The Burger Chronicles #25 – Big Fernand, The French Burger Bistro

I saunter into Big Fernand, the French Burger Bistro, and it feels like I’ve crossed the border. The place is empty, except for a small table of eager-eyed Burger Clubbers, tucked around the corner. After a round of secret Burger Club handshakes (kidding), I grab a seat and take in the menu.

Wow, the choices are exotic. Instead of regular burger appendages Big Fernand offers ingredients like raclette cheese, chives, sun-dried tomatoes, flat parsley and tarragon. There’s a veal burger. A lamb burger with grilled aubergine and coriander. And “la [side] salade.”

In the end, as usual, I stick with the burger that jumped out first. In this case, Le Bartholomé; raclette cheese, smoked streaky bacon, caramelized onions, chives, barbecue sauce and homemade cocktail sauce. You need to order at the till, so I leap up and place my order, pronouncing Bartholomé tentatively, like a nervous tourist trying to play it cool.

I fail miserably, of course, and the attractive French waitress behind the till corrects and re-pronounces the name perfectly. Frenchly. With la passione. Feeling ridiculous, I smile sheepishly – I might as well have a laminated map on a cord around my neck and a Lonely Planet Paris book in my hand. The beer’s as French as the waitress, so I throw in a Gallia IPA with my burger and head back to our table around the corner.

The burger arrives quickly, which isn’t surprising, as we’re still the only ones in the joint. It looks good, but delicate and petite. Bistro food, I guess. The burger patty itself is tasty but tiny, hidden and mostly overpowered by the rest of the ingredients. Every bite’s full of flavour, but in the end, the size of the £10 burger’s impossible to ignore. In fact, I’d say it’s more bun than burger. Possibly 70/30.

The beer’s light and refreshing. Although, to be fair, I probably could have washed Big Fernand’s treat-sized, full-priced Le Bartholomé down with a thimble of water. We exit to the sound of the staff sweeping up, clanging glasses around just loud enough for us to get the message without feeling too offended. We step back out into Percy Street. Into London. And head our separate ways.

The Burger Chronicles #24 – Stokey Bears, Buffalo Blue (Chicken Burger)

I’ve been drooling over Stokey Bears’ new Buffalo Blue chicken burger for weeks on Instagram. And finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. I had to have it. I talk a likeminded buddy into tagging along (all it takes is a well chosen Stokey Bears Instagram post) and off we go.

We breeze into Mother Kelly’s first, for pre-burger beers, cheese fumes and bearded craft banter. There’s a friendly Howling Hops promo dude with an almighty beard handing out free samples when we arrive, so, obligingly, we knock back a few mini West Coast Special IPAs, Ruby Reds and Double Chocolate Coffee Toffee Vanilla Milk Porters (wow). Before coughing up for some Beavertown Applelation Bramley Apple Saisons and a round of Verdant Brewing Roy, I Want A Hi-Lux Pale Ales.

Feeling on top of the world, we exit Mother Kelly’s, turn left into Stoke Newington Church Street and tractor beam our way to Stokey Bears. Full steam ahead.

I do like the Stokey Bears vibe. Casual, California Games chic with added Simpsons and Ren and Stimpy. The smell’s unmistakeable. A combination of grilled beef patties and sweet, tangy bacon jam. But I can’t get distracted. Tonight’s mission is clear. I stick to my guns and order the Buffalo Blue.

When the burger arrives it’s as pretty as its picture. No Catfish here; blue cheese slaw, spring onion, fried chicken thighs, buffalo and blue cheese sauce, AND pickles. The chicken reminds me of Bird Restaurants’, as its impossibly light and crispy exterior gives way to a soft, tender, juicy chicken thigh centre. The blue cheese slaw’s incredible. And the buffalo and blue cheese sauce coat the walls of my ecstasy riddled mouth as I chew.

It’s decadent, yet light and fresh at the same time. Crunchy. Succulent. Rich. And delicious. Like perfect New York buffalo wings with an overload of blue cheese and slaw… in a bun! I consider ordering another one, a takeaway encore, but “chicken” out at the last minute.

The Burger Chronicles #23 – MEATliquor, Angel

meatliqour-bacon-cheese-burger

We stumble out of Rogue One at 10:40pm, desperate for a burger. Nervously, I call MEATliqour N1 – which is just a few minutes away on Upper Street. Turns out the kitchen closes at 11:00pm, but as long as we’ve ordered before then we’re golden. We pick up the pace, dissecting the movie’s epic battle scenes briskly as we steam up the road with burgers in our eyes.

When we get there MEATliqour is DEAD. The only people left are two cooks desperate to punch out, a bearded waiter with tattoos up to his eyeballs and a drunk-looking couple at the bar. The place looks incredible, though; grimey horror movie chic with an artistic flair. There’s a glowing upside McDonald’s sign pointing out the WCs, last-scrawl-looking words of warning adorn the walls and old TVs play random loops and creepy CCTV footage, straight out of a Saw film.

meatliqour angel

We order two bacon cheeseburgers, buffalo fries, buffalo wings and four Moor Beer Nor’ Hops. The kitchen gets the news and the chefs don’t look pleased. Still, they lumber into action. Looks like we made it, Burger Manilow.

I’ve been to MEATliquor W1 before, which is similarly red, black, white and stylish. But I wasn’t expecting such a big, well-put-together space from the inconspicuous neon MEATliqour sign hanging in Upper Street.

meat-liqour-wings-and-blue-cheese-fries

When the food arrives we’re both impressed with the presentation. It’s closing time. Ten minutes ago these guys were ready to clean the grills and power down. Yet everything looks immaculate. The burgers have this kind of bacon chip crisp layer on top of them, which makes them look like chicken burgers from the top down. But there’s no mistaking the hunk of cheese-coated beef hulking underneath when I grab it.

The burger’s straightforward and simple, and reminds me of a pumped up Dirty Burger. There’s no MEATliquor sauce, gooey caramelized onions or sweet bacon jam. Instead, the burger’s dressed in raw red onions, pickles, lettuce, French’s mustard and ketchup. The patty’s thick and tasty, but overall, the package is a little on the dry side. The wings are good, too. Not amazing, but good. Routine. A bit like The Diner’s; simple and to the point. And like The Diner’s, blue cheese sauce makes all the difference.

In the end, I’m not as blown away by the burger as I was by the presentation – of the restaurant and the food. And the standout highlight of the night is probably the buffalo fries, which are covered in “house-made buffalo sauce” and deliciously melty crumbled blue cheese. Otherwise, the food lacks that special something that makes a burger magical.

Burgershack

The Burger Chronicles #22 – BIRD’s Crimbo Burger

bird-crimbo-burger

When Burger Club picked Lucky Chip’s Rudolph Burger for Christmas dinner, I have to admit, I came down with a bad case of FoMO. And top of my Burger Buyer’s Remorse list was BIRD’s mighty Crimbo Burger. But, as you’ll remember, the trip to Lucky Chip worked out pretty well for me, and there’s no reason I can’t try another Christmas burger – or all of them – this festive period. After all, ’tis the season to stuff your face, relatively guilt free.

I leave it late, but finally, when the leftovers have run dry, I grab two buddies and head down to BIRD’s Holloway Road joint for another Christmas dinner. The first thing we say to our waitress is, “Please tell us you have Crimbo Burgers.” She looks at us, blankly, giving nothing away. “Just let me check with the kitchen,” she replies. Then she disappears. We sit in anxious silence, nervously hoping for the breast. Needless to say, it’s a long minute.

“We’re all good guys,” she says. “We’ve got a few left. But I think today’s the last day.” Hallelujah, it’s a Christmas miracle. We order three, with Cheesy Korean Fries and pints of London Pale Ale all round.

When the burgers arrive they’re breathtaking. There’s no other way to describe them. We literally stare at them, without breathing, our faces frozen with a mixture of disbelief and excitement. In photos, the Crimbo Burger looks almost unreal. Photoshopped, even. Yet here’s an identical trio of them, looking just as beautiful, delicious and vertical as BIRD’s Instagram account would have you believe.

First, I pick off my bacon-wrapped jalapeño popper starter. And the well-dressed mini sausages pop in my mouth, exploding with cheese, pork, bacon and tangy jalapeño. Impressively, the burger has two wooden skewers through it; one for the poppers and another larger one to support the rest of the burger. Someone knows what they’re doing.

I squash my burger so there’s a small chance it might fit in my mouth. And wow. Panko-coated fried brie erupts in my mouth, squirting everywhere as I sink my teeth in. It’s backed up by a sweet cranberry glaze and BIRD’s trademark crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside free range fried chicken. And it’s all held together by the burger’s crunchy, hash brown-like sage and onion stuffing patty. The combination of flavours and textures, of sweet, sour, crunchy, hot and saucy, is mesmerising. I just can’t get it back in my mouth quick enough.

I do hit a wall, though. I think it’s the stuffing. But it all tastes so good, I keep going. In hindsight, I rush it. All that anticipation and it’s over in minutes. Still, every bite was so full of flavour and personality, maybe that’s all I needed. All I could take.

I pick at my neglected fries and parsnip crisps, sip on my full beer and try to wrap my head around what I’ve just eaten. Decadent. Heavenly. And way too dangerous to add to the regular BIRD menu. Once a year will do. Or not. What a burger…

nine

The Burger Chronicles #21 – Shake Shack’s SmokeShack

shake-shack-smokeshack-burger-2

So, I finally sunk my teeth into a Shake Shack burger and, I’m sad to say, it was a massive letdown. To set the scene; it’s Covent Garden, the place is bursting with tourists, giant disco balls hang from the ceiling and the smell of mulled wine lingers like the last vestige of Christmas. I spot a Shake Shack through the people thicket and decide to cross another entry off my global burger list.

The joint’s swarming, but still, I’m surprised by the slick, conveyor-belt operation playing out in front of me. From the neat, multi-pronged curly fry production line to the smiling, airport-driver style delivery crew, everything’s been operations-managed and streamlined to churn out burgers, fries and shakes as efficiently as possible. It’s quite something to behold, really, but not what I was expecting at all. Kind of like a green Five Guys/McDonald’s hybrid – only more McDonald’s, less Five Guys.

I order a single SmokeShack – registered trademark, of course – which is topped with applewood smoked bacon, chopped cherry peppers and the trademarked ShackSauce. I take my vibrating receiver and make my way to the food court. When the receiver lights up I head over to the Shake Shack welcome station and grab my burger from the smiley crew. It’s tiny. I can’t believe it.

shake-shack-smokeshack-burger-1

I sit down in the food court, underwhelmed. Everything tastes alright, for a good 24-hour McDonald’s at 1:00am, but the burger’s dry, flavourless and cheap-seeming. The cheese is randomly dribbled over the lifeless patty. The bacon sticks out all over the place. And the bun looks like it was meant for a slider burger – or a kid’s patty.

Upon further inspection, there’s absolutely no sauce whatsoever, trademark or not. Until the very end, that is, when I realise it’s all been pinched up at the back of the burger, along with the stash of chopped cherry peppers – and the registered trademarks. Sauce discovered, the last two bites are less dry and flavourless, but still, they fail to impress. It’s like a toy burger. The kind you’d heat up in a microwave. I almost don’t want an In-N-Out Burger now. Yes, I do…

shake-shack

The Burger Chronicles #20 – Lucky Chip’s Rudolph Xmas Burger

lucky-chip-rudolph-christmas-burger

Make no mistake, this decision was not entered into lightly. Burger Club’s end of year Christmas blowout called for a festive burger of immense proportions. Something special and exotic, the kind of Christmas-only decadence that makes your mouth dribble just reading about it. And finally, after digging around on Instagram for weeks and weighing up our options, we narrowed it down to three; MEATliquor’s XXXmas Burger, the Hawksmoor Christmas Burger and Lucky Chip’s Rudolph Burger. In the end we chose Rudolph to guide our burger sleigh tonight.

Some burger joints haven’t embraced the OTT festive period. While some have, but haven’t bothered to shoot their creations professionally. I was especially let down by two of my favourites, Patty & Bun and Stokey Bears (didn’t even play). Lucky Chip, on the other hand, went all out. Their expertly shot, creatively put-together “Santa’s Special,” the Rudolph Burger, ticks all the boxes; deer patty, stilton, applewood smoked bacon, aioli and an intriguing blueberry, blackberry and gin jam. My tongue does cartwheels now, just thinking about it.

Nestled in Ridley Food Market, Lucky Chip, Dalston is the ultimate gentrified hipster burger joint. It’s literally across the road from a group of local butcheries and your table view prominently features hung animal carcasses, heads and other bloody goodies. Inside, we’re worlds apart, and the music’s all classic soft hits like Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” and “Eye of the Tiger.”

The beer options are great but super expensive. The Cloudwater double IPAs are £8 a bottle and a can of Beavertown Gamma Ray sets you back a fiver. The staff are super attentive and polite, and their somewhat smug, knowing looks suggest we’re in for something special.

When the burgers arrive, all at once, we’re blown away by the presentation. Forget that scene in Falling Down, where Michael Douglas compares his flat, depressing-looking Whammyburger to the glorious, radiant photo of it on the menus behind the counter. Because the Rudolph Burger is every bit as beautiful in the flesh. It’s a work of art. And my picturesque spicy mayo cheese fries play a decadent supporting role. The table goes quiet as we all nibble at chips and onion rings and size up our first bites.

The perfectly cooked deer patty is juicy, tender and stuffed with flavour, and the applewood bacon is glorious. I still can’t believe it. On its own, I’m not a massive fan of stilton, but paired with the sweet blackberry, blueberry and gin jam the cheese gains unholy gooey superpowers. Throw in a dash of aioli and a bed of rocket and you’ve got something really special.

I try to hold back and make it last but I can’t get the burger back in my mouth quick enough. In a sea of delicious, dynamic, new-age burgers, the Rudolph really is a standout. One of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten, in fact. And I honestly can’t believe how well the flavours compliment each other. Santa knows what he’s doing back there, behind the grill.

nine

The Burger Chronicles #19 – Ho Ho Homeburger

ho-ho-homeburger-christmas

It’s Friday night. I’m in the mood for a Christmas burger. And my eyes light up when I spot Holloway Road burger slingers Homeburger’s festive new offering, the Ho Ho Homeburger. In my excitement I glaze over the description, hurriedly picking out words like “buttermilk” and “cranberry sauce,” and licking my lips as I add it to my basket.

When it arrives 40 minutes later I’m overwhelmed. It’s immense. An impressive stack of Sunday roast ingredients reimagined for the Instagram generation. Crispy buttermilk chicken with the sweet hint of cranberry sauce on a bed of sautéed garlic carrots, roasted parsnips and sprout slaw. All smothered in gravy. Wow. But as I keep biting I hit a sneaky sub level of roast potatoes and sage and onion stuffing. Come to think of it, the bun tastes more like yorkshire pudding than brioche. I read the description on the website again in disbelief and sure enough, there it is, in black and grey. Holy shit.

The Ho Ho Homeburger is literally a loosen-your-top-button, nap-on-the-couch Christmas roast shaped like a burger. It’s staggering, but surprisingly, it holds together well. Even more surprisingly, it takes you to the very edges of excess without crossing the border – well, maybe just a toe. It’s decadent, delicious and over the top. Just like a Christmas dinner should be. It’s also a great way to kick start the festive season. Ho ho ho…

Burgershack

The Burger Chronicles #18 – Bun & Bar, Highbury

bun-and-bar-higbury-burger

This time, your friendly neighborhood burger club got in on the ground level. Before the joint hit the wider burger circuit at large – there’s still hardly any mention of the place online; and no phone number. I walk through Highbury practically every day. And when a new burger restaurant popped up, a local branch of Harringey’s Bun & Bar, I suggested we check it out. Two of our burger munchers rave about the Green Lanes spot, so it made sense on every level. And besides. Burgers. Walking distance. Booze.

It’s a Tuesday night, so you can imagine the kind of dedication and attention a table of 12 attracts at a new burger spot still trying to get the word out. It turns out the place has only been open for four days, and we get the impression that our group is its first horde of London-wide burger connoisseurs. Needless to say, they’re desperate to impress. Brewdog Punk IPAs on tap get the juices flowing as we check out the menu.

There’s a nice homemade feel to Bun & Bar. The lighting’s a bit too bright. The staff look a bit too keen. The menu’s not quite as stylised and self assured. The artwork’s not as cool. And the slick, ultra-contemporary music you usually associate with hip burger joints has been replaced by classic rock bands like Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, AC/DC and Quiet Riot – which I really like (I even catch a few people singing along, and spot some air guitar jamming later on).

Still, the people behind Bun & Bar have paid attention. The burgers sound great. Imaginative and exotic, in fact. Usually, a burger jumps out at me right away but I’m torn. The “chorizo spread” sounds a bit like Stokey Bears’ bacon jam and EVERYTHING comes with FREE rosemary fries – £1 extra for sweet potato.

But as usual when trying out a new place for the first time, I order a cheeseburger with extra bacon. The B&B Cheese Burger, with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickled red onion, ketchup and smoky mayo in a brioche bun. And of course, I upgrade my fries to sweet potato. The burger sounds a lot like Patty & Bun’s. In fact, the subtle difference between the B&B Beef Burger and the B&B Cheese Burger sounds a lot like the Patty & Bun Ari Gold vs Smokey Robinson dilemma.

When the food arrives, finally – they do take a while (then again, they are cooking for 12) – the presentation’s really impressive. Usually, the lighting’s so dim and the buns are kind of squished down to keep the juicy burgers together, so a phone photo never really does them any justice. This time it’s almost too bright, as I surreptitiously sneak my phone out and take a shot.

Everything seems so clean and fresh as well. The sweet potato fries are some of the best I’ve ever tasted; light, crispy and delicious – I can’t really remember having rosemary salted sweet potato fries before either. And when I sink my teeth into the fluffy looking brioche bun the burger’s juicy and perfectly cooked. The well seasoned patty gives way to the taste of smoky, caramelized bacon. Simple, with a twist. The secret to a good burger’s all in the seasoning. And Bun & Bar know exactly what they’re doing.

Still eager to impress, the waiters and waitresses – and even the owner – come over to check if everything’s okay twice every 20 minutes. But it’s a friendly atmosphere. And everyone’s raving about their burgers. The two Green Lanes fans do say that they prefer the burgers down their local, but I can’t see how they could be much better.

Stokey Bears 2

The Burger Chronicles #17 – Patty & Bun, Goodge Street

patty-bun-goodge-street-2

Imagine my excitement when I heard there was a new Patty & Bun store opening in Goodge Street, and EVERYTHING was half price… for the first week. Needless to say, I was drinking beers in the queue, mentally willing people to leave, quicker than Fred Flintstone gets a side of ribs when that bird sounds the hometime alarm.

We get there early and the queue’s already spiralling out of control. Some of our team members catch Pokemons while others discuss our last trip to Patty & Bun, and how this time, as it’s half price, we’re all going to order our own Winger Winger Chicken Dinner smoked confit wings side. My mouth waters at the thought, as a group of inconsiderate stragglers does their Citymapping inside, after they’ve paid their bill, instead of outside on the street like decent people. Eventually, we’re in.

Heartbreak. They’re sold out of wings. We discuss the possibility of Deliverooing some over from the James Street store while we eat, but eventually settle for fries and cheese balls. Hardly a worthy consolation prize.

The joint itself is awesome. A perfect, although slightly roomier, version of the James Street store. The Liverpool Street one lacks the same moodily lit, loud music and bustling, cramped eating feel. It’s more of a lunchtime market stall for hungry office workers, with no vibe and a few chairs lining the perimeter. This is the real deal. Vibe for days.

When the burgers arrive I can’t believe my eyes. The presentation’s perfect and my Ari Gold with bacon’s cooked exactly how I requested. Pretty impressive when you consider how many burgers the kitchen’s churning out – at half price.

As soon as my teeth sink in my eyes light up. You can’t beat an Ari Gold. Simple, classy and delicious; a high-quality, well flavoured beef patty with that perfect smokey mayo and pickled onions twist. However, with Patty & Bun, it’s their confit wings that really seal the deal.

Leaving with that sticky, smoky BBQ sauce stuck to the inside of your lips is what convinces you it’s the best. Those wings are a miracle. And tonight, the mighty Patty & Bun does seem a bit more mortal without them. The burger’s still probably the best, but it’s a lot closer. My last Stokey Bears burger really gave the Ari Gold a run for its money. Damn, now I’m hungry again.

Stokey Bears 2

The Burger Chronicles #16 – Bleecker St., Southbank

bleecker st burger 2

There’s been a lot of buzz about Bleecker St.’s burgers in my small, tightly knit burger circles lately. One of my favourite Instagram food blogs, New York-based Devour Power, even added a Bleecker St. double cheeseburger to its must-do list of tasty London treats. And as I happened to find myself in Southbank the day I saw the mouthwatering post, I figured the stars had aligned.

The Bleecker St. container setup has grown since the last time I was under Hungerford Bridge. A wide food court and opposing bar container (with WAY overpriced beers) have been added, setting the joint up as more of an informal restaurant than a simple caravan burger by the Thames.

The line is intense and the crew is working hard to manage customers’ expectations. It looks like a neat operation, just way more of a mass production line than I’d imagined. I order a bacon cheeseburger and some fries and hang onto my vibrating pager for what feels like forever. When it finally lights up I head over to the counter and collect my burger and fries.

Instantly I’m shocked by how small it is. I see lettuce on some of the other burgers and ask if I can get a leaf. “We don’t put lettuce on cheeseburgers,” is the reply. But she takes the burger back and a slice of green is added anyway – anything to bulk it up a bit.

The burger doesn’t last long and my opinion’s made up just as quickly. The meat’s cooked perfectly and bursting with flavour. But the burger’s tiny; the “craft” burger equivalent of McDonald’s 99p cheeseburger. I mean, the bacon’s cooked just right, the onions taste great, but overall it’s just plain and instantly forgettable. Nothing special. Not made with any love or devotion.

And to top it off, the roll tastes cheap and inconsequential. Like a dry toasted sesame bun you’d buy in a plastic bag from Sainsbury’s. Really, whoever voted Bleecker St. London’s best burger for Time Out magazine in 2015 needs to get out more.

Five Guys