Yen Burger, London Bridge

A breathtaking burger experience

Burger source

Unlike many of the burgers I review here, discovered from word of mouth buzz or from other peoples’ top ten lists (or very occasionally, because I was pitched it by their PR folk), Yen Burger is a place that I just spotted, a short walk from my office, on the way to London Bridge. I was initially put off – Japan-spiced burger? What fresh hell of fascist-fusion cuisine was this? But a colleague was braver than I and passed on the recommendation when I was looking for a new local place to check out.

And so André and I decided to give it a go.

The burger’s origins start in the mind of food entrepreneur Yen Nguyen, who, apparently after success elsewhere in Germany and the UK (a Google search reveals little about her other than her association with Yen Burger), decided that the gap in London’s thriving burger scene was the Japanese twist. And so, Yen Burger was born.

Here’s the official spiel, from the website:

This brand new concept will offer premium Asian-influenced burgers. Starting with the ‘Yen Burger’ which features a 100% wagyu beef patty, fresh pickles, smoked turkey bacon, cheese and shiso leaf, it’s the ultimate fusion burger and a great introduction to Yen’s offerings. Other options include ‘The Finest Chick’ which combines coconut panko chicken breast and homemade slaw with the reviving shiso leaf and a zingy mango sauce…. Each burger is fresh made in-house from the highest quality Aberdeen Black Angus or Wagyu beef, 100% sustainable cod or vegetable alternatives.

The order

I went for the eponymous Yen Burger. 6oz of Wagyu beef, pickles, lettuce, red onion, ‘Yen sauce’, turkey bacon and shiso leaf. I don’t even know what a couple of those ingredients are, but I was excited.

We had ‘Dashi chips’ on the side (dusted with Paprika seasoning) and some chicken Gyoza because, why not?

The meat of it

Let’s take a moment to admire this.

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Ok, so it’s maybe not the most beautiful burger you’ve ever seen at this point. But let’s admire the components. Thick cut pickles. Coarse, crusty burger patty. Bright, fresh shiso and onion. Perfectly melted cheese. And this soft, white, unsweetened bun, inviting you in.

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In cross section, it becomes more special. The Yen sauce provides a sensuous coating. The meat is coarse ground, loosely packed and cooked to a perfect medium. The turkey bacon is there – subtle, but present. I coudn’t wait to taste this burger.

And OH. I was NOT disappointed. The Wagyu is so utterly, amazingly delicate it practically melts in your mouth. But not before you hit the crunch of the perfectly seasoned outer crust; the soft, plain bread providing structure but not flavour, complimenting the sweet/salty contrast of crust and rich, pink burger inner. The Yen sauce lubricates, a sweet/savoury glue. The cheese adds further umami, subtly, whilst the hint of smoke and crispiness is added by the turkey bacon; less powerful than the traditional pork variants. Additional sharp sweetness from the delicious pickles and crunch from the red onion. WOW. I had to slow myself down – I wanted to devour this and order another.

The Asian ‘spices’ – subtle. A hint of something of Japan in the background of the flavour profile. Nothing overt or tacky – this is a traditional burger with Japanese accents. Cooked to perfection, in perfect harmony with itself. Outstanding.

The dashi fries need comment. They look good, right? But seasoned fries can go wrong, I hear you say. They can be overwhelmingly flavoured and over-salted.

No, say I. Not in this case. The paprika seasoning adds flavour, sure, and these are well salted fries. But the exceptional richness of the potato flavour was unexpected – these are tasty fries – as is the perfect crisp exterior, and the soft, lush, fluffy interior. In absolutely perfect balance. Not a hint of greasiness, light, crisp and delicious. And, when the salt got a little much, Heinz came to the rescue.

The only dish that mildly disappointed was the chicken gyoza. Over-greasy from the fryer, the minced chicken within was dry and lacking in flavour. The soy sauce was strong and the balance felt out. Perhaps it was an indulgence too far.

Overall, an utterly extraordinary and unexpected experience. André reported that the Asian spiced burger was also excellent, and the £15 a head tab felt like good value for the feast (we shared Gyoza and fries between us).

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 5/5
Build – 4.5/5 – looked messy but flawless
Burger – 5/5
Taste – 5/5
Sides – 4.5/5 – docking half a point for the gyoza, but the fries were perfect
Value – 5/5 – £15 for burger and side, ish.

Burger rating – 5/5 – absolutely one of the best burgers (and fries) I’ve ever had. Would return without hesitation.

The deets

At the start of Southwark Street, just by London Bridge, you’ll find this nestled to other burger joints; Honest Burgers and Breakfast Club, as well as Borough Market’s own Roast to Go. All are within a potato’s throw of here.

But go here. In the words of Keanu Reeves, it’s breathtaking.

Fuel Shack, Food Court, Suria KLCC, Malaysia

A high quality burger that is still somehow reminiscent for the Ramly burger tradition

Burger source

The founders of Fuel Shack write in their story of their determination to end the binary choice faced by Malaysian diners – of mass-market, low-quality, chain fast-food, vs., pretentious, expensive, upmarket high end burgers beyond the reach of most people. They wanted, they said, to end this with the introduction of accessible but high quality burgers served in a setting anyone could access. KLCC may be an expensive mall, but anyone can eat at the food court on level six, and anyone can get there easily enough.

The question: have they succeeded?

The order

I had the standard classic cheeseburger. Salad, mayo, 1/3rd lb grass-fed Australian beef patty, American cheese and a standard bun, with fries. RM16.80 or thereabouts for the privilege, with a drink. Or about £3. Certainly accessible by the standards of Malaysian high-end fast food, though a little more pricey than your Maccy D’s.

The meat of it

Whilst superficially this is good presentation, I have a few notes for fuel shack.

  1. Salad goes under the burger. It’s got to protect the bun from the meat juices.
  2. Cheese needs to be melted in. That slice of American cheese is practically solid.
  3. Easy on the mayo. More on this shortly

That said…

None of this hurts the burger too much. There’s a lovely crust from a hot griddle that gives a nice bite to the burger; the bun is soft but holds up well. There’s a saltiness from the cheese and an umami from the seasoning that reminds me – distantly, but in a good way – of the cheap (horrific) roadside Ramly burgers you get all over the country.

The cross section makes most of this clearer.

The interior of the burger is overcooked, but it’s not bad in spite of this – the meat is high quality and coarse ground, if somewhat compacted. The copious amounts of mayonnaise is applied with a kind of playdough applicator – with dozens of holes. There’s probably two full tablespoons of mayo in a single burger. Which is a lot. But it provides fake juiciness for the slightly overdone meat. The sweet/savoury balance isn’t bad, though the mayo overwhelms at times and I added a little ketchup to take the edge off. All in all, I’d say that Fuel Shack achieves its mission – this is a good burger at a reasonable price, distinct from fast-food, mainstream offerings as well as the high end offer, yet somehow something new in its own right.

As to the fries?

More or less unremarkable. Well seasoned, they cool quickly in the air conditioned environment and quickly achieve cardboard texture. That said, there’s a distinct potato flavour in there and they’re served in a sensible portion that doesn’t overwhelm. Crisp and tasty when hot, in a more potatoey- McD’s style. Completely adequate.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 4/5
Build – 2/5
Burger – 3.5/5
Taste – 3.5/5
Sides – 3/5
Value – 4/5 – £3 for burger and side, ish, is value even in local terms for what it is

Burger rating – 3.5/5 – would go again and make some customisation requests – less mayo, less overdone meat, meltier cheese, salad underneath.

The deets

There’s an outlet on the sixth floor of KLCC, in the Food Court. There may be others… check the website.

Chillis, Bangsar Shopping Centre, KL, Malaysia

Surprisingly good, albeit messy and flawed

Burger source

Truly, we’d meant to go to Dome. At least it was semi-authentically Malaysian, rather than a local branch of the global Texan chain. But it was a Sunday evening and they were out of everything, and we wanted to go somewhere quick where our egg-allergic three year old would be able to get something she’d eat, like a hot dog. So Chillis it was.

Founded in 1975 as a casual dining, Tex-Mex themed restaurant, this place is all Americana – oversized burgers, quesadillas, hot dogs and the rest. They don’t have a presence in the UK but there are 1,500 of them around the world, including a plethora in KL and PJ.

The order

I had the Ultimate (Beef) Bacon Burger, because it’s Malaysia and they don’t serve pork in mass market casual dining restaurants in major malls for fear of alienating the majority Muslim population.

Here’s what’s in it: Double beef bacon, aged cheddar cheese, pickles, leaf lettuce, red onions, tomato, jalapeños aioli, spicy Buffalo wing sauce & Honey-Chipotle sauce.

The meat of it

Pleasingly, and somewhat unexpectedly, my waiter asked me how I’d like it done. I opted for medium, suspecting that it’d be somewhat overdone.

You can see what it looked like on arrival, and expectations were low.

There’s a curious light brown colour that looks washed out around the edges of the oversized burger (guessing 8oz). The beef bacon is heavily loaded; there’s nothing aged looking about the cheddar (it’s basically American cheese, though that’s no bad thing). The sauce is everywhere and it looks like it’s going to be MESSY.

On cross section, I’m more hopeful. The meat’s actually pink. The salad is well layered, protecting the bun. The bacon is well proportioned. The bun has a useful density to it holding it together. And most of the mess was slightly overzealous application of sauce; the fat ratio isn’t out of control.

Onto the tasting…

It’s actually not bad. Whilst the pickles are awful and have to be picked out (you can see their unhealthy faded green colour in the first picture – there are some on the side as well as some embedded in the burger), the burger itself is extremely juicy and reasonably well cooked. The crust isn’t as crisp as I’d like it to be, but with a burger this thick an over hot grill would probably result in a raw centre. The seasoning is good but not excessive and the cheese – whilst under melted – has a decent saltiness to it.

The beef bacon is disappointing in the way beef bacon always is, in that it’s not actual bacon so isn’t crisp, is overchewy, and flaps around in oversized bits when you’re trying to eat this enormous monstrosity of a burger. BUT it’s actually well seasoned and adds to the overall flavour.

The sauce is confused, but again this works in favour of the overall experience. All the umami from burger, bacon and cheese is evened out by the brioche bun and a BBQ-esque sauce. The confusion is because clearly the ‘honey-chipotle’ sauce combined with the ‘buffalo sauce’ somehow evens out as generic sweet BBQ sauce without a momentary hint of actual spice-induced heat. Not bad, just not quite what was advertised.

So, whilst it wasn’t what was billed, the overall experience was OK, if messy. The burger, cheese and bacon contrasted well with the bun and sauce, the patty itself is coarse ground, loose packed and well seasoned, and the combination more or less works. The primary failing, other than just being about 30% too big, was the lack of textural contrast within the burger – it’s all a bit mushy. The absence of real bacon, the soft crust on the meat, the horrific pickles, means that the overall experience is a bit like eating a large mush-burger. And the fact it slides all over the place meant I gave up and ate the second half with cutlery.

As to the sides, it comes with seasoned fries:

You don’t need many of these, the burger’s so large. But they’re not bad; thicker than your McD’s fry, there’s a little real potato heft to them. The dusting of salt, pepper and a little paprika (if I’m not mistaken) makes them taste interesting, with or without ketchup. There’s a reasonable crispness to them, though not quite as much as you might guess from the picture. No greasiness, no sogginess.

All in all, a pleasant surprise.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 4/5

Build – 2/5 – slippery beastt

Burger – 3/5

Taste – 3.5/5

Sides – 4/5 – I would have enjoyed these if I’d had enough appetite for them after the burger

Value – 4/5 – It’s hard to gauge if RM32.50 for the burger and fries is good value in a country where you can get a full meal in another kind of restaurant for RM5 or less, but relative to British standards, at about £6 (plus kids eat free), this is pretty good value.

Burger rating – 3/5 – I’m not itching to go back, but that’s mainly the cholesterol. The burger wasn’t bad. Amanda’s mushroom burger was apparently good too.

The deets

These restaurants are all over the place. Find your nearest (in Malaysia) on the local website here.

Prairie Fire BBQ, Mercato Metropolitano, Elephant & Castle, London

Excellent, messy, juicy double patty smash burger

Burger source

Mercato Metropolitano London is a sustainable community market; in practical terms, this means it’s a massive half in/half outdoor food court, filled with a myriad of wonderful food stalls including at least three places that serve burgers. And none of the cutlery is single use plastic, hurrah!

Prairie Fire BBQ serves ‘Kansas style BBQ’  founded in 2013 by American Expat in London Michael Gratz; his job titles include ‘founder’, ‘chef’, and ‘Pit Master.’ The philosophy is Kansas style, sauce heavy, smoked meat, or in their own words: the “…slow smoked, sauce heavy Kansas City Style is the apex of the ancient art of cooking with wood. The rub, the char, the smoke ring, the tenderness, the umami, the sauce, the smile and well used napkin define Prairie Fire and the future of European BBQ.”

The order

I have had the PFQ, their signature burger, which is: “two seasoned chuck & rib tip steak patties smashed into diced onion on flattop. Served with melty American cheese, crisp lettuce, tomato, onion & BBQ aioli.”

I had seasoned fries on the side.

The meat of it

The Mercato eating environment is a lot of fun. Noisy, half indoors, half outdoors, all smell, sounds and raucous laughter.

Food is served in paper baskets; the ordering system ‘texted’ me to collect the prepared food hot off the grill and fryer.

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It’s hard to photograph, but there was nothing bad about the appearance. That said, the incredible amounts of sauce meant it was a slippery burger, whilst perfectly stacked, had this been on a plate it would probably have collapsed in moments.

The pickle, to the side, was crisp, sweet and fresh. Very mild on vinegar, it’s a palate cleanser for the main meal.

In cross section…

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Here’s where you can see the structural limitations of the burger; the sauce is so heavy that the burger is slipping apart even as I hold it up for its glamour shot.

That said… looks aren’t everything, and on first bite you get an immediate understanding of the splendour of this burger.

The patties are thin and crisp – 2.5-3oz each, at a guess, the patty smash on a hot (though not the hottest) plate lets them char in their own fat, developing a wonderful texture and flavour – though I didn’t notice the onions they’d apparently been cooked in. Cheese is melted in on the grill, though it’s hard to detect under the BBQ aioli. The salad, too, is somewhat token, lost in the sauce. But none of this is a bad thing.

The incredible umami of the burger, with a faint hint of dry-aged, quality beef funk, is complemented perfectly by the runny sweet aioli, a mild peppery heat, and something like the memory of cheese. The salad is present but provides little more than textural background noise. The bun is soft and pliant, with a lovely crumb but thankfully little sweetness.

It’s pretty glorious, if messy, in all. My only criticism, and it’s a marginal one, is that a hotter grill would have provided even more crunch to the patties (which would have been welcome), and the aioli was just fractionally too heavily laid on.

The fries are ‘seasoned’ fries – a sweet smoked paprika, basically, heavily dusted over salted, thin cut fries. There’s nothing bad about these, though nothing exceptional either; thicker cut potatoes might have provided more natural potato flavour but it wasn’t necessary. The additional BBQ aioli they are served with was possibly a perfect condiment in the context of the meal.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5
Build – 3/5
Burger – 4/5
Taste –  4/5
Sides – 4/5
Value – 3.5/5 – £12.50 for burger and side – felt a bit toppy in a food market setting, but everything at Mercato is a little pricey.

Burger rating – 4/5 – really good patty smash option. Next time will add bacon for a bit more crunch and request they leave it on the grill a little longer than normal.

The deets

Mercato Metropolitano is a 5 minute walk from Elephant & Castle tube, and 15 minutes from my office in Southwark. Recommended for anyone in the neighbourhood. Find more info on PFQ 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.

Burger & Lobster, Oxford Circus, London

Not as good as I remember it; overpriced and underwhelming, this burger disappoints.

Burger source

Four schoolmates, apparently, had the idea to open a restaurant (chain) that specialized on just one or two ingredients. They went for beef… and lobster, back in 2011 and seem to have done pretty well now, with multiple locations open across London and beyond.

Turf and surf. Not wholly original as combinations go, but the conceit – an extremely limited menu, designed for simplicity, with (originally) flat pricing for burger, lobster or lobster roll (there are a few more variants on offer now, and varied pricing), was intriguing, and I enjoyed a visit I made there back in 2012.

This time, I was there for a group event, and once again, chose turf…

The order

The “original burger” is 10oz of “Lettuce, tomato, house made pickles and B&L’s secret burger sauce served with chips and salad.” For a place that ‘specialises’ in two ingredients, they don’t make much of the beef’s progeny, but that’s what it is. I topped it with cheese and bacon (standard).

As it was a group event, some starters were pre-ordered, including a spicy bean and feta dip, some arancini (which don’t appear on the standard menu and might have been a Christmas special) and calamari.

The meat of it

Let’s start with the starters.

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The spicy bean dip was spicy as promised – served with a warm, soft flatbread. Nice, if simple.

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The arancini was a crispy ball of cheesey indulgence. I’m not a huge fan of arancini in general, so was somewhat underwhelmed; it was neither risotto ball nor deep fried cheese puff, so, well, meh. I don’t think it was the best exemplar of the category but it wasn’t bad.

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The calamari was extremely moreish; crisp but tender, well cooked. However the batter was loose and flaking off, as you can see in the picture, and the overall greasiness was too high. I suspect this was a slight victim of having to serve a partyload of people. The aioli was excellent; the tomato based sauce bland. But perhaps deliberately so. And the lemon took the edge of the grease…

And now the burger.

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It’s a behemoth. That picture! As much as I love burgers, 10oz is a little more than anybody needs.

Regardless; look at the stack. Absolutely perfect superficially. Lettuce protecting the lower half of the bun, a perfect melt on the cheese coating the burger, bacon, onions, pickle on top. Burger sauce on either side. Good crisp char on the bacon too. And the bun – an elaborate unsweetened white roll with seeds for texture – seemed to be holding up well.

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It’s limitations start to become apparent in cross section. The beef is overcooked (perhaps another victim of mass-catering), resulting in a dry, mealy texture. It is too hard-packed, adding unnecessary bite. The burger sauce turns the whole thing into a slippery loaded gun – burger wants to shoot out everywhere. The bun, untouched by burger juice, is actually too dry. the pickle, whilst good, is totally outclassed by the vast quantity of meat, so the sweet contrast is left wanting. You can barely taste the bacon for the rest of it. The salad was fine, but the net impact was one of eating a bit of a hot mess.

That said, there were some redeeming qualities; it was well seasoned. The cheese melt was good and bound the burger together. The burger sauce was tasty… just outmatched by the vastness of the beef.  I ended up giving away a quarter of my burger and not missing it.

All in all, the burger didn’t quite work. I’d like to go back in a smaller group and see if they can do better.

The fries? Less complicated to review; they were unseasoned, uncrispy, there was no salt on the table, and tbh I left the vast majority. I didn’t even take a pic, it turns out. Sorry!

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  3/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 2.5/5
Taste –  2.5/5
Sides – 2.5/5 – the fries were bad. But the starters had some redeeming qualities
Value – 2/5 – £16 for burger and fries; starters were £7-8.50. I was there for a group event where I didn’t foot the bill, but if I had… I would have felt overcharged.

Burger rating – 2.5/5 – it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being. I don’t particularly like lobster but I was left wondering if I should have ordered that instead.

The deets

They seem to be all over the place – find your nearest branch here if you want to try it for yourself; I’m sure it’ll be better when they’re not crazy busy. This one was a four minute walk from Oxford Circus, on Little Portland Street.

Burger &  Shake, Marchmont Street, London

Good all rounder, over-ordered like crazy as a result. Hard shakes are ftw.

Burger Source

Having eaten our way through many of the mainstays of London burgerness, we are having to hunt harder for top shops to feed our (well, mostly my) burger habit. Friends wanted to meet near Holborn, so Burger & Shake it was to be. The other mooted venue was a Hoxton Burger, but I also wanted my first experience of the famous Hoxton Grill to be in Hoxton, rather than in the more generalist restaurant that supports the Hoxton Hotel in Holborn, so I vetoed it…

To call the website minimalist would be overstating things, but the menu does tell us this much: “Our 100% beef patty is made up of cuts from Aberdeen angus and charolais cattle, that graze in Ayrshire Scotland. We cook our beef burgers medium rare as standard…”

So far, so good.

The order

The friends who wanted to meet in the area (and who worked locally) were late. So we kicked off with some wings and some chilli fries. I kicked in for a “Bourbontun” hard shake, feat. Vanilla, peanut butter and bourbon… because obviously. Then came the main order; Jimjamjebobo and I split the House Burger (“180g beef patty, lettuce, tomato, pickle, American cheese and sweet cured bacon with our mustard and horseradish ketchup sauce”) and the New Yorker (“180g beef patty, lettuce, French’s mustard, Monterey Jack Cheese, pickle and fried onion. Served in our potato bun that is cooked with the patty under a cloche on the grill.”)

That’s when things started to go wrong (in terms of how much we ordered).  And I’ll take a lot of responsibility for this – I’d been ill for a few weeks and this was a first outing with friends in a while, so I was celebrating/commiserating the bloc of time out of commission with food.

And so we ALSO ordered onion rings. More chilli fries. A further double portion of wings. Mac & Cheese with bacon.  AND sweet potato fries. Even between five of us, this was WAY too much food.

The meat of it

Both the burgers we ordered looked great – fresh, glazed potato roll, well stacked with a healthy six ounce patty that was clearly well cooked (if perhaps more the medium side of medium rare than the rare side). Grind, pack and fat ratio was good (I like my burgers like I like my women… coarse ground and loosely packed*), meat was juicy but not dripping, the build was excellent on first impression.

Then to the taste…

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The House burger was good, if perhaps lacking in the bangin’ beats the name and description promise. There wasn’t a hint of horesradish in the horseradish ketchup and, if I’m being critical, the patty was a little underseasoned. The bacon was good but not crunchy enough to provide textural contrast, and not enough saltiness. The bun and other fillings held up well, but there wasn’t quite enough umami in this one for me. Could be better.

The New Yorker came up trumps, though (no pun intended). The onions and pickle provided a lovely crisp, sweet finish, the monterey jack cheese added a salty oomph to the thing, and the whole was greater than the sum of its parts… although the burger did slide around on the onions something chronic.

If I’d had to choose between them from the descriptions alone, I’d have backed the House burger for the top job (everyone else ordered it), but the New Yorker came up from behind to win it all. Impressive work. Even if it’s less effective an analogy for the 2016 presidential raced than it initially seemed it might be.

As to the sides:

  • the wings were lush, substantial, crispy and perfectly coated with the uncle Frank’s hot sauce/butter combination that is Buffalo.
  • The chilli fries – weren’t seasoned before the addition of chilli (WHY, OH WHY?) so they were a bit bland and soggy, but the chilli was good as those things go. Depth of flavour and lovely hint of heat, rich meat and bean sauce in plentiful supply.  Regular fries would have been better in my view, but I think I’m perhaps the kind of guy who likes fries AND likes chilli, but doesn’t love them together.
  • The onion rings were disappointing for me; the batter hadn’t stuck, and the onions were glistening through like an exposed femur on an animated corpse. The flecks of pepper in the batter felt like false advertising; there was little flavour to them. That said, the onions were sweet and the batter crisp… just a few (major) minuses holding it back from excellence.
  • The first bowl of sweet potato fries were sent back as they were undercooked. The second batch were cooked but still somewhat limp and lifeless, and needed seasoning to oomph up.
  • The mac & bacon (no pic, soz) was fine but bland as I always find mac & cheese variants. Probably a reasonable example of the genre, if you were someone that had tried it enough times to care to differentiate between one bold of cheese mush and another.

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The bourbontun… OMG, this was delicious. Mostly a vanillla shake, the occasional glugs of peanut butter you get are like winning a mini lottery, and the bourbon gives a background hint that you’re not just indulging five year old you (ok, mostly you still are… but totes worth it). Definitely want to have this again, and I’m lactose intolerant!

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5
Build – 5/5
Burger – 4/5
Taste –  4/5
Sides – 3.5/5 – slight losses for chilli fries and sweet potato shenanigans
Value – 4/5 – £23 a head for burger, a tonne of sides & drink, & tip – not cheap but reasonable value for the quality and quntity o the food.

Burger rating – 4/5 – only really suffering from a minor umami docking and some mediocrity around the sides. It’s a good place.

The deets

The small, diner-style restaurant is halfway down Marchmont Street. Full details: Burger & Shake, 47 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AP Tel: 020 7837 7718  info@burgerandshake.co.uk

* This is an Eddie Izzard reference… not a weird fetish.

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.