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Feb 22, 2014 04:13 PM

London hamburger taste-off: one man's opinion

With the new wave of hamburger restaurants opening in London I thought I'd do a quick comparison. Not by any means a comprehensive sampling, but I think I've got the general idea.

At each place I got a very standard order: a plain hamburger - just meat and bun, cooked rare, and a chips; the central elements against which all must be measured.

Honest Burgers always seems to get the highest marks in written guides - whether by public survey or private review; and their Tripadvisor marks are good too. They had the best service of the lot - friendly and somehow not quite treating you like a number. In my view indeed that's the main reason to come. The burger, meanwhile, while nice was only a step above what you'd get at a "typical" pub. Which is to say, they made an effort with the meat, which was reasonable if not wonderful, and it did come cooked as ordered, but the bun was fairly bog-standard, and in my view not robust enough. I have a fairly simple test for a bun: it must be able to take the weight of a full 250 g of very juicy meat placed squarely on top of it without any significant compression. Not here, you wouldn't get that. The chips weren't up to snuff; I'm not convinced with the seasoning and they were limper than they should be. So go for the service, but don't be fussed about the food.

Patty and Bun has an enormous buzz factor - you can tell by the tremendous queue outside - which to judge from my experience is completely unmerited. Service was on the surly end of the spectrum, not even as good as you'd find at a McDonald's. Meanwhile the hamburger was the inverse of Honest Burgers. The bun was easily the best - and one of the few I've had anywhere where they seem to be making an effort; it would pass the "patty test" above, and had real flavour. But the meat itself was extremely uninspiring; it tasted like ordinary mince I might have bought from Sainsbury's. The chips, meanwhile, were rubbish, limp, wormlike items with no real flavour and no real substance. I get the feeling there's a reason the kitchen is hidden from view. Why this is so popular is difficult to fathom.

Tommis Burger Joint is almost neighbour to Patty and Bun and is almost the inverse of the latter in terms of experience. Service is perfunctory but friendly enough, and there's not the daft queue of P&B. They offer a "steak burger" as a better option - and I'm looking for the best so naturally it's what I took. The meat itself annihilates the competition. It's so much better than the other two as to be in a separate category. This is the calibre of patty I'm looking for. On the other hand, the bun was definitely the worst - industrial in both flavour and texture. The chips - and they should definitely be called French Fries here, were cracking: hot, crisp, fluffy, flavourful. Again they were in another category compared to the first two, although, it will be admitted, are themselves eclipsed by the chips from the Golden Hind not far away.

The easy winner was Tommis; the only thing they need to to do make it perfect is to get a bun like their P&B competitors down the street. There may be more places to try, but I get the strong feeling this is as good as I'll get in London.

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  1. A few more to try if you haven't seen this list.

    If nothing else, you can see what the author thought of places you tried.

    5 Replies
    1. re: zuriga1

      I find it interesting that the bun to this author is an afterthought: note:

      "according to the factors which matter to you most: burger style (street, joint, pub, steak), patty (size, shape, density), meat (cut, fat content, grind), assortment of toppings, cooking method, construction, consistency of preparation, inventiveness, price, value for money, level of obscene drippiness, etc."

      bun is not even mentioned, and later:

      A burger bun is a handle protecting our hands from drippy greasy, cheese and condiments.

      This seems to be a common reaction. One that I can't agree with; after all, the bun is one of the 2 sine qua non elements of a hamburger - and at the end of the day if it really is an afterthought, why not just eliminate it altogether and eat the result with knife and fork?

      Should try Little Social although I confess I've always been utterly underwhelmed by Jason Atherton's restaurants - many rave but I find they seem to be more about technical wizardry than good flavour, so that you'll get something that may have been incredibly difficult to execute, but doesn't really taste yummy. I don't deny his skills as a chef though so worth seeing his interpretation.

      Foxeyblue - been to Hawksmoor. I don't think it really fair to evaluate them in the same category because they're a steak and chop house rather than a specialist burger restaurant. Even so, it must be said I've been again faintly underwhelmed. The meat (Ginger Pig) isn't as good as, I think, it should be; in fact, while Ginger Pig is a fine butcher, I don't think they're in the elite class; the meat doesn't have the density or richness of flavour that comes with the very best - be it for beef or pork.

      As for Patty & Bun, see above. Foxeyblue, as you see I wasn't particularly fond. Can you identify what you like about it? Because to me why people rave over P&B is mysterious.

      1. re: AlexRast

        The bun is important to me, too. Maybe it's because I'm an American and remember some darn good burgers in my time. Most buns I've had in England haven't been to my liking.

        My next outing will be to try Patty and Bun, but I don't live in London and I'm not there all that often.

        I loved Atheron's Maze but that was years ago and I know it changed after he left.

        1. re: AlexRast

          "The meat (Ginger Pig) isn't as good as, I think, it should be; in fact, while Ginger Pig is a fine butcher, I don't think they're in the elite class; the meat doesn't have the density or richness of flavour that comes with the very best - be it for beef or pork."

          Completely agreed. The beef at o'sheas in bermondsey is at a different level, and the Iberian pork might as well be a different animal.

          1. re: howler

            This has been my general view on the Ginger Pig meat also. It is much lauded....and there is no denying that they do a killer sausage roll :) ....but I have often been left feeling a bit meh about the offerings from their clients.

            I believe Honest Burger use Ginger Pig also.

          2. re: AlexRast

            The Ari Gold at Patty & Bun. Tasty brioche bun, great sauce too. Plus their fries are a bit more interesting than most.

        2. You haven't finished without going to Hawksmoor and probably to Patty and Bun.

          2 Replies
            1. re: brokentelephone

              Opinions differ. It gets many good reviews.But of course tastes vary,

          1. Definitely a case of each to their own!

            Patty and Bun is hands down for me one of the best burgers I have ever had - both here and stateside. A beautifully sourced and cooked patty, perfect brioche bun and some inspired burger construction. Rosemary fries and confit chicken wings formed some delicious sides to boot.

            Honest Burger was a huge let down. The burger tasted like minced supermarket pork. Bun was a bit stale. Fries greasy. Just not good at all.

            Meat liquor, go for the jalapeno poppers....the hard shakes if you can afford....forget the hyped and meh burgers.

            Hawksmoor Ogleshield burger was a winner in my book. The inclusion of bone marrow and an innovative cut-list makes for a very rich patty which may be a bit much for some....but I found it an unctious and upmarket burger (oh the juice!) - a definite foil for the great cocktails they serve, and particularly a jug of Shakey Pete's Ginger Brew! Bring your appetite for this one. :)

            Tommis is an interesting winner in your list. I remember them being touted as the place to go if you were bored waiting in the queue for the original Meat Liquor around the corner. They were ok....but an inferior product to some of the better sources offerings in the city now.

            There are so many other burgers now....haven't had time to get round them all. Would like to try the Bar Boulud offering some time, but never seem smartly attired enough when passing!

            1. I was at Patty and Bun today. The service was lovely, but maybe they liked my face. To be honest, I enjoyed the burger quite a lot (and the bun), but I really couldn't taste the meat because there was so much dressing and onion. The chips were very crispy and I thought delicious. Maybe they read your comments about them being limp because they sure weren't the least bit that way today.

              9 Replies
              1. re: zuriga1

                This got me to thinking: I wonder how much the difference between burgers absolutely plain and with "everything" is a cause of the difference in opinion between my uninspiring experience and others' enthusiastic reception? As you say the addition of sauce, onion, and other strongly flavoured additional ingredients will tend to mask the flavour of the meat, so what I experienced as mediocrity might not even be noticed. Meanwhile the same effects would tend to accentuate any bun superiority - because the robustness and flavour of the bun will be enhanced by a sharp and rather messy counterpoint.

                If this hypothesis has any truth to it, then what could be happening at P&B is that people are reacting to better bun and possibly better accoutrements, while the patty sort of goes by unnoticed. For the same reasons, other places with potentially better actual patties might receive lower ratings, because the superiority of the meat would similarly go by unnoticed, masked by everything else, while bun inferiority would make itself apparent.

                Interesting that your chips experience was different though. It could be that you can be lucky or unlucky depending on your timing, if they batch-fry the chips and then leave them over a heat lamp.

                1. re: AlexRast

                  Alex - I think you need to evaluate the complete package. The blend of sauces (ketchup, mustard etc), the cheese (if a cheeseburger), and other additions are all vital to getting the classic flavour profiles.

                  I don't think the extras mask a bad patty or bun - bad is still bad. They may mask subtle tastes but to me the burger is the result of all these things coming together.

                  For me the art is getting the combination to work and that is far more tricky than sourcing a decent patty or bun....although they are essential building blocks.

                  1. re: PhilD

                    Yes, that's a difference in basic philosophy. My approach - and this applies to *any* food no matter what the category, is to first distill it down to its essence - the components without which it ceases to be able to be called by the name given. In the case of a hamburger, for instance, it seems to me this consists of the patty and the bun. Everything else is to some degree optional. Then I evaluate what someone has done based on that most-basic configuration, to find out if they've maximised the basics. This to me is the essence of good food, first, you get the essentials as good as possible, then consider the accoutrements. Until I feel that there is no real room for improvement on these basics, my evaluation of them won't change based on any additional items, and a place that does a better job on the basics, will always rate higher for me.

                    It should also be noted that in the case of patties and buns sourcing would only be part of the equation. There's also the fundamental recipe they used to bake the bun (method, bake time, ingredients, etc. etc.) whether it's toasted and if so for how long, seeded or unseeded bun, etc. etc., and likewise on the patty there's the size, aspect ratio (small or large diameter, thick or thin), cooking method, execution in the cooking, etc. etc.

                    You could consider this similar to the way I might approach, e.g. evaluating a TV. For me, for example, things like screen size, remote control, command features, setup, etc. etc. aren't really important. There are 2 things that matter, picture quality (by far the more important) and to some degree sound quality - although this can be usually improved anyway by directing the sound output to a hi-fi stereo - in which case evaluation of sound quality really comes down to the performance of the sound decoder in the TV receiver). So a television could be stripped bare of features, and still rate higher for me, if the picture quality was superb, than one that was feature rich but whose picture quality, while excellent, was marginally less good. (In fact, this is true in actual fact; the televisions that I prefer overwhelmingly are the professional video monitors, which are always all about video performance)

                    1. re: AlexRast

                      Alex - isn't the flaw in your approach that a lot of dishes are as much about the interaction of the ingredients as they are about the individual components?

                      Of course lots of things are optional but if the saucing is the component of the package that holds integrates the patty and bun together to make it a dish then its vital to include it in the evaluation. Stripping a dish back to the main components that then don't relate to how the dish is usually served or usually consumed seems to miss the point of the dish.

                      Taking your TV analogy further. Great picture but in a display that hasn't been well designed so its difficult to mount on the wall or the stand is of low quality and unstable, simple composite connectors rather the HDMI for video in and out, and RCA analogue connectors for the sound output rather than digital. These maybe the peripheral factors but they are fundamental to get the maximum amount of satisfaction from the product.

                      1. re: PhilD

                        Really I think it depends on what you're trying to achieve. When doing a side-by-side comparison, one important reason for me to strip it down to the "bare essentials" is because otherwise it's too easy to end up comparing apples to oranges.

                        When you speak of "interaction of ingredients" to me this really gets into the area of chef interpretation. I'm not one who values that particularly highly, at least not when it comes to a classic, canonical item like a hamburger. In my view interpretation is decidedly secondary to underlying quality and execution in this case.

                        On "don't relate to how the dish is usually served"... the problem is that the possible variations of how hamburgers can be ordered are so myriad and so personal (everyone has their own list of additions or subtractions) that the idea of "how it is usually served" seems to me a little meaningless. I certainly don't think that "saucing is the component of the package that holds integrates the patty and bun together to make it a dish". I think the patty and bun can and should stand perfectly fine on their own as a complete dish.

                        Meanwhile on the television example I have to say that particularly something like ease of wall mounting would be so immaterial to me as to be absolutely irrelevant. If I need some particular mounting ultimately that's my problem to deal with and if the stock unit doesn't have what I need then I can rig something up or build it if necessary. When it comes to connectors, too, a lot would depend upon what external devices you were connecting to and their respective quality. It's certainly not a given that digital is better than analogue - and with respect to the connectors themselves that also not only depends on the type of connector but also on the quality of the particular connector used (the same style of connector often comes in various grades) and on how well the electrical connections/wiring/soldering had been done - all of which would probably make more difference than simply which connectors had been made available. In any case I'd see them as far from fundamental to get maximum amount of satisfaction. Now once picture quality and then sound has been maximised, OK, I might use connector quality in the limit to choose between otherwise identically-performing models, but otherwise they wouldn't rate.

                        The analogy applies back to food - e.g. in a hamburger, the type of plate/box/bag it comes on/in is close to irrelevant (exception - some out-gassing plastics), what other things you choose to put in it may depend on what you're having with it (e.g. having double bacon plus cheese is probably overkill if you're planning to have a chocolate cake afterwards) and even when included more is going to depend at least in my view upon the quality and execution of whatever else is used than whether it's there at all or not.

                        All of this is just to emphasise that I think we are talking about basic differences in outlook, not something provable or with any sort of definite answer.

                        1. re: AlexRast

                          But isn't the problem with this approach is that you may find supplier A has the perfect patty and bun but supplier B has the better sauces, additions etc.

                          If you on eat a plain patty and bun then your method is great, but that isn't how most eat their burgers so your premise that these are the "central elements against which all must be measured." is flawed.

                          The burger and patty are clearly foundational (and it won't be good without solid foundations) but its how the whole thing comes together that matters. If it were possible to standardise the test with each restaurant serving the same patty and bun then I would expect it would be clear who are the masters of putting the package together to deliver an excellent burger.

                          So a question; when not assessing the relative merits of burgers do you eat yours plain or do you choose ones with sauces, cheese, onions, salad etc?

                          We can take the analogies to extremes and I was careful to not include extras like, bacon, mushrooms, chillies etc as the extras.

                          1. re: PhilD

                            "But isn't the problem with this approach is that you may find supplier A has the perfect patty and bun but supplier B has the better sauces, additions etc."

                            For me that wouldn't affect the outcome. Supplier A would be in my mind better than Supplier B.

                            "...that isn't how most eat their burgers so your premise that these are the "central elements against which all must be measured." is flawed."

                            I'm not trying to argue tasting methodology as though it's some sort of propositional truth. It's definitely my approach - others may or may not adopt it. But if we take your approach it seems to me that *no* meaningful comparison could be made because there isn't one way "most eat their burgers" - the variations are endless. Maybe that is, in fact, your position - there is a school of thought which regards comparative evaluation of restaurants as an empty exercise. Fair dos, if so. But I'm of the persuasion that there are meaningful differences in different establishments, and that it's rather fun to try different places comparatively to really see those differences.

                            By the way, if you "stardardised the test with each restaurant serving the same patty and bun" I think that would utterly flatten out the differences - because a large component for me of the outcome is the quality of these items themselves. If you standardised them, it would come down entirely to execution which is only part of the evaluation.

                            Burger selection when *not* specifically doing a test really rather depends highly on my expectations and prior experience. For example, if I were going to somewhere I'd never tried, which I had reason to believe would be great, I'd definitely opt for the plain. But if it were somewhere I'd been before and who had interesting options, I'd probably try some option combination. Also if I didn't have any reason to expect that by themselves the basic components would be particularly wonderful.

                            It should be noted that I can't have cheese - which is an absolute limitation.

                            1. re: AlexRast

                              "But if we take your approach it seems to me that *no* meaningful comparison could be made because there isn't one way "most eat their burgers" - the variations are endless. Maybe that is, in fact, your position...."

                              I agree with much that you say. But my argument is that you have distilled the dish down to something that is less than it should be. Certainly you can accessorise your burger to your hearts content, but isn't a better test to order a restaurants standard burger (no cheese) and compare the complete package...?

                              My contention is that the melding of all the ingredients makes the burger - how the sauces blend, how good are the pickles, onions etc. There are lots of variables and how a cook brings these together is the essence if the burger. IIRC the guys behind Meatwagon when they first started focussed on getting the patty, bun, cheese and sauces right because they thought it was how all the elements came together was important.

                          2. re: AlexRast

                            using 'canonical' .. aah you must be one of my mathematical brethren.