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05 March 2009

The Dublin Burger Gig, in full...

Leslie Williams reports on the resurrection in Dublin of the hamburger from its fast-food peril.

Gourmet Burgers are the latest thing in Dublin - since 2007 they have been opening wherever they can find a space.

All these restaurants have remarkably similar menus and prices (Burgers €9-11, fries €4). Don’t expect much of a wine list or starters or desserts beyond ice-cream and chocolate cake.

First some ground rules: a Burger should be meat, seasoning and nothing else; it should crumble slightly and taste of top quality beef.

Chips should be crispy on the outside and fluffy in the centre. I generally prefer them skinny but I discovered that thicker chips work better with a burger; possibly because there is less need for a contrast of textures as you must have with Steak Frites.

Bread should be toasted or at least warm and crusty, onions should be cooked (but sadly everyone ignores this rule), lettuce or salad should be spanking fresh and dressings should be well flavoured.

Our quest began on a Sunday evening with a disastrous visit to Joburger in Rathmines.

The policy when you enter Joburger is to stand meekly beside the other diners (the restaurant is tiny) and wait until the staff feel they are ready – if it’s your first visit you learn this the hard way.

C did the standing bit but recklessly tried to speak before she had been spoken to. Having been ignored twice, the third member of staff barked “just wait there until your guests arrive”. I arrived moments later and found a clearly distressed wife and we waited a further 5 minutes as more staff pushed past and carefully ignored us and the empty table in front of us.

Finally we were approached and I asked why my wife was distressed and still standing and I was told “the owner told her to stay where she was.” Sad to say this developed into a tense argument about politeness, decency and common courtesy which I could see I would not win, so we turned and left.

Luckily (for our nerves) we decided instead to go to Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) on South Anne Street (01 6728559 ) where we were greeted with a welcoming smile and friendly staff who proceeded to fuss over us as if they had witnessed our experience in Joburger (I suspect they treat all customers this well).

GBK is a UK chain founded by some New Zealanders who missed the posh burger joints of their homeland. There are 50 in the UK and 5 franchised versions in the Republic (the master franchise is owned by the founder of Abrakebabra) – Naas, Swords, Temple Bar, Liffey Valley and South Anne St.

GBK’s menu is straightforward: salads, beef, chicken or veggie burgers. The creativity is in the toppings for the burgers (a little too creative in places – Kiwiburger is beef, beetroot, egg, pineapple and cheese salad).

For a starter we had “The Sharer” – Cajun chicken pieces with sour cream and GBK Homeslaw - excellent chicken but oddly sweetened coleslaw and dip.

The 2 boys had plain burgers and the grown ups had a Cajun Burger and a Garlic Mayo Burger. For drinks we had 2 top quality Chocolate shakes, a very good Strawberry shake and a so-so glass of Chilean Cab-Merlot.

High quality flavours in the (organic) meat, the sesame seed bun, the mayo and the fillings but the problem in GBK is the sweet relish which they put on everything (even on the “plain burger”).

This sweet slightly synthetic relish pervaded each burger, overpowering the smoky Cajun Sauce and the garlic mayo burger tasted more of relish than garlic or mayo.

Chips were golden and chunky but with a good crispy exterior from first to last with good garlic mayo for dipping. Two extra bowls of fries arrived late when we were almost finished and when we protested we couldn’t eat them, not only were we not charged for them but they gave us the boys 2 shakes for free as extra compensation.

Marks out of 10 – Meat: 8, Bun: 7, Fries: 8, Shakes: 8, Service: 10
Overall Burger Experience: 6.5 (that damn relish ruined it)

Joburger, 137 Rathmines Road, D6.01 4913731
There was no way herself was going back to Joburger but I felt it was my professional duty to return and to block the last experience from my mind.

Myself and the boy arrived on a damp Monday evening and were greeted with a small smile and seated within 30 seconds. The restaurant was fuller than on our previous visit but clearly they were in a better mood. I was determined to be too.

We were handed a Whizzer and Chips and a Roy of the Rovers Annual which we happily read for a few minutes before realizing the menu was on the inside cover (doh!). This is a very neat idea and I had great fun reading Billy’s Boots and laughing at the hairstyles of Bryan Robson and Graham Souness c.1983 while the boy read the adventures of Fusspot, Shiner and Superdad.

The atmosphere in Joburger is relentlessly right-on with communal bench seats, graffiti and cartoons on the walls (RIP Cows), organic everything, burgers named after townships in South Africa, DJ’s and bring your own demo nights etc. I like most of this in theory but they tried too hard and our DJ only played God-awful New Romantic - as bad now as it was in 1982.

The menu allows for Beef, Lamb or Chicken with a creative (and not outlandish) choice of toppings to mix and match (another excellent idea).

Good news is that our burgers were 8 inches tall with a large thick patty, generous slices of tomato and lots of excellent rocket and salad etc. The bun is partly wholemeal bread and although initially tasty the texture becomes a little wearing half-way through the burger.

The Orlando (harissa, garlic mayo and rocket) topping on a lamb burger tasted good initially but it was the rocket and lamb I was enjoying as the sauce tasted like mildly spiced ketchup; pleasant but terribly bland. The very definition of harissa is a hot chilli sauce ranging between very hot and tearing off strips of skin.

Both the lamb and beef burgers were very dense (rubbery was the boy’s word) and tasted as though they had been bound with egg or breadcrumbs. The Joburger website claims their patties are “lean, Irish organic meat and a pinch of salt and pepper” and thus “remain moist” - well moist they certainly were not, as they stayed completely solid from first to last bite. We left a third of our meal and still felt as though we had eaten a brick each.

Now to the “bush fries”. Dear oh dear; these are not chips or fries but small potatoes cut into 8mm rings and placed unpeeled in (I’m guessing) warm oil until they are soft. These were the soggiest, sorriest excuse for “fries” I have ever experienced – oven chips would have been better.

The garlic mayo dip was pristine white in colour and did not taste of either mayo or garlic – I’m really not sure what it was.

Drinks were over-priced (organic) English lemonade and juices at over 4 euro each – what’s wrong with TK? (see below). To be fair they had good beers and a reasonable wine list.

Our waitress was friendly but I noticed an older man standing by my table who was trying in vain to catch the attention of a member of staff who all walked blithely by ignoring his tentative hand gestures. He was there for a full ten minutes before she deigned to talk to him: “are you not waiting for someone? Oh, you’re on your own…” – thankfully the “poor you” part of the sentence remained unspoken.

We did try to order a dessert but we were curtly told “we have none!” - “really, no ice cream or anything on the menu?” says I; “No. Nothing.” says he. The crowd of people waiting to be seated may have been another reason but I am sure I am being cynical.

In truth the meal was probably not as terrible as it sounds as I did enjoy the first half of the burger (hunger makes good sauce after all), but I will not be back.

Marks out of 10 – Meat: 5, Bun: 6, Fries: 0, Service: 3.
Overall Burger Experience: 4

REAL Gourmet Burger, Sweepstakes Centre, Ballsbridge, D4, 01 6670040.
(also in Dun Laoghaire)

Real is the closest the Gourmet Burger concept comes to a proper restaurant; a large space, a full range of desserts, daily specials and some non-burger options.

Large burgers with good quality crumbly meat and toppings that taste of what they say on the menu. The St. Kevin tasted of the brie and had a large smoky rasher; and the Holy Moly chilli infused burger with Swiss cheese and jalapenos had slices of chilli pepper in the meat and my lips did tingle. The bun was the only failing, resembling a thick piece of toast more than a bun.

Fries – both thick cut and skinny - were perfectly crispy and topped with rosemary salt. None were left behind. Ditto the onion rings – thin rings of deep fried oniony goodness.

As there was a small wine list I felt I should indulge – St. Clair New Zealand Pinot Noir for 30 euro. Sadly this was not a good choice as the wine was luke-warm and required immersion in iced water to come down to requisite 14o and even then it just did not have the body or fruit to cope with the burger.

Espressos were bitter and tasted unpleasantly of peanuts but otherwise this was a pleasurable lunch.

Marks out of 10 – Meat: 7, Bun: 4, Fries: 8.5, Onion Rings: 9, Service: 7.
Overall Burger Experience: 7.5

Gourmet Burger Co., 97 Ranelagh Road, D6. 01-4977821
GBC is a small restaurant in Ranelagh but with ambition (check the website for franchising options). The concept is the same as the others but I thought I detected a little more attention to detail - the organic meat is sourced from the Good Herdsman in Tipperary, the Kobe Beef Burger (€39.35) is from O’Tooles in Terenure and so on.

Burgers were tall with very good beef flavour and texture that oozed juices as you bit in. My chilli burger was sadly not even vaguely hot but at least it was juicy and flavourful.

Fries here are gaining a reputation and they were indeed fantastically crispy and flavourful – thick as your little finger on the top of the bowl but with lots of thin and crispy ones near the bottom to suit both prejudices. Garlic mayo tasted of both garlic and mayo.

Excellent posh French limonade artisinal and Sprite came in well chilled bottles. A sticky rich chocolate cake with good quality ice cream finished a good meal.

Marks out of 10 – Meat: 9, Bun: 6, Fries: 9, Service: 7.
Overall Burger Experience: 8

BóBós, 22 Wexford St, D2, 01-400 5750
I saved the best ‘til last. BóBós is not fancy (think Irish Diner) but is exactly as a burger joint should be – top quality well-prepared generous food, unpretentious ambience, relaxed and friendly staff that seemed to care we were happy, and lots of charming quirks.

Quirks include a tub of Saxa salt on every table (for atmosphere as much as utility), turf holding up the counter, cow murals and cow-hide covers on the stools, blue rimmed enamel bowls for chips and dips, food cooked in front of you, Brunches, Choc Ices and Ice Bergers, Coke floats and TK red lemonade by the pint glass (why oh why did nobody think of this before!).

BóBós is everything Joburger is trying so desperately hard to be. Joburger does manage a modicum of ersatz cool but BóBós just is cool in a very Irish way – nostalgic but knowing.

My only criticism first – the skinny chips were not crispy enough. Thankfully the thick cut chips were perfect – crispy, a generous portion, and good quality garlic mayo.

Burgers were my favourite of all those tried –top quality meat (sourced from O’Tooles), in a loose patty that crumbled a bit with strong beefy and juicy flavours.

The toppings tasted of what they were supposed to – the Cashel Blue cheese was generous, the chilli had chilli in it, the mature cheese tasted mature. The buns were toasted and crusty, the mushy peas were mushy, the chocolate shake was extra chocolaty, the very berry juice was very berry flavoured – mostly raspberry.

Oreo Cookies with Ice Cream and chocolate sauce in a tall glass would have fed 4 (and it nearly did until the boy discovered the effect of whacking knuckles with a long spoon).

This is the only restaurant that the boy and the dad have asked “when are we going back?”

Marks out of 10 – Meat: 9, Bun: 8, Thick Cut Fries: 9 (skinny: 6), Service: 9.
Overall Burger Experience: 9

In Conclusion…
The Gourmet Burger joint is a pleasurable dining experience without being exciting. Do not go to these restaurants on a first date or for an anniversary but do bring your nieces and nephews or drop in for a casual bite or pre-theatre / post-pub snack.