The Christmas Food Chronicles, Vol 1

Simply put, I’ll be eating and reviewing as many Christmas-related items of food as I can lay my hands on in the coming weeks in the gaps between probably the busiest month of my life, while trying to avoid becoming a total blimp.

Up first – the Honest Christmas Burger.

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I’d wanted to start elsewhere as my most recent burger review was a rather unflattering take on their pizza burger, and I was concerned that if I didn’t enjoy this then it would seem like I have it in for them, which I don’t (the Tribute is one of the best burgers in London).

But due to logistics and time constraints, this was the sensible choice, the Soho branch, just up from the theatre where me and my friend were off to watch some comedy later that Sunday night (God bless Leicester Square Theatre‘s work-in-progress events, where I’ve seen Vic & Bob, Stewart Lee and Jack Whitehall, all for about £15 each).

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Happily, it looked almost exactly as advertised, which was huge progress after the Pizza Burger Incident. The cheese oozed satisfyingly out of the huge slab of deep-fried camembert when I picked it up and aimed it towards my hopeful mouth.

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Generous blobs of thick, sticky cranberry sauce tumbled out and into the tray. I bit in, and while it was pretty tasty, the overwhelming flavour was the cheese, which almost entirely buried Honest’s excellent patty, which was done exactly as I like it, the perfect medium-rare, as requested.

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Flavours dominating others is occupational hazard with novelty specials in the burger game, and I’m certainly not saying it was an unpleasant flavour. However, I would have to say that other than the cranberry sauce, there wasn’t much about the combination I was getting that screamed “IIIIIITTTTTT’S CHRIIIIIIISTMAS” in the manner my tastebuds had been hoping. The bacon was a little lost in the mix too, smothered in an unashamedly gluttonous cheese-fest.

Christmas cheese is of course a huge part of the festive experience for many people – my family included. I’m often tasked with bringing several hundredweight of dairy up to the seasonal get together because of my proximity to Borough and Broadway markets. But if you asked me to name the definitive Christmas cheese, it would be stilton. And if you asked me to name the flavours that characterise Christmas, you’d have sage & onion stuffing, pigs in blankets, turkey, chestnuts in that list alongside cranberry sauce, with deep-fried camembert not really anywhere near my radar – maybe I’m out of the loop on that one, but that’s my perspective anyway.

The rosemary fries were standardly brilliant and generous in portion-size, Honest really do put a lot of burger joints to shame with that side of things. We tried their Christmas cocktail too – combined with the burger and fries that was a bit of a meal-deal-steal at £16, the cocktail featuring cranberry, maple syrup and bourbon, and suited the experience nicely.

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All-in-all, I’d class this as a good burger, but other than the cranberry sauce, not really a very good Christmas burger.

I have a laundry list of places I’m aiming to try out – Lucky Chip, Blacklock, Mac & Wild, Patty & Bun, Meat Liquor off the top of my head for starters – but if you have any London-based suggestions feel free to add a comment below and I’ll try to include them too!

Taste 7/10

Value 10/10

Christmasssyness 4/10

Overall score 7/10

 

When Expectation Collides With Reality

The Pizza Burger – Honest Burgers, Bank, London

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I love pizzas so much, and burgers are awesome. This has to be great, right?

I’ve got a lot of affection for Honest Burger, and regularly mention them when asked about my favourite burgers in London. I visited their original Brixton site when they only had one outlet, and have been impressed by the speed they went from 1, to 2, to 16 restaurants in under 5 years. What I’ve been less impressed by is the negative impact this has seemingly had on the consistency and standards across the group. Today, sadly, falls into that 2nd category.

At 11.05am this morning, while taking care of a bit of life admin, an email pinged through. And I was faced with this glorious sight…

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Honest Burger’s Pizza Burger, as advertised

Now, this is a sexy looking sandwich. My Facebook post received dozens of salivating replies from similarly smitten fatties. Check the description

“From the bottom to the top we kick off with homemade walnut pesto, add a 30 day dry-aged beef patty, bubbling hot smoked mozzarella, homemade marinara sauce, crispy pancetta and finish with a twist of black pepper.”

The phrase “get in my belly” has never been more apt. My mind was made up – dinner was at Honest. A few text messages later and it was arranged. 6.30pm at Honest Burgers’ Bank restaurant.

Now seems a decent time to clear the air. I’ve had very mixed experiences with Honest since they commenced their rapid expansion. When they nail it, they are in the very top tier. Their Tribute burger, when done right, is superb, a cheese & bacon burger of rare brilliance. But a few too many times things have not quite been right; burgers overdone, underdone, oversalted, fries burnt, one diner’s bun toasted, the other not, and so on. But when they have got their ducks in a row, it’s good enough that I take this chance on being disappointed. To their immense credit Honest once even found a tweet to a friend where I made some very mild criticism of a burger there and gave me a free meal on my next visit, and their staff are always friendly and attentive, and they have never had a problem with fixing things if they are wrong.

Back to today.

Me and my friend Charlotte arrived exactly at the same time, 6.30pm on the dot. Londoners, it really isn’t that hard. We always do it, and as a result we are always the first people by ages in our groups. How do people find it so hard to be punctual? Anyway, I digress. The restaurant follows their usual wooden and steel design, pretty basic but comfortably so, and we went downstairs to our booth, the restaurant having maybe only a dozen diners across 2 floors, which surprised me somewhat at that time midweek in The City.

Charlotte ordered the Tribute on my recommendation, I ordered the Pizza Burger, a bit of bacon ketchup to help the party along, a beer for the lady, and for me a very nicely presented bottomless supply of sparkling water, a bargain at just a quid (this year it’s my 4th Sober October in a row).

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Big fan of this bottle/carafe thingy

The burgers arrived, and first impressions weren’t great. I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to look like the advert, but I expected something vaguely close. I was expecting a messy beast of a burger, cheese oozing out of the sides, gravity pulling it down the sides, marinara sauce dribbling alongside the molten trails of smoked mozzarella, something more Patty & Bun than Honest’s usual style.

What I got was this.

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Now, this is where I have to be honest with myself, and you (no pun intended).

I should asked whether the mozzarella should be melted. Smoked mozzarella is a funny beast, very different to regular mozzarella balls, or the grated hard stuff you get in supermarkets for pizzas etc. But tbh, I just wanted to eat. And I guess part of me was thinking “I want to judge what they serve me, not what they serve me 2nd time round”. Also, I had managed to completely forget that they’d claimed it to be “bubbling hot smoked mozzarella”, as I was engrossed in a typically in-depth conversation with Charlotte.

I’d asked for medium-rare, and this is how it came – I’d say this is on the rarer side of things right in the centre, but nothing I’m offended by, and I’d rather this than overdone.

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You can also see that the mozzarella is a long way away from being melted – it was also cold. And again, I should have just said something – I had ample opportunity, as we were asked 3 times if everything was ok, an unusual situation. I’m not sure if this was overzealous staff (one came before we’d taken a bite, and again after, then another staff member a few minutes later), whether it was because they’d noticed me taking pics and were getting paranoid, whether it was because they weren’t confident in the chefs, or what. But either way, it’s on me that I didn’t send it back, which I should have done, as it wasn’t what was advertised and what had brought me out for the night.

The burger patty itself was typically flavoursome, the strong, savoury beefiness that I’ve come to expect from Honest, seasoned just right. I would say that next time I’d order it medium, but given that I’ve had them come well-done when I’ve ordered medium-rare, I don’t really know how to offset that level of erratic production. It’s really strange, as these guys are superb maybe 70-80% of the time – I guess it’s just a numbers game, there’s only so many staff who are reliably able to hit the mark every single time, and when you expand this quickly it must be tricky to maintain the highest standards. But they risk becoming the next Byron if they don’t arrest this trend – well known, but a 2nd division player. Byron is just a bit average – in Honest’s case, they have brilliance in their locker, but too often slip up.

The bun held together well and was pretty neutral taste-wise – it didn’t fight against the flavours it was holding, although the walnut pesto offered nothing much that I noticed (I literally forgot it was in there until Charlotte asked what that was like!). The marinara was pleasant, and had a zesty tang to it. But there was nowhere near enough of it – much had absorbed into the top half of the bun, and I was expecting it to be a messy beast to handle. Look at the photo at the top – you know full well that if you squeezed that and bit down on to it, the marinara is going all over the shop, and that’s what I thought I’d signed up for! Same with the pesto – it’s spilling all over the shop in the advert! The pancetta was great – I really liked that – very thin, with a lovely crispy crunch, and I think that makes for an excellent substitute for bacon just as a general observation, if done this way. Sometimes bacon for burgers is underdone and the fat becomes something of an obstacle to be chewed through.

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Bacon Jam is gosh-darned incredible

The rosemary fries were outstanding, as they almost always are. They seemed ever so slightly thicker than I remembered, although that might be a trick of my memory. Cooked to perfection, cripsy outside, fluffy inside, just the right amount of salt, a decent kick from the rosemary. And the bacon ketchup… the sooner Honest start selling that stuff, the better! Amazing. This stuff is actually possibly even better – highly recommend it, I picked up a jar at home in the Peak District last Christmas, yet turns out it’s made up the road from me in East London!

I demolished every last crumb in my dish, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this was a crushing disappointment. I was entering tonight thinking that this was a possibility for my favourite ever burger, and I got… that.

It wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t particularly good either. This has happened before at Honest actually – at Spitalfields I had a special (I forget which), and again was bitterly disappointed. I should just order the Tribute, it’s genuinely superb, but they keep creating these Instagram-friendly beasts, and I keep falling for it!

A friend who works for Street Feast says she’s had it, it looked nothing like mine, and was delicious – and that may well be true, but then just adds weight to the other issue, the wild inconsistency from kitchen to kitchen. Hopefully they can address this, as Honest have it in them to be the top burger joint in London.

Pizza Burger – 5.5/10 (£12.50 inc rosemary fries)

Overall experience – 7/10