We have the Americans to thank for infantilising our food. Minced beef burgers, chicken nuggets and sweet cola – this is fare for the toothless or the lazy. But even here there has been a trend towards quality. We now live in the age of the “gourmet” burger.
Its purveyors claim to offer quality beef, tasty buns and enterprising relishes. Let’s see. An alarm bell rang the night before our tasting when I met a South African, who travels the world and judges each location through the admittedly narrow prism of its hamburgers. He was harsh about Britain, saying no one will serve him a rare burger any more and medium-cooked ones are not as good. More of this later.
We may dream of burgers lovingly minced from prime Kobe or choice Chianina, but on this occasion it was strictly British beef all the way. And we may fantasise about the burger Heston serves at his London restaurant, Dinner, moistened by foie gras. But we had to make do with relish and mayo.
Since it’s not possible to sample more than about 10 burgers at a sitting without exploding, we chose a few upmarket chains and threw in two fast food ones for comparison. The location selected by the FT Weekend Magazine Politburo was the People’s Republic of Islington, apparently one of London’s top burger boroughs. We eschewed cheese, bacon, barbecue sauce and the rest because we were really after judging how good the actual beef was. Just two of our regulars felt up to this task: the Gourmet Celeb (GC) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP).
Unsurprisingly, the much cheaper Burger King and McDonald’s came at the bottom end of our preferences. Burger King’s famously “flame-grilled” Whopper (£3.59) was not a flavour we particularly liked, nor was it, in any sense of the word, whopping: “definitely from a dead animal but a bit chewy for me” (GP); “leaving a slightly unpleasant aftertaste” (GC). The Angus (£3.99) is their premium patty: “strange brown sauce in place of ketchup – an unrelished relish” (GP); “dryish meat, thin burger but worth the extra 40p” (GC). We thought McDonald’s standard burger was the equal of BK’s Angus: “horrible damp bun but better than I expected” (GC); “dull, boiled meat taste but perfectly acceptable” (GP). Now here’s the extraordinary thing – the McDonald’s burger is a recession-busting 89p. This is no doubt their contribution to the Big Society (while the Big Mac, of course, fuels the Gargantuan Society).
At the four gourmet chains we visited we encouragingly had to wait 10-12 minutes for the burgers to be cooked, contrasting with the suspiciously rapid delivery of our orders in the fast food joints. These more expensive and expansive burgers fell into four categories in our opinion: Disappointing, Tolerable, OKish and Good. Let’s take the disappointing first.
The Diner (£5.20, 21 Essex Road N1) was a noisy, cheerful, popular place. But their burger skills were a bit lacking: “greasy, bland, fatty with lardy aftertaste” (GC); “dull, under-seasoned” (GP).
Now the tolerable – The Fine Burger Company (£6.25, 330 Upper Street N1). Their website tells us their beef comes from traditionally reared, East Anglian herds of Aberdeen Angus, Suffolk Red Poll and Hereford cattle. We were allowed to order both a rare and a medium-cooked burger: “the rare is, indeed, fine but the medium is too chewy” (GC); “nicely seasoned meat but the hot relish would destroy Ch Margaux – good thing it’s not on the wine list” (GP).
In the OKish category was the Gourmet Burger Kitchen, not available in Islington so we visited a branch in west London (£6.50, 50 Westbourne Grove W2). GBK uses only Aberdeen Angus beef and, on grounds of food safety, will not offer rare burgers. While we understand why, we regretted this because our South African friend was proved right. We found rare burgers were more succulent to eat: “good barbecue flavour but too tough and gristly for me”(GP); “shame they don’t do them rare – H&S strikes again!” (GC).
Now for our top burger – Byron Hamburgers (£6.50, 341 Upper Street N1). First, the decor – an excellent example of Islington New Brutalism with exposed ceiling joists through which we could see industrial lights and scaffolding. We liked the fact you could add your own emulsions rather than having them dictated to you and we were grateful they’d cook their Scottish beef rare on request: “chunky, juicy, nice hint of charcoal and melt-in-the-mouth” (GC); “generous thickness with sheen of yummy beef fat – at last a satisfying burger”(GP).
The winner: Byron, 341 Upper Street, London N1 020 7704 7620; www.byronhamburgers.com
Other London branches in W1, WC2, W8, W12, SW1, SW3, SW5, SW7, SW11, SW15, KT1, EC2, E14