Bacon Cheeseburger All-The-Way at Five Guys UK

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So here’s a weird phenomenon that seems unexpected for capitalism. A US burger joint opens a branch in London. This is, presumably, not a big deal.

“A shake down in which many cows are set to lose their lives”

Firstly – there’s loads of great burgers in London. This is a statement that might not have been true a few years ago. Another friend (and sometime Chowdown Showdown co-conspirator) – James – and I used to have something of a food challenge of our own, back then. We were trying to find the best burger in London. In those days it might have been possible to eat all the top burgers. There were some posh burgers (a trend that started in earnest with Gourmet Burger Kitchen – this was a time when there were still only about eight outlets, rather than one on every high street), but few enough that it was possible to aim for them all. Nowadays there’s not just one Byron, but a whole budget-night full of them. There’s Haché and Meat Liquor, Boulud and Honest, Dirty and Burger & Lobster and Patty & Bun and you get the idea. Not so easy to try them all (though others, admirably, are having a go).

Secondly – so what? We’ve got US fast food, so what’s the big deal with more of it. They’re all just doing the same thing, right? (Right, wrong? Well let’s see!)

But here’s the fun bit (and the conundrum for capitalism) – the US burger joint opens a branch in London at exactly the time that… another US burger joint opens a branch in London! Suddenly, it’s a story. For the media it’s Five Guys vs Shake Shack. Battle Of The Burgers! A shake down in which many cows are set to lose their lives. Suddenly, just by opening competing restaurants at once, they’re a big deal, and get a massive publicity push. It’s almost as if they’ve coordinated.

Did I mention they’ve both set up in tourist-central Covent Garden, barely seven minutes walk apart?

The two places have very different philosophies. Shake Shack is (cheap) gourmet, with fancy(-named) toppings and flavours tailored to the location.So you’ll find Cumbrian sausages and a ‘Union Shack’ ice cream mix. There’s burgers and shakes and frozen custard (yes, that’s just ice cream) and concretes (that’s just ice cream with things mixed in, but harder than a McFlurry).

“There’s Haché and Meat Liquor, Boulud and Honest, Dirty and Burger & Lobster and Patty & Bun and you get the idea”

Five Guys, on the other hand, offers just burgers (with cheese, bacon, or neither), hot dogs (though not yet in their UK branch), fries, and 125 (count ’em) flavours of fizzy pop (I think they call it ‘soda’ over the pond) from a ‘Coca Cola Freestyle’ machine – apparently the first in Britain. Tailoring to your taste is their thang, and you can have any or all of 15 toppings added to your burger for nothing.

….oh, and they refuse to have freezers on site – so it’s all about fresh meat, and potatoes, cut into chips without every becoming sub-zero. I guess this also explains the lack of ice cream and shakes!

…oh, and they’ve continued their US tradition of having free sacks of monkey nuts to crack open (obviously the most fun part), and munch on while you queue.

I have no option but to go for the bacon cheeseburger ‘all-the-way’. The ‘all-the-way’ bit means that it has all of their most popular / standard toppings slapped on – lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions, pickles, grilled mushrooms, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard. Really – I have no option: Tom got their ahead of me and jumped straight into the fifteen minute queue, and by the time I’d got there he’d ordered for me. But he was right – this is what I’d have gone for anyway. Luckily, I get there while he’s still waiting for our meal to be cooked and bagged – the burgers are cooked to order (you trying have all 748,272,943,723,780 combinations, or whatever implausible number a mathematician would tell you there can be, ready to eat) – so I’ve time to grab some monkey nuts.

The burger comes wrapped in foil in a paper bag, with a cup of medium-cut fries overflowing and chucked into the bag with another handful chucked in for good measure. As you can see from the picture above, the burger is literally stuffed to the point of overflowing, and this one requires braving it with a firm grip and diving in with a wide-open mouth. The ‘normal’ burgers are actually double-patties – you have to opt for the ‘little burger’ to get a standard human-sized version. The chips, too, are generous, and this is the small portion. It’s a foolhardy man who goes for the medium or even the large.

To be frank, you don’t taste the individual flavours of each of the toppings. And if you were a purist foodie, this would spell trouble. “It’s all about the ingredients”, you’d cry. But the delight in this (and certainly the all-the-way option), is the mixture. The sheer indulgence of having an everything burger. It wouldn’t have altered things much if they’d blitzed the toppings together in the blenders that they don’t have on site before chucking it into the bun, except (to a small degree) from a mouthfeel perspective. But there’s hints of mushroom and onion and mayo and pickles in a way that is more burger-cocktail that celebration of locally-sourced produce (though the produce presumably is).

I do, somehow, manage to eat the lot without slopping it down my front, and it’s actually pleasantly filling rather than stomach achingly large. I made the mistake of checking out the nutritional information on their website, and discovered that a Bacon Cheeseburger All-The-Way goes down with a staggering 1,115 Calories. The ‘little’ fries come in at just 526 Calories.I’m glad I drank water! Okay, okay, so you don’t want to be hearing about how bad for you this stuff is (as if you didn’t know), but two things are clear: 1) it’s obvious why the food tastes so damn good (and so damn bad!) and 2) with those large fries I couldn’t even contemplate contemplating coming in at a measly 1,314 Calories (!) I’m beginning to understand the need for wider seats on planes!

This isn’t posh food, but it’s not McDonald’s either. It’s fresh and freshly cooked, and whilst it is no health food, it’s definitely tasty. The patty isn’t the perfect medium-rare celebration of top-notch beef that you can (thankfully, finally) find elsewhere in London, and the bun isn’t artisan sourdough or brioche, but this is a good, mid-range burger. That you’ll only want to eat for a treat.

Chips at Comptoir Gascon

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These chips were disappointing.

What else can I say? Well, lots, actually.

At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious wine. We had some excellent red wine, and it was glorious.

“At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious raisins”

 

At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious starters. I had a crackling soft duck egg in a bed of truffled polenta. It was absolutely delicious, with the warm, aromatic polenta delivering a mushroom, woodland, dreamy background to an oozingly soft duck egg, perfectly poached. Rachael has scallop, artichoke and oyster tartare – a dish as fresh and marine as anything you’d find at the seaside and which brought out – impressively – the individual flavours of the constituent molluscs and subtle vegetable.

Both were presented beautifully as well.comptoirpolenta

At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious burgers. I had the ‘duck burger classic’ where Rachael opted for the deluxe version. The difference: 100g of foie gras. I thought it would tip the sandwich over the edge of the too-rich cliff, and I was right. But the whole concept – duck ground, grilled and stuck in a bun – is one I must admit to having been sceptical of, but I was proved wrong. Spectacularly delicious.

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But at Comptoir Gascon their french fries, cooked in duck fat and liberally drenched in salt, were… disappointing. Limp and rather tasteless – beyond the salt – they would have let down an otherwise perfect meal, if the rest of the food hadn’t been so damn good that even with these fries you could only drop it a notch back down to ‘perfect’.

In a world of triple-cooked, molecularly-calibrated chips, these don’t cut the mustard. They’d even provided a huge bowlful (thankfully we were warned, so only ordered one portion) – so concentrating on quality over quantity would be a wise move.

That said…

At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious raisins. Spectacularly, spectacularly delicious raisins. We had a portion of the ‘raisins dorés’ – soaked in sauterne wine and coated in dark chocolate. It is almost impossible to describe the feeling on biting into one of these. The raisins are almost candied, with a tingly, almost sherbet effect. Sweet but tangy and instantly moreish. I’d go back for these alone.

But the chips were disappointing.

Frenchie Burger at Bar Boulud

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I’m not one of these people who think ‘how great can a burger be?’. To me, a burger can be genuinely one of the great international dishes. I certainly have that thought about steak – it’s just a slab of meat, isn’t it, and how unimaginative do you have to be to serve a slab of meat to which you’ve applied nothing but a spot of fire? But haché that steak, season it, grill and pair it with the perfect bun, salad and sauce and suddenly you can show culinary genius in spades.

I’ve had a long-standing arrangement that, whenever my friend James is in town from Geneva where he now lives, we head for a posh burger at one of the (what were limited numbers of) gourmet outlets that are now springing up everywhere in London. We’ve tried Joe Allen’s off-menu sandwich, and that of Haché Burger Connoisseur, back when there was only one; ditto Byron. So with James in town we chose to combine challenges and head for a Chowdown Showdown burger – Bar Boulud’s Frenchie.

“A burger can be genuinely one of the great international dishes”

The burger has been variously described as ‘mini’ and ‘petite’, but I think what I’m presented with is a perfectly manageable size of dish – I don’t rate a good burger for sheer volume of meat outside watching Man Versus Food. It’s the A-grade ingredients that we’re being treated to that brings in the punters both sides of the Atlantic to Daniel Boulud’s ‘bars’. Morbier cheese, pork belly confit and tomato compote are the chef’s weapons of choice – though the truth is I know this because Time Out informs me it’s so, not because I have such finely tuned taste buds to identify it.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never found myself thinking ‘this burger is dry…’ (not since those black gristle burgers at school), ‘…and could do with the addition of pork belly’ (though I definitely didn’t know what pork belly was back then). I’m not going to pretend I could tell what this added, but you know what? I think it works, and the meat has a rich, woody flavour that is certainly a cut above.

It’s hard: I’m not sure this burger has that pure, simple flavour that a really great burger has without being boring, but I could definitely eat this again.

32/100 best Time Out dishes

Kiwi Burger at Gourmet Burger Kitchen

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There is honestly no humanly possible way to eat this burger. Or rather, there’s no standard burger middle ground between using cutlery and cramming the whole thing into your gob with vegetables and meat and condiments flying everywhere. But then, this burger does feature beetroot, egg, pineapple and cheese – let’s ignore for a minute the lettuce, ketchup, mayonnaise, sesame seed bun. Oh, and the huge beef patty!

“All in all, a pretty tasty burger, but would I rush out to have it again?”

I’m tempted to suggest this is a ‘concept burger’, rather than one intended to be, say, actually eaten. But what concept? Not ‘New Zealandism’. Not even ‘gourmet’. Maybe plain and simple gluttony.

The question is, setting apart the impossibility of eating this in any way half graceful, did it taste nice?

I’ll be honest, having been on something of a gourmet burger quest, I don’t rate GBK that highly. Yes, they’re a cut above the standard new-wave posh burger, but they’re no Byron Burger, and certainly not a Meat Liquor Dead Hippy or off-menu Joe Allen burger.

That said, this is the original GBK, before they went franchise-crazy, and they have new ‘testing’ burgers, which haven’t yet made it to the standard menu – oh, and they don’t take Taste Cards for that reason.

“There is honestly no humanly possible way to eat this burger”

And the verdict? You know what? It was pretty good. The egg has a perfectly runny yolk, adding a real homeliness to what is obviously essentially comfort food. The pineapple didn’t even slightly overpower, giving a tart, sweet, fruity bite. I’m no great fan of beetroot, and I’d probably have it without if I had it again, but I can’t pretend it didn’t add another, distinct flavour that genuinely added something.

All in all, a pretty tasty burger, but would I rush out to have it again? I do go to GBK every so often, but that’s because it’s reasonably cheap – with a Taste Card. Without an offer, it’s a rip-off. And since the franchises really do vary considerably in quality, I wouldn’t bet on another outlet’s Kiwi monstrosity tasting as good. I doubt I’ll rush back to the Northcote Road store, but I may well make a beetless kiwi my standard go to (half-price) burger at GBK.

72/100 of Time Out’s top 100

Pulled pork, burger, chips, fried pickles at The Sir Garnet

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The recently refurbished Sir Garnet pub on Norwich’s Market Square (formally the Sir Garnet Wollesley) is home of @thebaronofbeef, purveyor of locally-sourced culinary goodness, in the form of the best burgers in Norwich, thin chips, deep fried pickles and daily specials.

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I was just about to go for the umami burger (a new addition to the menu), in fact going as far as to order one, then deciding the time for the fifth taste could wait, since pulled pork graced the specials board and it’s a favourite of mine. This fabled burger features miso infused into the meat and kim chi garnish. Next time!

I made the right choice. The fluffy, eggy homemade bun was filled with meltingly tender smoked pork bathed in Carolina-style sweetly sour (or sourly sweet) barbecue sauce, along with the Baron’s classic slaw. Delicious!

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The thin chips were, as ever, superb, crispy, moreish and (bar the coming heart attack) the perfect accompaniment. The table next to us nearly abandoned their dinner reservation elsewhere on seeing these chips – they’re that good. They eventually settled on the pork scratchings (yes, homemade), and a promise to return.

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I’ve ordered the deep fried pickles twice before. The first time was on the Garnet’s opening night, when “they’re not on the menu yet”. The second, they were off the menu. So these have been a long time coming.

For those who’ve not yet had the delight, the concept is the battering and then deep-frying of still-crunchy pickles. The Baron of Beef pairs his with blue cheese dip. Perhaps the whole concept sounds wrong to you? But they are delicious – crisp, comforting, acid, smooth, mmm…

I’ll confess, when chef asked how these were, he also said he’d been working on them for weeks now. They were an awesome take on the dish, with almost fritter batter. I think they could be even better with a thinner, crisper tempura-style batter, but that would make a very different side.

Okay, this food isn’t perfectly balanced nor five-a-day, but, then, we all go out for dirty American food every so often. You might as well make it to-die-for delicious food every once in a while when you do!

Squid and mackerel burger at Arbutus

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Let’s get the first thing out of the way immediately: this burger is a ‘burger’. It doesn’t have a bun. It doesn’t have salad garnish. And there isn’t any ketchup in sight!

“Every mouthful was a cascade of flavours”

What was surprisingly on-message, though, was quite how meaty the burger was. This could easily have ended up a squashed fish-ball, or a sloppy, fishy mush, or, worst of all (given the main constituent parts) a rock-hard bullet of seafood. Instead, it was genuine burger-consistency, and had a flavour that would satisfy a carnivore.

The main affair (though, it should be noted, this dish is actually a starter) is accompanied by razor clam, chopped and sautéed with shallots, plus fabric-thin strips of squid. Every mouthful was a cascade of flavours, and complexity was added by the unusual pairing of coriander in the ‘burger-meat’ and a generous sprinkling of dill across the dish. These herbs shouldn’t match, and yet they do, and even brought the whole dish together.

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Okay, so we’re under strict orders to judge just the dish, and not the whole meal, but it would be mean to fail to mention that the rest of the dinner was also spectacular. Cod fillet, crisp chicken wings (boneless), pink grapefruit, ginger and honey preserve was as delicious as it sounds, with every element perfectly matched. The silky, subtle cod bouncing off the sparkling ‘marmalade’ and complemented by the crispness of the chicken. Rachael had Grilled piece of beef, heritage carrots, cavolo nero, gratin dauphinois, which sounds like a fairly straightforward offer, but every part was oozing flavour, distinct, and stood up as part of a whole.

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“For sheer burgerness, for braveness, for spot-on flavours, it’s making it into the top twenty”

I was a bit jealous of her Vanilla and rosewater scented cheesecake, roast Provençal figs, which was a riot of different (and individually perfect) tastes, whereas my Chocolate ‘aero’ bar, pear, salted caramel suffered from having the only let-down of the meal: I felt the dark, aerated chocolate was on the side of being bland and bitter without that punch you get from a solid block of 80% cocoa chocolate. I even ventured that an actual Aero, sliced in half, might have been a bit more joyous. But the pear, wrapped round a fluffy salted caramel foam was spectacular.

I couldn’t eat this well every day. There was so much going on, so much sophistication that, when compared with the pared-down, use-the-best-ingredients-and-cook-one-thing-perfectly culinary culture rightly in vogue in London, it made me realise that sometimes twenty ingredients really does add up to something better than five. But there was so much competition for my taste buds that I couldn’t do it all the time. It wasn’t relaxing, and I felt like the next day I’d want a hearty soup where every spoonful was deliciously, comfortingly the same.

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Forget the last three paragraphs: we’re rating the ‘burger’, and, for sheer burgerness, for braveness, for spot-on flavours, it’s making it into the top twenty.

19/100 best dishes in London.