Sunday, January 6, 2008

UK Burgers: Hamburger Union and GBK

I must admit a certain prejudice against "gourmet" burgers. To me what makes a great burger great is that it is greater than the sum of its parts. I have yet to find a gourmet burger that meets (or meats) this criteria. I recently panned the vaunted DB Burger and in general I find burgers that cost over $5 less inspiring than the best examples of those that cost under this amount. There are so many places in the States offering fresh beef burgers that it really is an embarrassment of riches and frankly there has traditionally been little reason to bother with burgers in the UK. However, England is undergoing a beef renaissance of sorts in the post mad cow disease era, there is a lot of very interesting cooking going on using traditional recipes and beef whose pedigree and rearing are obsessively chronicled. For tourists visiting the UK I would encourage you to try a Cornish pasty or a steak and kidney pudding or a traditional roast beef dinner. When in Rome, after all. But if you simply must have a burger your options are certainly better these days than has traditionally been the case. While the UK has a pretty spotty record when it comes to burgers the last few years has seen a number of gourmet burger chains sprouting up. While in the US of A I gravitate towards burgers that have been made in the same way and place for decades, doing the same in the UK means that you will probably end up eating burgers that are quite literally decades old. So in the UK I tend to seek out what I avoid in the States, namely the gourmet burger. To this end I sought out a couple of burger spots that looked interesting on my last trip.

My first stop was Hamburger Union just off Leicester Square. HU is a small chain of modern looking burger restaurants that offer char grilled burgers using fresh beef and ingredients.

HU proudly state, both on their website and via large wall displays in their restaurants, that "We use only natural fed, grass-reared additive free beef. All the beef comes from Charolais and Charolais Hereford cross Oxfordshire cattle". While I appreciate the breeding and care for the animal I just have never found grass fed beef makes for particularly good burgers, it is not just that the beef is leaner, this can be addressed by simply adding more fat to the mix, but that the basic structure of the beef seems different to grain finished beef, I find it Stringier and slightly tougher resulting in a mealy product.

The burgers at Hamburger Union are far too lean both in size and in terms of fat content and ends up being rather mealy and apparently impossible to cook to order. Indeed the burger I sampled was ordered rare but was cooked all the way through. Further the Portuguese style roll was not the best compliment for the beef. I suppose you could double up on the patty's but I have never found this to be a gastronomically rewarding option. Ultimately a lackluster burger experience.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen is a fairly large chain UK of restaurants that is somewhat improbably the work of a Chef from New Zealand. GBK serves 100% Aberdeen-Angus char grilled Scotch beef and uses only fresh ingredients.

The interior design of the GBK chain is tastefully modern, repleat with the apparently ubiquitous Wimpy inspired ketchup bottle.

The burger at GBK was cooked commendably rare as ordered. It had a decent fat to meat ratio, close to 25/75% I would surmise and was almost perfectly ground, not too fine and not too coarse. Unfortunately there was a subtle and unpleasant gas flavor to the beef, as if the grill was not fired up properly before the beef hit it. The supporting ingredients were fresh although I am not a big fan of the tomato relish, preferring a simple ketchup. The cheese, although not completely melted was tangy and compliments the beef well. The seeded bun, despite looking too large for the burger was in fact quite compliant and the beef / bun ratio turned out to just about right.

GBK definitely has more potential than the Hamburger Union in terms of providing Beef Aficionado the type of burger experience I get in the US of A. Certainly had it not been for the curious gas flavor I think the burger would have been far more enjoyable. If not up to the standards that the states has to offer it is certainly acceptable. Hamburger Union is harder to recommend. While I can appreciate the choice of ingredients and the ethos behind the venture I just feel the result is uninspiring. For traveling Americans I would say that you would have to be particularly homesick to recommend even eating a burger in the UK but if you must GBK will fill your need better than Hamburger Union.

Hamburger Union
Multiple Locations

Gourmet Burger Kitchen
Multiple Locations


DocChuck said...

Great post, and the information is appreciated. Seems like my wife and I had the same general experience as you concerning finding a good burger in the UK.

We tried burgers a couple of times, but only in the pubs in Ireland and Scotland.

As an example, we loved the atmosphere in the Bad Ass pub in Edinburgh. My wife liked her "panini platter", but the burger I ordered (despite the fact that it looked good) was simply terrible!

One bite was all I could take, so I hid it under a napkin (so as not to embarrass my wife) and ordered a panini similar to hers (the waitress probably thought I was a pig, until she later discovered the uneaten burger).

My wife's new business venture in Dublin will take us back two or three times a year. Your information will be helpful, because, like you mentioned, I have to have a "burger fix" ever so often.

neil said...

Definately know how bad burgers are in England. Normally those nasty frozen buggers that have onion in them too!

I remember a few years back when I saw a Wendy's in London (had no idea what it was then) and it was without doubt the best burger I'd had to that point in England. That pretty much says it all.

Now I live in the US I've had some great ones. I've never been a big fan of gourmet burgers. One of the best ones I've ever had was at Harmon's Lunch in Maine. Cost of about $2 and simplicity at its best.

Bob from Troy, NY said...

The burgers in the UK have always been bad.

But now with Mad Cow you'd be stupid or insane to eat them.

Glad you left it under the napkin.

When in Dublin, I recomend the salmon. Steer clear of burgers.

Nick said...

I have got to disagree with you on the Mad Cow, it has nothing to do with burgers being bad in the UK. In fact Mad Cow, which has been eradicated, ironically caused a renaissance of British Beef as the animals rearing and pedigree became important.

Beef is wonderful in the UK these days. And lets not forget that more people choke to death on vegetables each year than died from Mad Cow....

venifica said...

I was one of crew Hamburger Union(Leicester square), and of course i know competition with GBK.
I agree - GBK has more potential then HU, but i would mantion few things.
1) pattie in HU included 97% meat
2) food is competly fresh and never off (I can guaranted that becouse as supervisor, i was taking care about it)
3) half of members stuff in GBK was moved from HU where the were trained (for example ex-su chef from Canary Wharf branch)
4) HU made (few weaks ago) one step forward - Table Service
By the way, both of companies are realy good, and I recomend them.
Enjoy your time and the best burgers ever

Anonymous said...

Hi, this is really interesting. I was searching for my nearest GBK and your site came up as one of the results! Out of curiosity, have you ever tried buying burgers from Marks and Spencer when in the UK? You'd have to be staying in an apartment hotel rather than a hotel to be able to cook them, but I think this is something you might not know - the majority of English people who like decent burgers cook them at home, from mince or ready-made like Marks & Spencer. Gourmet burgers are another London 'obsessive foodie' idea, not the whole of UK.
Even my mum cooked them at home when I was a kid, and she's Canadian... I don't know why people prefer to cook them at home. Maybe because even McDonalds only landed here 20 odd years ago!

Nick said...

Thanks for the tip, I'll try to pick up some of those Marks & Sparks burgers and cajole my Mum in to letting me cook them up on her Arga. I grew up in London and remember driving half way across town to the McDonald's on Kensington High Street. This was back in the 70's and it was one of the only ones in the UK at the time.The burger I really miss was the Great American Disaster....

Jamie Tait said...

Hey guys
I'm from New Zealand where we have a chain called Burger Fuel. You haven't tasted a good burger til you go there - they are far, far, FAR better than any other burgers I have ever tasted. And no I don't work for them - wouldn't bother trying to make you visit them from the states, ha! But seriously - I live in London and am extremely disappointed even by GBK and the like. They are nothing on Burger Fuel, who also have the best fries I've ever tasted. Highly recommend it if you're ever in NZ (or now Sydney too)


great time I'm in London I'll give it a lash !