Radish, Celeriac and Pomegranate Salad at Bocco di Lupo

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“Earthy”, “Deep”, “Woody”, “Complex” – words that you might naturally associate with truffle. The impact of these fungal morsels is usually to deliver a rich, comforting elegance matching a creamy sauce – the height of indulgence. So “crisp” and “fresh” wouldn’t normally be the first thing you’d expect from a salad dressed with truffle oil. Yet this is what Jacob Kenedy has achieved with Bocca di Lupo’s simple yet superb salad.

“[Y]ou’re not going to make a lunch of a plate of these roots”

Whisper-thin slices of radish and celeriac make up the bulk of the platter, with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds adding sweetness and titbits of pecorino hidden away to deliver a salty, nutty zing. A light, citrusy, truffly dressing plays off these simple, crunchy vegetables and makes what would risk dreariness something special.

Okay, so you’re not going to make a lunch of a plate of these roots, but the ethic of this up-market trattoria is to encourage the sharing of a number of plates from across Italian regions and cooking styles, and you should make sure you do so. Interestingly, prices are no real indication of sizes of dishes, and you can easily eat well here very cheaply, or quite expensively, as your budget, mood, and company takes you.

Just make sure you don’t forget to pop across the road to their sister ice-cream parlour, Gelupo, for surely London’s best cone!

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.

Classic Tortilla at Barrafina

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There are some meals that break you. Of course, there are those so revolting, or so chaotic, that you end up exasperated and miserable. But others break you because they’re so good, so spectacular from both a culinary and experiential perspective, that you’re pretty sure your eating-life will never be the same again.

“Often the selected dish in the Time Out top 100 hasn’t been quite up to scratch”

This was one of those meals that broke me by being Just. So. Damn. Good.

James happened to me in town, so we made use of the fact that whenever he comes along we have a great Chowdown Showdown, and this was no exception. The highlights of the meal were so many it’s hard to even list them. Impeccable tuna tartare with a fresh avocado salsa. Tender squid on a spicy passata. A cheese fritter which oozed and delighted in equal measure. Indulgent pata negra (which we plotted how to steal). The black pudding was rich and not exactly to my taste, but James and Rachael practically fought over who got to devour the last morsel.

And every dish was presented like a work of art, feeding the eyes first, though definitely not  beautiful in a way that made us consider for a moment not diving right in.

So – the tortilla? Often the selected dish in the Time Out top 100 hasn’t been quite up to scratch when compared to others on offer in the relevant establishment. It’s also true that tortilla is never going to be the most complex dish, or allow chefs to show off and demonstrate the full range of their abilities. But this tortilla is a delight. We tried a classic version, plus one with ham and spinach. Both divulged a flow of rich, yolky flavour on being cut, delivering an instant aroma that the perfect, browned discs hid with their humble exterior.

“There are some meals that break you”

The flavour emphasised eggs (obviously), but in a way that showed just how good these miracles of nature can be when they’re allowed to take centre stage and not cooked till bouncy – in fact this is a dish as much about feel on the tongue as flavour. The ham and spinach match the rich, indulgent fattiness of the eggs, rather than trying to steal the limelight.

You’d be disappointed if you only ate tortilla at a restaurant that offers such a variety of spectacular colours, shapes and tastes. But I’d argue you’d be missing out if you didn’t have at least one small plate of this delicious, if simple, complement to any tapas meal.

Deep fried pickles at Meat Liquor

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Okay, let’s get this out of the way straight away. Yes, the whole idea of battering and deep frying pickles is disgusting. And yes, encouraging you to dip said pickles into blue cheese sauce is even more so. And, granted, this side, like everything at Meat Liquor, is never going to be health food. But it works. It really works, and, boy, is it indulgently delicious.

“This is crisp around crunch, and the textures complement brilliantly”

This dish is almost making a pun of the crunch of the cool gherkins, by wrapping them in the genuinely crisp batter, revealing that while pickles have ‘bite’ the crispness is an illusion from a combination of crunch and fresh flavour. Rather than being a clashing mix of crisp around crisp, this is crisp around crunch, and the textures complement brilliantly.

The burst of vinegary juice (virgin pickleback?) cuts through the potentially cloying blue cheese sauce, so you don’t feel like you’re bathing your mouth in grease. The similarity of its various constituent parts almost makes this a mini-burger, at least for someone who loves gherkins in their bun.

I love them, and I don’t know if I could make a trip to Meat Liquor without ordering a portion!

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

Goats’ cheese stuffed courgette flowers with lavender honey at Salt Yard

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This is a relatively straightforward dish, as the picture probably suggests. Courgette flowers are stuffed with tangy goats’ cheese, deep fried in the lightest of batters and drizzled (very generously) with aromatic lavender honey. Simple ingredients, but a really tasty result.

“They’re a bit of theatre and the chefs know how to play it”

Well, I say simple ingredients, but flowers rather than fruit bodies of courgette are no doubt pretty exotic. You couldn’t easily see these yellow beauties, and I was surprised (pleasantly it turns out) that they were cooked with quite a length of stalk which helped the dish stand up to the mellow but robust flavour of the oozing cheese, and gave a lovely crunchy bite to go with the crispy batter and flower.

The honey was sweet, obviously, but also almost spicy in its aromaticness. Together it amounted to an ethereal offering which is deservedly a signature dish for Salt Yard.

Courgette flowers are never going to fill you up, and I can’t honestly promise that the petals themselves add much to the dish, but they’re a bit of theatre and the chefs know how to play it. 

I’ve been told off for going on about other dishes not part of the Chowdown Showdown Londontown challenge, so here are some pictures to tantalise you of the other dishes on offer, with no additional commentary…

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24/100 best dishes in London

Shortrib French dip at Hawksmoor Bar

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This sandwich was good. Okay, let’s be fair: this sandwich was very good. Sharp cheese matched to melting braised shortrib matched to a sweet, floaty bun. The meat had an almost sloppy Joe consistency whilst still being flaky rather than mush. The cheese oozed out the edges in an indulgent, bordering-on-too-much-of-it way.

“Shouldn’t a main be able to stand up to a side?”

But, if I’m being fair I’m going to have to say it straight too: about three seconds after I’d eaten the last delicious mouthful I can honestly say I hadn’t the faintest idea what the whole thing tasted of. Even trying to recall the individual flavours just evoked a sense of the melty, easy-eating nature of it, let alone trying to think what the combination amounted to.

Is this a criticism? I don’t know. I remember enjoying the taste as I ate it, as well as thinking that I had no idea what to do with the dip, which, being the consistency of a thin gravy quickly made the end of the sandwich I’d dipped into it dissolve and collapse. Perhaps I should have poured it over, but then I’d have just had a soggy bun and it would have been even harder to eat without squirting grease everywhere.

Perhaps it’s that I paired the sandwich with thrice-cooked chips, whose crunch and salt rather overpowered the insubstantial (in a good way… I think) sandwich. But then, shouldn’t a main be able to stand up to a side: especially one as standard as (yes, pretty damn good) fries?

Again, being fair, I couldn’t quite believe that this was one of Time Out’s Top Ten – give me a Meat Liquor / Meat Market burger in preference any day.

45/100 top hundred dishes in London