Burger

Bunsen, Dublin

The menu at Bunsen is a simple one; burger, either with or without cheese, one or two patties. Three types of fries, two of those potato, the other the big orange thing that should be banned. That is it. No silly toppings of crisps or waffles soaked in gypsy tears. No dehydrated acorn bark or rehydrated racoon faeces. Just a straight up burger with no frills or gimmicks. I like this, it shows a confidence in the produce, where if done right highlights the quality of the beef. But it has to be good. There is nowhere to hide with this, the salad has to be fresh, the lettuce still crunch between the teeth. Most importantly the beef has to be knockout good.

The burger at Bunsen – a cheeseburger on this occasion – is very good indeed. An eight, maybe even nine out of ten on it’s own. The patty makes it, charred on the outside, pink in the centre. It is more beefy than the 1981 Ashes victory. The rest of it just works; a bun that doesn’t dissolve to nothing, salad, mustard, ketchup, cheese, and pickles to cut through it all. Claire says it reminds her of something called a Big Mac, a reference that it is lost on me. It reminds me of Bleecker, which if you are au fait with my burger habits is a bloody big compliment.

Alas, it is not all perfect. I don’t like the chips one bit; the fat ones or the skinny ones. My guess is that as we are first in through the door the oil is not sufficiently hot, hence why neither are crisp and both are a little bit greasy. Is it an excuse? No, I don’t think so, and nor is it good enough given how good the burger was. With this I drink the own brand lager, five euros a bottle, making it a bargain in Dublin terms.

I applaud Bunsen for taking the straight forward approach. We live in a society that sees variety as a necessity when it is actually the opposite. They have pretty much perfected the burger offering here by doing it over and over again. And it’s paying off; Sunday afternoon less than an hour after opening and it’s full. If I ever found myself in distance of their three branches I’d return, just this time the order would be two cheeseburgers and no sides. Stick to the good stuff and you’ll be fine.

7/10

Bonehead, Birmingham

Who would thought that a bit of fried chicken could cause such bother? KFC running out of chicken caused total pandemonium. Panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham. I wonder to myself could life ever be sane again? Of course it could, its just chicken for fucksake, and not very good chicken at that. Still people properly lost their shit. Social media went into meltdown and 999 calls were made to report the closures, which is just ridiculous. Everyone knows if you are going to waste police time you do it when the carrot on the snowman is nicked.

Bonehead also do fried chicken, except they get their chicken from a nice little farm in the Cotswolds and not a secret underground laboratory where 12ft mutant chickens are crafted with 8 wings. And whilst no one sane is going to phone emergency services about them, they do some very good things for a little chicken shop just three days old on the date of our visit. It is deliberately low-key and dark on the inside. Walls are painted black and coated with flyers. Downstairs is the dive bar, upstairs is a basic dining room with basic seating and a hole in the wall to the kitchen. This is the beard and beanie of chicken joints, a little too hipster for its own good. I like it.

And so to the menu, which is made of chicken that you can have cooked anyway you like just as long as its fried. They do the important things right; good quality chicken, brined, with the wings jointed for even cooking. We end up with three trays of those wings, and should you find yourself less greedy than us and in need of choice, take the buffalo option. These are a showstopper, hot and sour from cayenne pepper and vinegar, that are as difficult to remove from the breath as from a shirt. I know, I’ve tried to do both. The blunt notes needing the blue cheese to soothe the finish. And we like the hothead wings which are more aromatic than spicy, though the original ones are floury and not particularly nice. Two outta three ain’t bad. Just ask Meatloaf.

And then there’s the burgers. We try both because those trousers aren’t quite tight enough after 24 wings. They eat a lot better than they photograph. There is crunch in the batter that protects the chicken thigh from the harsh heat. There is molten cheese and the tang of pickle lurking in the background. It’s very well balanced but asked to choose you should take the hot one which gently smoulders. And whatever you do add the potato waffles loaded with sauce and slaw. That slaw might just be the best thing about the entire meal. It’s crisp and clean with a slight Asian feel to it. Those waffles and some buffalo wings with a cold pint of craft lager might just be my go-to dinner for a while.

Prior to its opening I’d publicly played Bonehead down because the hype was making my little head explode. And if you are the type of person that orgasms over a picture of a dish you’ve never eaten then please go find a hobby. But is the hype justified? Kind of. It’s not Fuku, the best fried chicken I have ever eaten, not by a distance. But it is good. Cleverly conceived tasty food at a fair price. Birmingham needs places like this. Independents raising the standards is only a positive thing. If you haven’t been to Bonehead yet, you finger lickin’ should.

8/10

In the effort of full disclosure the kitchen sent out additional wings which were not ordered and did not appear on the bill.

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Honest Burgers, Hammersmith

Having rushed out of London to Birmingham and back at 5am for a 14 hour round trip to see the woman who struck me down with a car four years ago, we were somewhat short of last minute dinner options near our hotel. As lovely as Hammersmith is, it is woefully short of somewhere to eat on a Monday; L’Amorosa is closed, as is the Indian our hotel tried to send us to. We settle for Honest Burger, a small chain of bits of beef between buns beloved of belligerent Londoners. And before those Londoners get shouty for calling them belligerent, yes you bloody are. I’ve travelled on the tube at peak times, I have the footprints on my back to prove it.

They have a nice queuing system that allows us to wait in the pub around the corner until a table becomes available. When one does we are sat upstairs underneath the shadow of the blackboard that is the menu for those with the vision of a mole. We order cocktails in tin cups and bottles of local beer. We get two beef burgers and some bits to ensure we leave full. The beef is served pink they say to which we say fine. Its a solid start for somewhere that charges a little over £40 for burgers and drinks for two.

And then, well, meh. The burgers are boring to the point that they serve to remind me why I quit eating them for a while. The patty is pink but it is also bland, the bun hardly holding its shape. If this was In and Out the emphasis would be on the final word. It’s Five Why’s. Shake Whack. The jalapeño relish and hot sauce one is only distinguishable from the garlic mayo one by levels of attitude. Both have bacon; one crisp, the other not. I get a ribbon of raw fat wedged between my teeth.

The rest is a mixed bag. We get the Paris Hilton of onion rings; they look alright until we get into the doughy interior. The chips, often the bane of the burger shop, are properly good and dusted with rosemary salt. The best bit is the curry sauce that tastes better than my local Indian takeaway. It’s just when the best bit makes up one fortieth of the bill you know there is an intrinsic problem.

Service was ponderous, the bill painful. I could think of half a dozen burger places I would rather eat at for less. And tragically this isn’t the first time this has happened to me in the capital; Bleecker aside I’ve tried little to get me excited. I’ll never have a burger again here. Honest.

5/10

Honest Burger Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Masdings at 1000 Trades

Let’s talk battered pickled spicy pineapple rings. A hybrid of the fritters at your local Chinese takeaway and frickles, those battered fried pickles you’ve ordered at The Meat Shack. They are sweet and acidic and hot and more addictive than a Tetris session on Hillbilly Crack (not that I would know. Honest.). They are just one part of one burger at Masdings, providing a sharp astringency and some sweet, sweet love. And they are also available as a side. I tried one on the burger and then ordered more as a side. I expect you will do exactly the same.

That burger is called The Heizenberg and it is what you should be ordering when you get to 1000 Trades this December. At it’s core is an 8oz hockey puck of a beef patty, robust in flavour and cooked just a little past the medium rare they promise. It comes with bacon that has been cooked in Maple syrup and chipotle mayo. It is utter filth and a substantial feed for £8. With the lamb burger sold out on our visit, we order a Smokey Robinson that has a similar offering to The Heizenberg, only with the addition of smoked cheese and minus those battered pineapple rings. My heart may lay with the the former, but I’m happy to kept the latter as my dirty little secret.

A portion of chips with halloumi and chorizo is perhaps the closest we get to Masding’s other business, the Mediterranean influenced Kebabylon. These are brash and a hearty lunch by themselves at £4.50. Indeed, all of this feels like really value with the food elements coming in at £22 and the evening’s beers far more than that. I can find very little to dislike at Masdings other than that awful abuse of apostrophes which hurts to these chubby fingers to type. The residency is on until the 22nd of December and is well worth a visit.

Transport was provided by A2B Radiocars. Download the app here http://www.a2bradiocars.com

Sear and Smoke, Birmingham

Meat. If that one word isn’t to your liking, then you may want to shut down this window and go back to your hummus and crudites. For the rest of you, prepare for sympathy sweats and burger envy, for lumps of protein and token pieces of carbohydrates. The latest addition to this cities fast expanding food scene is an ode to fire and beast, to feeding using only the finest animals in the most skilled of hands.

Being a collaboration from Original Patty Men and Digbeth Dining Club it was never going to be ambiguous in name. They settle for Sear and Smoke, which makes sense given that pretty much covers off the cooking processes involved. It’s home is Crane, a beautiful old factory too close to St Andrews to be desirable. The huge ceilings, bare brick and steel framework feels like its already integral to the city and I feel slightly at loss to have seen this for the first time in my mid thirties.

I head straight to Flying Cows because a burger for breakfast makes perfect sense. There I take The High Flyer because that’s the award winner and award winners should only ever eat award winners if you want to go Full Pillock. I do. The aged beef is pink throughout, with the sweetest of bacon and Swiss cheese that has the same gummy feel as it’s American counterpart, only with the added bonus of actually tasting of cheese. Whisper it, but Flying Cows remind me of Bleecker Burger at their finest. It’s the burger I would choose from anywhere right now if given the choice. I wash it down with a cocktail from the Birmingham Whisky Club. And lovely it is, too. Far better than the whisky I usually wash my breakfast down with.

There are a dozen or so food traders here on the day, the cream of the local talent and some from further afield. From a little place called London we have Wingman, a chicken wing specialist who came to my attention when they won best of the best at this year’s British Street Food finals. I have the winning dish (see previous Full Pillock comment) that has the sweet, sour and hot profiles of Thai cooking all over their chicken and all down my jacket. Properly lovely stuff and easily the best chicken wing I have ever eaten. Taking second place at those awards was Baked in Brick, today cooking a 45 day aged rump cap as a special alongside some of the more usual suspects. The beef is gloriously tender, with a chestnut mushroom sauce enriched with bone marrow that transformed some very ordinary fries underneath into something far more magical.

I’m outside for a talk by a man who knows a lot about street food and more whisky. The air is stained by smoke and the smell of rendered fat. Low’n’Slow are to blame. Throngs of people have gathered round to watch him smoke pork belly over a make shift pit on the floor before being finished over a barbecue by the very farmer who supplies the pigs. The meat is stunning; aged pork with thick ribbons of fat that only a fool would discard. It’s a proper plate of food, with potatoes cooked with bone marrow and a fiery burnt salsa and sharp ‘slaw. He is bringing the theatre of Meatopia to a warehouse in the backstreets of Birmingham. This is the future of Sear and Smoke.

Original Patty Men are here with a friend – Dom Clarke of Canneat, a little place in Stirchley that I have much love for. I try the special which has their usual patty with ox cheek, gruyere, and ‘French soup’ onions. It’s one of the days more technically minded dishes, aimed squarely at a mouthful of umami. The ox cheek has been braised in reduced Guiness, the onions cooked down to a meaty gelatinous mess. It’s seriously good, I just wish I’d left more room for it.

I wanted to try more, though without my usual partner in crime I was defeated. Three hours after the start and the place was starting to heave, my attempts over, dictated by a bulging waistline and the arrival of a coven of my ex’s friends. I depart for a well earned snooze, awaking to a social media frenzy at the event as the night draws in and the bands begin to play. It seems that I was not alone in my love for it. It was a bona fide success, proof that Birmingham can play with the big boys. It was a faultless stepping stone to a more ambitious event next year. The countdown to the next Sear and Smoke has already begun.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. For more information please see http://www.a2bradiocars.com

MEATmarket, London

I read a lot of other blogs and a lot of lists. I’m fun like that. Almost always food, always a mixture of the good and the bad; there are those I look up to and those I read to make myself feel better. It’s important to keep your eyes on both the sky and the dirt. One of the things I read a lot about is burgers. Outside of Brum I know about as much about them as I do monogamy and modesty, but my girlfriend loves them so it’s in my interest to keep her happy. I’d have never had found out about Bleecker without reading other blog posts, and those same posts always list MEATliquor (and it’s offshoots for which Covent Gardens MEATmarket is one) as one of the true originals to the burger scene in this country.

So I’m not quite sure what has happened. Maybe the very businesses that they have inspired have surpassed them in quality and delivery. Maybe there offering isn’t as good as it used to be. Maybe it was actually never that good. I don’t know, I can only base it what we had, and what we had was okay. The burger that I see on most lists is the Dead Hippie, a double patty of just pink beef in slender proportions with their famous Dead Hippie sauce that is seemingly a mustard mayo given a kick up the arse with chopped pickles and Worcestershire sauce. It’s messy and difficult to hold (these are plus points, honestly), with a bun that gets too soggy too quickly. The beef is good, but not up there with the best; it’s a little chewy in parts and we chow down on bits that possibly shouldn’t have made the cut. The sauce adds a nice acidity and the diced onions are welcome. It’s a good burger, I’ve just had much better.

The double bacon cheeseburger baffles me for crimes against bacon. We’re back on that double patty and bun though this time with additional thin layers of something dark brown that tastes vaguely of pig. It’s bacon, minced and reformed again, because, y’know, sometimes a rasher just isn’t good enough. They’ve destroyed the essence of what it should be, the fat content and the crisp shard of pure pork flavour, turning it into a just another layer of something brown and grainy that detracts away from a pretty good burger. We switch our attention to battered fillets of chicken breast that give the impression the oil was not hot enough. The batter is flaccid in good places, soggy in others from a coating of buffalo sauce. It makes a bit more sense when dipped into the blue cheese dip.

There is a revelation in the form of a Hot Mess, cylinders of crisp potato that ooze a pungent blue cheese and jalapeno sauce, and less of one with green chilli fries that blast heat with every mouthful. It’s a credit to MEATliquor that the sides are genuinely interesting and I’ve seen very similar options pop up elsewhere, including Birmingham, in a blatant bit of plagiarism.

The bill for all of the above and a couple of soft drinks came in at a few pence under forty quid, which would have been value had we enjoyed lunch. The truth is we both walked away full but underwhelmed, struggling to see what all the fuss is about. I can think of three burgers I’d rather eat in Birmingham and at least another three in London. The burgers at MEATmarket may be of legend, but the competition has not only caught up, but surpassed them.

6/10

Nosh & Quaff, Birmingham

Way before I started eating and writing about the nicer places around Birmingham, I used to read about them and not eat at them. I would buy the Birmingham (then Evening) Mail on a Friday only, moving just past halfway to Paul Fulford’s weekly piece. There you would have found a small picture of his small and shiny head in the upper left and two hundred words or so of Paul’s concise writing below. His occasionally acerbic, always honest writing style was an early favourite of mine, more so on the occasions he slipped in a subtle knob innuendo. He’s my neighbour now, which I still find bizarre, and occasionally I get to spend time over dinner with him, taking in his stories and counting the wrinkles on his face.  A couple of nights back I met him at 7pm sharp at Nosh & Quaff where in the deep red leather booths you would have found the unlikely combination of a Birmingham food legend and Paul Fulford, the ex restaurant critic for the Birmingham Mail.

There is a valid reason for us being here.  Back when I first wrote about Nosh & Quaff the menu was even shorter than Paul; lobster, burgers, some ribs.  I liked it, others less so, finding the options too limiting and the pricing aggressive.  Two years and a little introspection later, we have a full page of options and a considerable decrease in the pricing.  I think it needs it.  Downstairs is still a beautiful space of marble and deep red leather with ceilings high enough to fit my ego without the need to crouch, it just now has the kind of pricing and options to fill it more frequently.  There is a large industrial room  of bare brick and wood upstairs that they should turn into the city centre location of Fiesta Del Asado, a stablemate of the same group.


The hotdog is one of those items that has fallen in price.  Impeccably sourced from the Big Apple Hotdog company it is now half the price of the fifteen quid it used to be, with only fries losing their tray gig.  It showcases what N&Q is all about; quality produce, generous portions, and an underlying guilt that you probably will need to run your dinner off the following morning. It is worth the run. The dog snaps, the bun is sturdy enough to hold everything else in place. Order this and ask for a bib to come with it.  


From the newer items are rib tips that really transpire to be precise cubes of unctuous pork, slowly cooked and glazed in a funky BBQ sauce.  This is a lot of pig for £4.50.  Chick Norris may be a dreadful name for a burger but is a hefty bit of dinner.  Two hulks of free range thigh meat in one of those thick American buttermilk batters with bacon and processed cheese. Heat lurks in the background with enough tang in the ‘slaw to cut through the richness of it all. As far as the composition of a burger goes this has it all.



American portions mean only real Americans will have room for desserts.  For the rest of us it’s a small dent in the wallet and a lie down.  I still really like Nosh & Quaff, they’re not pushing boundaries but they are taking a familiar cuisine and applying quality ingredients with precise cooking.  It’s managed to improve what it previously was, now with a menu with enough scope to warrant repeat visits.  And all in the company of a man who definitely makes the list of my top 172 food writers.  Life really doesn’t get much better. 

Mr Fulford picked up the bill, I got the Uber home.  I guess that makes us quits.    

Meat Shack, Birmingham

 

I have a lot to thank Meat Shack for.  They ended ‘The Carlo Great Burger Drought’, that ripped through the country between 2006 and 2013 when I decided that burgers were shite.  Looking back I was probably right, in Birmingham anyhow, when our casual dining scenes was as stale as the sesame seed bun that compresses the cows arsehole and eyelid together at McDonald’s.  We had very little to shout about other than a couple of Michelin starred places that the majority could not afford.  And then Digbeth Dining Club happened.  I remember eating the food of passionate traders who were producing far superior dishes to those in their own bricks and mortar, at a fraction of the price.  The Meatshack was one of those places, the first burger I had eaten for, I think, seven years.  I was coerced by a mate and never looked back – it was everything that I wanted a burger to be.  I remember talking about it sometime after to an equally epicurean pal, how those burgers, along with many other wonderful dishes at DDC, would eventually shape our future restaurants in Birmingham.  I was right.  I am always fucking right.

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The transition of street food to restaurant doesn’t happen overnight.  Products are to be tweaked.  Locations found.  Funds raised.  In the case of Meat Shack it’s taken five years to go from the little black and white tent to the bright and illustrated space upstairs in the new Thorp 17 building in China Town.  It’s caused local hysteria with those who love their food.  Expectations are high and for the most part they have nailed it.

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The slogan here is ‘dripping filthy goodness’, a phrase that they have presumably stolen from a swingers club, but actually relates to the process of cooking the beef patty so that it retains the juices.  It is exactly as I remember them being, if not as pink in the centre as they once were.  We try two different burgers, both of which are excellent.  Hell Shack is a brute, a relentless assault that has the Rib Man’s ‘Holy Fuck’ hot sauce at it’s core and a green chilli relish playing back-up when a back-up probably isn’t required.  Still, if you order anything with a hot sauce called ‘Holy Fuck’ you expect serious heat, and serious heat is what you get.  I fucking love it, and I can swear all I want here, because if they can say fuck on a menu, I can use it all I fucking want in my post.  Sorry, Mom.  If heaven existed I know you’d be pretty appalled with me right now.

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You can look again now because the next paragraph contains zero curse words.  The Dutch Piggy is at it’s purest form a bacon cheeseburger.  It has two cheeses; a classic American cheese that owes its existence to the invention of plastic as much as it does to milk (this is not an insult – American cheese is the best for burgers) and another, Edam, I think, that has melted in a far more conventional sense.  Together with the bacon it works to accentuate the beef flavour rather than wipe it off the face of the earth like the hot sauce does.  They are two burgers for very different customers.  Both are very good indeed.

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There are no fried pickles on today, leaving us with onion rings and fries topped with a spicy mayo.  The latter is the weak link here, unremarkable in texture with not enough of the mayo, which itself could do with more attitude.  The onion rings are the best I’ve tried, though at £3.50 for six they should be.  The batter cracks and then disappears in the mouth.  It makes me wish that the Frickles were on to try.

We’ve waited five years for this to become a reality.  Is it worth it?  Undoubtedly yes.  We eat within the first few hours of the first day they are open to the public and already the team have mastered the service and the cooking.  It’s slick and personable, maybe more than you ever expect a burger restaurant to ever to.  I never doubted their ability to make the jump, but I am seriously impressed with the professionalism and accuracy of it all.  Meat Shack is destined to be another Birmingham success story, and hopefully one that will inspire some of the other traders to do the same.

8/10

Bleecker Burger, London

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Bleecker Burger almost never happened.  It was the last entry on our itinerary for the weekend, after the three star and the trendy Thai place and shite patisserie, only making the cut because it was close to our hotel in Victoria and we needed somewhere to go for breakfast.  Which, yes, it does qualify as on account of it being some meat in a bun.

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And, despite its late inclusion, when we where sat on the train home discussing the three star and the trendy Thai and shite patisserie, we both agreed that the best thing we ate came the black fronted, yellow chaired, spot near Victoria station.  Where bits of aged beef mince are compacted and cooked to medium rare, held together by a bun that stays in working order.

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We try two burgers.  A Blue Burger has the patty in a blue cheese sauce that whacks with umami.  Its good, very good even, but it pales in comparison to the Bacon Cheeseburger that allows the quality of the beef to shine with just a little American cheese, a rasher of crisp bacon and white onion.  It is stunning.  As much as I love Original Patty Man back home, this is as good, if not better.  Even with another lunch planned in less than three hours I am sent back inside for another for us to share.  Our later lunch is worth jeopardising for this.

The Angry Fries divide us, but this is my turf so let me tell you that the mixture of blue cheese and hot sauces is an inspired one, one cooling the other, full of umami and funk.  The other half thinks that they detract from the spud but she watches Keeping Up With The Kardashians, so read into her opinion as you want.

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And there you go, maybe the best twenty-six quid I have spent in a while, overshadowing some very serious food had throughout the rest of our weekend.  But it’s created a quandary of it’s own – my five or six trips to London a year are to eat new food, not return to the same places, yet it will be impossible to not have a Bleecker whenever we come back.  I thank the chef on our way out, telling her that it was probably the best burger I have eaten.  She smiles and thanks me in a way that makes me think she has answered to that on many an occasion before.  I can believe it. The burgers here are the real deal, as good as any you are ever likely to eat.

9/10
Bleecker St. Burger Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Byron, Birmingham

Byron comes to Birmingham on the back of a big reputation down south, where they are dotted around the sprawling city for Londoners to get their fill. I always found the reputation bewildering; London is not short of good burger options in the same way that it is not short of superiority complexes – why would a high street burger chain be mentioned along with the likes of MeatLiquor or Patty & Bun? In my frequent visits to the capital I had never had one, because, in all honesty, there was always a more interesting option. Now it’s finally here after working its way around the country, in a prime spot on New St, and I have no get out clause. I heed my call.

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It turns out those pesky Londoners are right. It’s a proper burger, made from the right cuts of cow and cooked correctly. We try two on the second day they are open and both are impressive, mostly down to the patty, which is beefy and accurately cooked to the medium they tell us it comes to as standard.  A ‘Smokey’ has the patty on possibly the best bbq sauce I have tasted – smokey, full of umami, with just a little heat in the background.  Crisp onions for texture and smoked bacon to reinforce just why it is called what it is.  A ‘B-Rex’, the most expensive of the single patty options at £10.50, comes with more of that bbq sauce, a greaseless onion ring, jalapeno’s, American cheese, and pickles.  There is a lot going on, but its all balanced impeccably, the jalapeno and pickles elements with enough acidity to stop it all being too much.

We have a side of fries topped with a gooey cheese sauce and bacon that wasn’t crisp enough that we probably wont order again, and chicken nuggets that we certainly will.  The nuggets are lovely morsels of breast meat that work well with the bbq sauce it comes with and better with the chilli sauce they leave on the table.

And here’s the thing:  Honestly, I expected to hate it.  I thought it would be another Five Guys mess of overhyped crap.  I couldn’t be further from reality, it is miles ahead of that rubbish and the likes of GBK. whom you would consider to be its naturally competition.  It will clean up in Birmingham and rightly so.  My only issue is the price, which at around twenty quid a head for a burger, a side and a drink is more expensive than Original Patty Man, who happen to produce the best burger in the city (provided you are happy to queue for it of course).  But as far as burger chains go, well done Byron, you’ve just jumped to the front of the high street queue.

8/10

Byron Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato