Friday, 5 July 2013

Shake Shack, London

Food commentators on Twitter, the London press and even some of my previously oblivious, nonchalant mates had remarked that London’s burger mania had peaked and become dull. Even my Mum is aware of the craze. But this week’s opening of US transplants Shake Shack and Five Guys surely marks the crescendo.

As the debates rage on the limits of queuing, on London’s colonisation by US chains and thirdly on whether the humble burger itself merits all of this attention, it can be difficult to maintain a stance. The ‘to each their own’ mantra so universally appropriate has to be the way forward here.

Personally I wouldn’t like to queue 2 hours for a burger, but if someone does, that’s fine. I wouldn’t sleep rough for a new iPhone either, but I did wait 45 minutes at Frank’s for a lukewarm, assembly line Negroni which I could have bettered for free in my suntrap garden around the corner. So I’m a mug too… or, we’ve all got our weaknesses.

Is London becoming the 51st State in regards to openings? Well, perhaps. We have Balthazar now, and in retail, J Crew and Williams Sonoma are following Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch and many more before them. Nothing new there though. 

I doubt anyone would rather the repulsive Quick of France, or Pans & Co of Spain, and we should be pleased about the employment and investment created. Frankly, heightened service levels might cross the pond too. I’d much rather a Japanese invasion of fashion and food, but that’s another story.

But the burger itself should surely be the main issue. Is it worthy enough of all this hype? Is it just meat within two slices of bread? Yes, of course. But therefore a steak is just grilled meat and sashimi is just sliced fish? Anything can be disseminated for ridicule. If somebody values something to queue for a certain period or pay £15, then that is its value. Simple.

But Shake Shack itself? From the preview: a bit disappointing. They’ve made a huge effort, the team are fantastic and I wish the venture well – but the Smoke Stack burger (with cheese, bacon, peppers and a cloying mayo-based sauce) lacked much depth in flavour. The Aberdeen Angus patties were greyish inside, underseasoned and underwhelming. 

Top marks for the cheesy crinkle cut fries, and the shakes themselves. Kernel beer is decent but I hope they end up collborating with a London brewery here, as with Brooklyn’s Shackmeister. 

Curiously, the Cumberland sausage hot dog was the stand-out dish for me. Rich, gamey flavours and the crispy shallots were a perfect accompaniment and substitution for the usual bog-standard onions. With more of that cheese sauce. Fantastic, and probably the one reason I’d return.

I’ve eaten in Shake Shack in New York, and enjoyed it. The branding is superb and the staff great, but the actual food isn’t memorable on its own merits. It’s not as good as Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien. Or Fanelli’s. Or countless other more affordable burgers in New York.

Let’s be truthful here: that positive Shake Shack NY impression becomes amplified when back home and amalgamated into the joys and vibrancy of a New York visit overall. The superlatives come out, the power of nostalgia becomes inscrutable, the positive memories indelible. But we in London have been busy, and this isn’t a patch on Honest Burgers or Tommi’s.

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Crooked Well

Amble down from the madness of Denmark Hill station towards Camberwell and you might double take at your surroundings. The grandeur of Camberwell Grove, faded in parts, undimmed in others, is well-known, but parallel Grove Lane is more of a hidden gem. 

And believe me, having recently made the pilgrimage down to SE5 (responsible for your humble correspondent's brief hiatus), I ensure every single visitor witnesses it, hopefully distracted from the lively folk of the Maudsley, just behind.

That rarest of London phenomena; a pristine, un-Blitzed terrace of Georgian houses with a comfortable ten metres of croquet-ready lawn frontage, it should by rights be somewhere far more salubrious. By the same logic, so too should The Crooked Well, a relaxed yet upscale pub dining room – but they both seem to fit in just fine.

The term gastropub doesn’t mean anything much in 2013, and it’s lazy at best. In fact it’s odious. But I’m sure it would be bandied about here; ostensibly just a pub where dining comes before boozing. Perfectly ok here, as there are plenty of nearby boozers and often the contrast of ‘finer’ dining and quality service in pubby environs makes for a more relaxed experience. 

From The Oak in Notting Hill to Fulham's  Harewood Arms, it's evident that the exoskeleton of a pub can reassure many who'd sweat profusely in a stuffier venue about cutlery etiquette or how to react when that sign of quality, the metal crumb scraper comes out. Clue: it's less awkward than lazing around the house while the cleaner is grafting away. 

Food is modern British, not wildly adventurous but definitely a step up from a tarted up pub menu. There are three dishes for two to share; a fish pie, a Côte de Boeuf and the masterful rabbit & bacon pie. And yes, it really requires two people.

Other highlights included picanha steak, pata negra, a cocktail of the day with charitable donation and a list of strictly French apertifs, unique in eschewing those ubiquitous red and orange bitters of Milan. The cheeseboard is impressive too.

I’m trying to resist being too effusive, but it’s just really rather good here. Service is attentive and well-informed but laid back, warm bread is offered more than once, and the chips are bloody excellent. There is little more satisfying than well-executed simplicity, and The Crooked Well balances its uncomplicated quality with a hint of refinement to work for most occasions. Except perhaps a raucous knees-up.

Crucially both the (briefly) idyllic setting and the pub itself are absolutley perfect for that South East London parental charm offensive, when they’re wondering what on earth possessed you to move here. Cue astonishment and relief as they walk through the door; places like this are exactly why I won’t be going anywhere for a long time.

 Crooked Well on Urbanspoon