied though not without flavour. Overall, a solid meh. The wings, on the other hand, had a good crunch, decent heat coming through the hot sauce, and only a smidge too little sauce. The meat was juicy and not overdone. Definitely moreish, though, and recommended.

The colleagues I was eating with enjoyed theirs as much as I did mine, so verdict verified.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5 – soft but surprisingly sturdy
Build – 4/5 – may not look like much but really very well contained
Burger – 3.5/5 – could have been a shade or two rarer without hurting anyone
Taste –  4/5 – very solid flavour, if a little dense and less juicy than it could have been
Sides – 4/5 – excellent fries, good wings, middling ribs
Value – 4/5 – £12 for burger and side, ish. Plus £5.50 for a pint, and £12 to share a jumbo starter.

Burger rating – 4/5 – really very good overall.

The deets

Just off Southwark Street, about 8 minutes down the road from Waterloo Station. Worth the diversion for supper and a pint. Limited Vegan options available.

Harvest, Brattle Street, Harvard, Boston

A beautiful burger that doesn’t quite live up to appearances

Burger source

I was in Boston for work and my brother happened to be in town to launch the phenomenal Jagged Little Pill musical at the American Repertory Theater. So, we met beforehand and shared a burger and a lobster roll at this popular eatery in the centre of the Harvard campus.

The order

Arvind had the lobster roll; I took on the menu’s sole burger, served with skin on hand cut fries; gratifyingly I was given the option of having it cooked medium, which I took. We shared a cold-cuts and cheese platter to begin with, and a deconstructed Boston cream pie for pudding. Seeing as it was my first trip to Boston, and I was being a tourist, I also had a Sam Adams.

The meat of it

As you can see from the photo, the presentation of this burger is glorious; it’s a perfect stack, a glorious melt on the cheese, fresh, bright salad in call caught between a perfect, lightly seeded roll – I think a non-enriched potato roll rather than a brioche.

The cross section promises even more; the meat’s a perfect pink the whole way through, no graying at the edges and what looks like a decent char on the meat. The grind is coarse and its juicy without soaking the bun. So far, so brilliant. Pickle on the side, tomato, onion and lettuce leaves piled on top of the cheese.

And then the taste; this is where it lets itself down a bit. It’s every bit as juicy as it looks, but the char isn’t quite there so the whole impact is a little soft; in essence, not the best mouthfeel. This could have been addressed with some crispy bacon, or a slightly hotter griddle and a little more seasoning. The meat was good but with this finish they should probably mix up their meat blend – it tasted a little bland; wonder if they overdid the chuck and could have done with some rump in there. But I’m a meat blend amateur here, so could easily be wrong. The salad was as fresh and crisp as it looked; the cheese was a little gungey and bland, and the roll, whilst sturdy, did little to balance out the burger. A brioche might actually have helped with sweet/savoury contrast, as might some burger relish (ketchup is a necessary condiment here). Net impact: it’s tasty but not interesting, sadly. Which is a real shame as so many elements were done really well.

The fries – were slightly limp. They would have benefited from a second, or third, fry. That said, these are high grade potatoes, the seasoning was great, and they tasted good. The portion was the size of my head so they remained largely unfinished.

The cold cuts and cheese were delicious – sorry I didn’t grab a pic. We had a triple-cream soft cheese, like a soft extra salty brie, served with small whole meal toast triangles, prosciutto di parma, cornichons and a sort of beetroot puree. $12 well spent between us.

The Boston Cream pie was really nice, but I have no frame of reference. I understand it’s normally a traditional sponge with cream and chocolate sauce; this deconstructed variant makes me really want to have the original; soft, airy sponge, thick sweet butter frosting/icing, crunchy chocolate pieces and sweet chocolate sauce – what’s not to like?

Sam Adams – is a solid American lager, and tastes exactly the same as it does when you get it on import in the UK. I, worryingly, seem to be acquiring a taste for interesting lagers these days.

I traded a bit of burger with Arvind for a bit of his lobster roll – I’m not a huge lobster roll fan, as find the flavour of the lobster to be too rich for my liking. But you could tell this was special; the bread is a heavily buttered and crisp brioche, kind of like a luxury grilled cheese texture; the lobster was fresh and utterly free of the fishy flakiness you get when you’re not in the lobster roll capital of the world. There was, if anything, too much lobster for the roll!

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 4/5

Build – 5/5

Burger – 3.5/5

Taste – 3.5/5

Sides – 4.5/5

Value – ??/5 – A friend picked up the tab but the pricing looked reasonable, even allowing for the ludicrous 20% service that’s more or less standard in the US. $16 for the burger and fries.

Burger rating – 3.5/5 – It’s good, but not great. I think if I asked for it medium well and with bacon, it’d probably jump up quite a bit – and perhaps even more if I switched the cheese. So try that if you go!

The deets

It’s just off Brattle, a five minute walk from the Harvard metro station, near the American Repertory theater. If you’re in the area, I would definitely recommend it — good food, a lovely buzz (though it was graduation week so everything was busy!) and all the food looked great. Portions are big – bring your appetite. Website here for more info.

Cut & Grind Burgers, York Way, London Kings Cross

Fine crust, amazing meat, disciplined construction – one of the best burgers in London

Disclaimer: I was invited to a meat grinding ‘masterclass’ as a blogger. My food and drink for the evening was comped.

Burger source

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Pas Loucaides strikes you as an obsessive. In a good way; the passion with which the man has pursued excellence in his burgers is clear in everything he has to say about them. From the choice of cuts that make up the burger blend, to the 4mm  drilled plate he uses in the meat grinder proudly displayed in a cabinet at the centre of his open, airy restaurant in the rapidly redeveloping Kings X neighbourhood, to the passion with which he speaks of C&G’s ‘home made’ ketchup.

Other details are evident in conversation; he’s friends with James George of the butchers Turner and George, who supply C&G’s meat (and Hawksmoor’s, Richard Turner’s restaurant); he makes his pickles in house, once a week; he’s bought in a ludicrously expensive, very hot griddle pan to ensure a good sear on the meat; he’s got a special method of treating the meat so that he can cook his burgers medium rare if customers so desire; he double grinds meat if it’s too lean and needs a finer texture. He even hangs the meat used in the daily grind up on display in the centre of the restaurant. For such a burger fan as me, it was truly an enjoyable experience to meet a like-minded soul (as well as some of the other bloggers and ‘influencers’ in attendance).

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The meat cuts and blend varies each day; today it was a mix of dry-aged rib cap (fatty), chuck (substance) and rump (prime flavour). I even got to grind the chuck myself – surprisingly satisfying! We tried mini patties of each individual cut before we got to the burger, from the unctuousness of the rib cap (my fave) to the prime flavour of the rump to the beautiful textured filler of the chuck. He mixes them using an expert eye for the proportions, aiming for a 70% lean/ 30% fat ratio, prior to simple seasoning (salt and pepper) and a sear on the griddle pan. A lid over the burgers on the griddle helps melt any cheese toppings on and a temperature probe checks they hit the magic medium mark.

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The order

My friend Matt was my plus one for the influencer event, and we each ordered differently and agreed to share. Matt had the rotating special – today, a dry-aged rump burger topped with truffle mayonnaise, crispy fried shallots and that’s about it. Mine was the ‘House’ – a bacon burger with ‘bearnaise’ with added capers and pickle – basically a posh burger sauce, by Pas’ own admission – to which I somewhat unnecessarily added cheddar cheese. The burgers come on a demi-brioche bun, with a side of truffle fries, and were served medium.

The meat of it

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I tried the special first. The dry aged rib is rich, but without the funk you sometimes get with aged meat. It’s incredibly soft and juicy – slightly too soft, texturally, for my liking, perhaps due to the coarse ground/loose pack, perhaps due to losing structural integrity under a weight of truffle mayo. The richness of the truffle mayo is somewhat overwhelming, but if you like truffles, you’ll love it. The crispy shallots provide a delightful crunch in the messyness of this burger, a lovely bit of balance in savouriness too, against the sweet notes of the beef and the demi-brioche bun, which holds up well to the burger. A very good combination, if not to entirely to my personal tastes.

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The house, though, was something else. The bearnaise-burger sauce is used more sparingly than the truffle mayo, and is under the burger so is a more subtle influence. The cheese is beautifully melted on and a blackened (but not burned), crisp, thick slice of dry-aged bacon sits atop a heavily charred patty. Fresh, sweet, crisp salad is there in the right proportions and the burger oozes flavour, whilst holding a better texture than the rump special did. The sweet tomato slice – normally something I dispose of – provided a nice sweet contrast to the extreme seasoned crust of the juicy patty, the bacon added crisp chew and the cheese a further umami glue. The burger sauce was somewhat lost – I debated moving it to the top of the burger with Pas – but the sweet, home-made pickles were in evidence. They’re an interesting contrast to normal pickles; sweeter and less crunchy, with less of the trademark vinegar tang – but interesting for that. On balance, I probably prefer a more conventional gherkin, but I’m nitpicking here…

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Special on the left, House on the right

This is a very, very special burger indeed. Pas will tell you that he prefers it ‘bare’ – no bearnaise-burger-sauce, no mayo, no cheese, – burger, pickle and salad alone. And having had it, it’s easy to see why: the beef really is the star of this show.

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The fries? Pas tells me he drew some inspiration from the Honest Burger rosemary fries – his are thicker cut, crispier, but still cut from chosen potatoes in-store and fried to a remarkable finish. If I’m honest, I was a little wiped out by all the meat so I had just a few fries on the side. The crunch is good but they could be fluffier on the inside; the ‘truffle oil’ is indistinct next to the  truffle mayo in the special burger but that’s just as well for me. They are well seasoned and tasty.

The home-made ketchup, I hear you ask? Whilst it’s texturally perfect – less chemically oozing than a bottle of Heinz, fresh and pungent – it is a little sickly to my taste. Between the pickles and the ketchup, Pas clearly has a sweet tooth!

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Pas kindly brought a couple of paired beers for us to try – I’m not a huge beer fan and the bitterness of the Belgian blonde followed by the tartness of the sour-cherry beer were not to my taste, but they did complement the burger surprisingly well – you can’t fault the man’s palate at all.

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Nothing remained

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4.5/5
Build – 5/5
Burger – 5/5
Taste –  4.5/5
Sides – 4/5
Value – 5/5 – £10 for burger and side, ish. Affordable wine, beer and beyond adorns the menu too.

Burger rating – 5/5 – whilst there were imperfections, they are in the upper realms of subjective. Every burger lover knows that the perfect burger is unattainable; the journey is where the joy is. Well, a journey to Cut & Grind will bring you much joy. And it is easily one of the best journeys you can make in London.

The deets

About 10 minutes’ walk from King’s Cross, this place is a destination filled with delight. Go, eat, drink and be merry. And Tell Pas I said hi.

Beef & Brew, 323 Kentish Town Road

OK burger, interesting sides.

Burger source

Beef and Brew tells you little about itself on its website (in fact, the site was down when I visited, though it has since returned). But the concept is simple; a small, cosy North London eatery featuring copious amounts of meats and beer. The burger lacks ceremony in its description but is unusual in that it is served with bearnaise rather than cheese, but also with bacon.

The order

The only burger on the menu, without the optional cheese. I was curious about the bearnaise. Sides-wise, we went for wedges and gnocchi to share. I had an old fashioned to drink, give as I’m not a beer-fan.

The meat of it

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The burgers are bought-in, not ground on site, so arrive medium well. Which is a shame, as the well-constructed burger carries a decent complement of savoury-ness, a good bite, a well-balanced ratio of meat/bread/cheese. That said, it is slightly dry (a medium rare finish might have helped that), and the fat ratio was perhaps a little light.

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The bearnaise added savouriness but not as much moisture as you’d expect, and the layer of salad was fresh and crisp. The bun was too sturdy for a dry burger and lent a bit more starchiness to it all than I’d like. The meat was good but perhaps slightly too lightly seasoned for my liking (go to TOWN with that salt and pepper, y’all); wherever they bought the burgers in from, freshness/fat ratio notwithstanding, knows their meat; it had a richness to the flavour that’s common with dry-aged beef. The tomato jam provides the right amount of sweet contrast to the rest of the burger.

The overall impression is solid, if not extraordinary. Room to improve!

The sides… whilst I’m not a huge fan of wedges (give me fries any day), the creamy potato-ness of these, coupled with a crisp exterior and healthy seasoning, makes them a worthwhile order. The Gnocchi, however, was extraordinary – like the richest, smoothest Mac & Cheese you’ll ever have, but with a delightfully substantial bite to it. And I don’t even particularly like Mac & cheese, generally finding it a bland and bloaty accompiment to my favourite meat fests, so the fact I liked this is saying something.

The Old Fashioned was well constructed – the right balance of sweetness to bourbon with a zesty citrus finish and a hint of bitters.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  3/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 3.5/5
Taste –  4/5
Sides – 4/5 – the gnocchi is good
Value – 3.5/5 – £25 for burger and sides, including the cocktail. Even without the drink, the cost of the sides – £3.50 for wedges and £5 for the gnocchi seems a little steep.

Burger rating – 4/5 – I considered knocking it down a half point more for the low ‘value’ score, but the truth is, it’s a nice place to sit and it’s a burger I’d have again, so kudos to you, Beef & Brew.

The deets

Head left out of Kentish Town tube, and it’s across the road, a few tens of metres away. You can’t miss it. We didn’t book (it was a Monday night) but it’s probably a good idea to do so, via the website or on 020 7998 1511.