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.
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.
Gourmet Burger Kitchen