Saturday, 18 September 2010

London's Burgeoning Burger Scene

Burgers in London have long been pretty disappointing and there's still a long way to go.  Nevertheless, the London hamburger scene has come a long way since the days when Wimpy was one of its key exponents (Wimpy has also gone a surprisingly long way, managing to open up as far away as Mongolia, where the Mutton burger is one of the most popular items).  There are now a plethora of so called gourmet high street options, gastropub interpretations and high quality vans, not to mention any number of blogs dedicated to the art of the perfect burger from London and beyond.  From sliders, to southern slammers  London is starting to catch on so here's a rundown of some of the best and most disappointing burger related fun to be had in the capital.

Before we get into the practice lets look at theory.  There are some great guides out there to help you learn about and debate the perfect burger.  Its probably best to start with the best of the American offerings since they invented and perfected the burger over there.  Meat blends are key in a lot of these debates a mixture of chuck and brisket  is seen as the ideal, for more detailed assesments of the characteristics of different cuts try here.   A good guide is found at The World's Greaters Burgers.  Completely unacceptable to the real hamburger connoisseurs out there are binding agents such as bread, crumbs or egg or the addition of onions in the patty.  The patty for most hamburger writers out there is meat and seasoning.

To have a look at some perfect burgers and get hungry and jealous at the same time A Hamburger Today and Hamburger America do excellent reviews of Hamburger establishments across the States but also so much more.  A Hamburger Today even has a few good London reviews, though sadly not  all particularly kind, except for the Meatwagon, more on which below.  Both offer the most comprehensive  guides to all things burger available online.  George Motz the creator of HA launched the blog after making a successful film and book looking into the USA's burger tradition.  The good-in-its-own-right Portland Hamburgers has an interview with him and also a good clip from his movie looking at the Bobcat Bite in New Mexico.   For a rundown of all types of different burgers try this AHT article.  Other in depth discussions include this article on how to achieve the thin skinny Southern smash burger with the Paupered Chef.  The best of British is probably Ain't No Picnic Burgers.  This provides reviews, guides to different type of burgers and how to cook them (including some mouth-watering pictures like the one below).

After reading some of these blogs you should be well immersed in the various hamburger debates.  One of the most central is fat content, along with meat blend, buns and where to buy Kraft cheese slices, but one thing at a time.  John Terode of Masterchef and Smiths of Smithfields fame says that at least 40% fat is about right, though other authorities will say 15-20% is more like it.  This still sounds like a lot, but a key complaint of the British Burger is that it lacks the grease content that makes its original American cousin so good.

The triple-bypass burger from Texas' Heart Attack Grill is probably a bit extreme, but the theory holds.  Fat is key.  Often places try and add fat content by proxy rather than rely on the fat content of the meat.  Most times this doesn't work, but done right it can be good.  Cheese and bacon are obvious classics serving this purpose.  Recently the upmarket end of the spectrum has been trying different things.  Foi gras has become a popular addition in many gastropubs.  The Princess of Shoreditch uses this method, though they use so little its basically impossible to taste.  The burger itself is good, nice meat clearly freshly ground, though it could have been more flavourful and suffers from being somewhat sinewy.  It also comes with white truffle mayo, which though delicious does somewhat overpower the burger and the bun could also have had a bit more structural integrity.  All in all though pretty good and it should be at £10 - especially as the chips are bad.  Another place that uses the foi gras technique - this time a big old fried chunk for £2 extra - is perfect blend in Clapham and Streatham - this burger again lacks a bit of flavour but its juicy, the relish is good, the bun just about hangs together and the fries are excellent - all in all pretty good.

Perfect Blend Burger

This kind of high end burger in non-specialist places is one one thing, but since Gourmet Burger Kitchen and the like started to appear on the high street their has been an explosion of dedicated burger restaurants.  We may not have an In and Out or a Big Boy, but we certainly don't lack for options.  But are they any good?  Some are, I like GBK they do a good cheese burger, but its not so good that I think about it all the time.  Byron has been one of the places that has grabbed a lot of praise over the last couple of years - especially after it one the Guardian best cheap eat of the year 2009.  When I got around to eating in its Islington branch I was pretty disappointed.  The fries were fantastic, the home made BBQ sauce good, the milkshake was great, really great.  But, the burger was not and that's a pretty fundamental mistake.  They make a big deal of cooking their burgers medium so they stay juicy unless you specify otherwise, but frankly when the patties are so thin this makes no difference.  The taste of the charcoal grill was lovely, but the meat tasted of nothing at all, the patty was dry (lack of the famous fat content) and the burger was expensive at £8 and tiny.  Absolutely not worth the calories.  I also tried Hamburger Union recently and that was pretty much unspeakably bad - they didn't even bother to melt the cheese and unmelted processed cheese might be the one of the worst food crimes imaginable.

Right now its time to get on to the main event the a review of the reputedly best burgers around.  Hawksmoor, located on Commercial Street and soon to open in Covent Garden, has built itself a fantastic reputation hinging on the high quality of its steaks.  But why eat steak when you can have hamburger!  After months of testing it released its burger, but only as a lunch time special.  The crowd at this time is primarily business lunchers, but how any of them do any work after the protein bomb that is the Hawksmoor burger I have no idea.  The burger is made of clod and stickling cuts (no one else seems to know where on the cow these are from either) very coarsely ground and studded with bits of bone marrow.  Now seeing as I have been complaining about the lack of real beef flavour in a lot of the burgers so far the first things to say is that is not the case here.  The longhorn beef from  the Ginger Pig that Hawksmoor use is packed with flavour and the bone marrow adds to that beautifully, it also helps make this one of the juiciest burgers I have ever eaten, it literally streams out and is delicious to boot.  There was a nice charcoal flavour on the surface, but it was not allowed to take over from the taste of the animal.  So a very good burger, but there are problems.  My patty was slightly under-seasoned, which meant that it was ever so slightly lost in comparison to the very sharp cheese, which was just too strong and left the burger unbalanced.  The burger still worked as a whole with each part contributing, just like it should, it's just that I'd have liked the beef to have done more of the talking given its quality.  This problem was exacerbated by my wonderfully crunchy, but over-seasoned triple cooked chips.  The bread as well was too dry and this made it seem a bit stale, though I must admit it held together admirably given the amount of meat juice it had to soak up when I started eating.  So very good, but at £15 (nearer £18 after service charge and £1 for charity) it's not quite perfect enough.  It's nearly there though and the flavour of the meat and marrow really was quite something.

On to Smith's of Smithfields, which at £13 without chips is another fancy pants burger.  The overall eat here was probably better than at Hawksmoor, the cheese was milder and the patty better seasoned.  This combined with being done on a flat surface rather than over charcoal, giving it a good if uneven crisp, allowed the beef to come into play more.  The bread was better and held together excellently, although that's possibly because the burger was less juicy, something exacerbated by my 'medium-rare' burger being brought nearly well done.  It's a very good burger, but though the quality of the meat was strong here, it was higher at Hawksmoor, where the patty had an unforgettably complex and rich meaty flavour.  It's just that here the patty was allowed to be the star of the show, a tasty but overly powerful relish the only thing that got in its way.  However, if Hawksmoor readjust the balance slightly I should think they would beat it hands down.

Right so onto the main event.  The best burger in London.  Meatwagon is now a pretty poorly kept secret, huge amongst bloggers, featured on Radio 4's Food Program, The Independent and The Times, as well as a fantastic review from A Hamburger Today.  So obviously when I made it down expectations were running pretty high.  They rose higher and higher as I waited, and believe me you will have to wait.  The Meatwagon started taking orders at 7 and had to stop by 8.  We were number 14 in the queue (obviously not the 14th burger as people order for groups).  That meant we were at the front of the queue at 7.20 and ordered three burgers a classic cheeseburger, a bacon cheeseburger and a chilli cheeseburger.  We got them at around 8.30 by which time I was salivating wildly.  Those later in the queue have to wait exponentially longer, those that ordered at 8 waiting until around 11.30 to get their food, so it's worth being early.  But, without doubt it was worth the wait.  A fantastic griddle cooked burger with a crisp outside and still rare in the middle.  This crispy outside really allows the flavour of the patty to shine through everything else, much more so than char grilling, and it was still very juicy inside.  Importantly the cheese was not overpowering and melted very well, and is apparently the result of trying about a million different types and far too many stomach aches to give away the secret.  Along with that was a smear of French's Mustard and Heinz Ketchup which added some nice sweetness, pickles for tartness and some red onion and lettuce for freshness.  The bun kept together the whole time and if you have bacon or chillis the cheese is on top and keeps them stuck to the burger.  The beauty of this is that no element shines through.  Yianni, the owner says he admires the Big Mac for this, that it makes a cohesive whole rather than a series of elements.  This is certainly true of his burgers, especially the classic, which was my favourite.  If I was being super critical I would say that the bun might have been slightly too doughy, but that's pretty minor.  In terms of atmosphere the Meatwagon experience wins, the excitement and anticipations that builds up, the other pudding vans, there was a band and a big fire and it was a really great way to reclaim dissused space.  To find them follow them on

So Meatwagon wins, BUT, the Hawksmoor patty, good as those at SOS and the Meatwagon were wins hands down on flavour.  If those patties were cooked in the way they do at the Meatwagon, with everything else treated as they do I can see pretty much no improvement possible.  So on that note I will leave what I could observe about the Meatwagon process, which is certainly the way I'm going to cook burgers from now on.

1. Toast buns lightly spread the bottom layer with French's, Heinz and put on a small amount fine cut red onion and shredded iceberg lettuce and 2 or 3 horizontally sliced pieces of pickle.
2. Put on a cricket ball sized and shaped ball of unseasoned coarsely ground chuck steak onto a very very hot griddle or flat frying pan with a light coating of oil and after 30 seconds flatten down until around 2 cm thick.
3.Season the raw side with A LOT of salt and some pepper.  When the underside is properly, properly crispy flip and allow to cook until nearly at stage wanted.  Place two cheese singles slices on top and the top part of the bun on top of that.  Then squirt a little of what may have been water onto the surface and cover the burger, cheese, bun combo with a metal bowl and allow to steam for a minute until the cheese has completely melted and place this on top of bottom bun.
4. Eat and enjoy.

Great so that's my beginners guide to burgers in London and good burger blogs.  Some other places which are meant to be good and I haven't tried are: the Wheatshaff and Joe Allen's (it's not on the menu but it does exist) for SOS/Hawksmoor style burgers.  ThaT Burger in Watford for appearantly excellent, high quality fast food burgers.  Happy hamburger eating!

1 comment:

  1. Great write up. Do you have a twitter account so I can direct message you?