The Blacksmith and The Toffeemaker

I might be a bit late to the party, but in 2017 vegan has gone big. Food bloggers and Instagram accounts may have been hash-tagging vegan for a while as far as I know, but my real gauge is the veggie burger scene. Whilst, in the past, a vegan option was just a veggie burger without the cheese, more recently a number of different restaurants and options have popped up, targeting the vegan market but also offering increasingly enticing, and exciting options that may appeal to the non-vegan consumer, such as myself, without going down the route of straight up meat-substitute products. One of these options is the pulled-jackfruit burger.

It was a particularly alarming moment when I saw Tim Lovejoy & Simon Rimmer sampling the burger on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. I knew right there and then that I was behind the mainstream, and had to get myself down to the closest pulled jackfruit proprietor. It just so happened that I was working in Clerkenwell that week, and just around the corner from The Blacksmith and The Toffeemaker.

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The pub, nearer the Angel end of St John street has a tasty looking menu consisting of sandwiches and classic bar snacks. The main event for sure, though, is their burgers. Of the five burgers on offer, two are veggie, one, as I have already divulged I was there to sample was the pulled jackfruit, and the other veggie – the halloumi and kimchi burger – was equally as tempting as well. The burger comes with fries and slaw for a very reasonable £8. To accompany my burger lunch on that cold January lunchtime was half of Hobgoblin. I know, hipster burger, dad beer. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Sunday Brunch.

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I didn’t know what to expect from the burger itself but it was a lot fuller than I had imagined it to be. The chunks of jackfruit were virtually spilling out of the brioche bun. Biting into it I was confronted by a texture that I had never experienced before. Having never eaten pulled pork before I cannot make a direct comparison, but it was definitely similar to what I imagine it to be like. At the same time chewy and stringy, lathered in the sweet, sticky BBQ sauce synonymous with it’s meaty cousin. Personally, I’m not too big a fan of barbecue sauce, perhaps because I’ve always associated it with the smell of spare ribs and brisket. The unfamiliar flavour starting to feel more to my taste, safe in the knowledge I was consuming plant-based goods. Saying that though, I’ll hold my hand up – the meal was not completely vegan as the slaw had mayo in it, but could have also been easily missed.

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My own indifference to BBQ sauce aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my first foray into this new world of pulled jackfruit and other trendy vegan delights. As someone who has always been inclined to drag my feet when it comes to veganism, it is encouraging to know that tasty, alternative options like this are becoming the norm. And why not? There’s literally no harm in it.

 

VEGGIE BURGER RATINGS: 7/10 

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

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Tommi’s Burger Joint

Around Christmas time one’s appetite gets a little bit out of hand. The endless Christmas dinners, the ridiculous amount of boozing, and the general increase in the consumption of all things sweet, all add up to one big festive period of gluttony. With a friend coming to Town for our annual Christmas get together I thought I’d add my own touch to this yuletide gorging by having two burgers in the same day. The first burger I had was my Obama-dedicated burger at Kua Aina, the second – and originally the only one I had planned for the day – was at Tommi’s Burger Joint on Thayer street in Marylebone.

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I had been to the Burger Joint a few year’s back in my pre-blogging days and was enamoured by it’s no nonsense approach to serving up burgers. The location had changed since the last visit, but the feel was still the same. As you walk in there is a small queue of patrons ready to order at the till off the black board above. The menu is simple, with four burgers on offer, one veggie, which I duly went for as part of the ‘Offer of the Weekend’ (a special version of their ‘Offer of the Century’). A deal which includes burger, fries, and a bottle of Camden beer – all for £12.90. The trend is continued as you go to sit down, most of the seating is on industrial looking bar and stool set ups. It being a Friday night it was pretty full, with people sitting outside even in December, but my group of mates managed to find a 4 seater all to ourselves. One thing that Tommi’s does put a bit of fuss into though was the condiment bar. Right next to the collection point is a set of what must be well over thirty sauces and and extra burger fillings, which I rightly got stuck into in preparation of my burger.

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When the burger arrived (preceded by a ‘This is a veggie one yeah… just checking’ – people often assume me as non-vegetarian), it was as I remembered both proportion and flavour wise. The patty is veggie based, crispy and a bit spicy, inside a brioche bun with the standard fillings, and holds together pretty well. The additional cheese I got with it when I ordered was needed for my taste, as well as some gherkins which I got from the condiments counter. I couldn’t complain with the chips and the Camden Hells was as inoffensive as the rest of the meal.

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But that’s just the thing, whilst the no frills approach may appeal to eaters of beef, a veggie burger sometimes needs a bit innovation to separate itself from the norm. The burger was good, yes. But as I write this there is no overwhelming memory or emotion that I can recall from eating my burger. The place is cool, don’t get me wrong. Everything from the tunes playing, to the boardgames on offer, to the bearded, tattooed Icelandic burger chefs, makes it fun place to eat a burger on Friday night. All it needs is a slightly better veggie burger. Maybe I’ll leave it to one burger in a day the next time I consider doubling up.

VEGGIE BURGER RATINGS: 6/10 

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

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Kua ‘Aina

On the 8th November 2016, a shockwave was sent around the globe. The Republican, and outsider candidate, Donald Trump beat the Democrat nominee, and bookies’ favourite, Hillary Clinton in the race to become President of the United States of America. Trump was sworn in last week to end the eight year term of one of the world’s favourite Presidents, Barack Obama, a president elected (and re-elected) on a politics of hope and inclusivity – the polar opposite of the current incumbent. So, whilst the internet was celebrating his premiership with a number of quite frankly, excellent ‘best-moments’ montages, and Joe Biden memes, I tried to join in the only way I could, by eating a veggie burger. Where else then, than in a burger restaurant inspired by the archipelago of his birth, the state of Hawaii, called Kua ‘Aina just off Carnaby Street.

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Tenuous (if not topical) links aside, I was drawn to Kua ‘Aina in an attempt to sample a burger that had something different about it. A lot of the burger places in London are trying to outdo each other at the same game – the moody, minimal, meat-obsessed, hipster, don’t-care-but-actually-really-do vibe – but Kua ‘Aina takes a more unashamed approach. Walking into the kitsch, Hawaiian themed interior already adds an element of fun that you often don’t find in many burger joints. The menu of ‘lava-grilled’ burgers and sandwiches is brought over to you by waiters in Hawaiian shirts and has a whopping 21 different choices to choose from (three veggie, five fish). One of the veggie options was essentially salad in a bun though, so I had a straight choice between halloumi and red pepper, or a garlic butter infused portobello mushroom – I went for the latter, with a side of sweet potato fries. The real reason for the meal was because it was the last Friday of work in 2016, so to drink we sampled a few pitchers worth of the Hawaiian beers on draught from Kona Brewing Co.

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The burger itself was soft and juicy as advertised on the menu, the portobello mushroom(s) had been grilled just enough over the lava to keep their bite but also to burst with flavour as they were bitten into. It came in a ‘golden seeded bun’ – about halfway between a sesame and a brioche bun- which provided the best of both worlds. The whole thing was smaller than I was hoping, but satisfying nonetheless with the garlic butter adding an almost french, garlic mushroom feel to the ensemble.  The sweet potato fries were crunchy and the Big Wave golden pale ale was particularly delicious.

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Overall, my burger homage to Obama/end of year lunch at Kua ‘Aina was tasty and uplifting as it needed to be. One criticism would be that they had two clear veggie ‘burger’ options on the menu but neither were actually a genuine patty. Perhaps, a lot like Obama’s presidency, the main aims were achieved (in this case flavour and atmosphere), but if given some more time, and less resistance from the House of Congress (meat-eaters?) then maybe a truly unique Hawaiian veggie burger would have been achieved… with pineapple or something, I dunno.

 

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 7.5/10

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

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BRGR.CO

This summer, Pret a Manger did something novel and exciting. After slowly bringing in more and more veggie options, they have now gone the whole hog (for want of another phrase!) and changed one of their flagship stores, on Broadwick st in Soho, into a vegetarian and vegan only store! The opening happened to land on the same fortnight that I was due to be working in the area – funny how these things work out – and so it would’ve been rude not to at least pop-in.  Three days later, though, with bellies full of tofu salad, paneer and chana wraps, and even cacao nib chocolate pudding, my mind – and stomach – was longing for something that bit more familiar. Of all of Soho’s numerous and diverse lunchtime options there is one place on Wardour street that I myself am amazed I haven’t been to. Until now. Forget a salad, I’d be getting burger and chips from Brgr.co!

The burger joint, originally from Lebanon, looks cool enough, exposed brick walls with a black ceiling purveying a sense of minimal chic to go with their philosophy aka ‘brgrology’, basically some nice words about themselves that they can put on their takeaway boxes. Their USP is something to do with the quality of beef that they use (isn’t that everyone’s), but of course I wasn’t there for that. Of the ten burgers on the menu the one veggie option – unsurprisingly for a restaurant with Lebanese origins – is the Felafel Brgr. I went for this with some sweet potato fries.

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The burger itself was minimal –  a simple patty-shaped felafel made out of broad beans, on bed of lettuce and tomato in a brioche bun. A luminous bed of avocado mayo provided the moisture to the patty, and a bit of zing to compliment the crunchy felafel, which was had a moist and flavoursome middle. Also, due to it’s broad bean base it gave the impression of being a lot greener and fresher than the usual chickpea felafel (I’m still undecided as to which is my favourite, but it was a nice switch up from the norm). The sweet potato fries were crisp and plentiful, and made me think that I probably shouldn’t have had so much fried food on a Tuesday lunchtime. With other side options including parmesan truffle fries, and mac n cheese, maybe I went for the healthiest choice, excluding no side at all of course (I mean…).

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Overall, Brgr.co did provide something different from my escapades to Veggie Pret earlier in the week. The experience, however, was not so novel and exciting as it’s bright green hyped up neighbour. Whilst the felafel burger certainly tickled my tastebuds, and fit in with the Lebanese theme they are so proud of, the rest of the experience was pretty… normal. If the definition of BRGROLOGY refers to a select few who work there, or the entire establishment as industry leaders, I’m afraid neither is true.

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 7.5/10

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

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Byron

In the first post I ever wrote on this blog I reviewed a mushroom burger with the caveat that I’m not usually a fan of the patty being replaced with a mushroom as I felt that it was a bit of a ‘cop-out’. Although the burger I had that night turned out to be delicious, the burger that led me to have those views was the ‘shroom burger I had had so many times at Byron. It was not the quality of the burger itself that I had issues with, but the fact that such a prominent burger chain could not – in my opinion – be bothered to come up with their own version of a veggie patty. When I found out however via twitter that Byron now did a bean burger I had to go and check it out. One thing Byron does well is great initiatives. The main reason I’ve sampled the mushroom burger at Byron is because they were giving them away to people participating in Movember, which I participated in a couple of years ago. This Summer, Byron did ‘Summer at Byron’ meaning every Thursday they offered some sort of treat, be it beer or bourbon, which culminated in August with buy-one-burger-get-one-free every week throughout the month. This was the final shove – an opportunity to review another one of the big hitters – at their Farringdon restaurant – couldn’t be missed.

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Settling in for our BOGOF deal the first thing I noticed was the difference between the Bean Burger and the Mushroom burger – namely that there wasn’t one. The list of extra ingredients is exactly the same between both burgers with the exception that the mushroom comes with goats cheese (the best addition IMO). I therefore opted to get the bean burger with extra blue cheese. For sides we went shared a portion of regular and courgette fries between the table – it was a weeknight after-all – and to drink I went for a bottle of Founders All Day IPA, resisting the urge to go for one of the tempting hard shakes.

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The burger itself looked like a very healthy looking bean burger, good size, served in a ‘big, squishy bun’ (as they like to call it) with the usual trimmings that I remember from my Byron Mushroom burger days. Biting into was a different result altogether, however. The burgers crispy looking facade gave way to a mushy and dry patty – falling into the trap of many bean-burgers before it. Aside from that the ensemble was great tasting and fresh, but not really enough to raise it above the Mushroom burger in my estimations. One of the best things about it was the added cheese which left me wondering why they omitted from the burger in the first instance, when it takes pride and place in the Mushroom burger anyway. Maybe this is to create a more vegan-friendly option? I don’t know. Sides-wise, the courgette fries were crunchy and juicy inside a light batter, and the beer was cold and crisp to cut through all the deep-fried elements of the meal.

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I have found when asking people what they think of Byron that their opinions are quite polarised, but in reality it’s harmless. Although the burgers are not necessarily the best out there, they are always trying new things, and supporting good initiatives (take, for example, their current One Feeds Two scheme that has been so popular, I mean, 25p burgers…). The problem with all the chopping and changing though is that they’re failing to hone in and finesse on their main burgers. I got notified later on twitter that you can actually switch up patties within the different burger arrangements – adding to my point. If a bit more focus was put into making the burgers that they already do, great, then they could really become the best burger chain in town. I might have had gripes with only the Mushroom burger available, but I’d definitely take one really good veggie burger over two average ones.

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 7/10

OVERALL RATING 7/10

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Big Easy

Despite the fact that quite a few of my friends are vegetarians, the reality is that most – as is the way of the world – are not. What this leads to is on certain social events, for example a friend’s birthday, plans for dinner may be made at not the most enticing places for a vegetarian to go. Some might say that they even are the antithesis of what one would want, but being the good vegetarian friend you are, you grit your teeth and bare it. Never have I not gone to a friend’s birthday because the menu was too meaty – I did once not get invited to one of my best mate’s birthdays because he was going to an Argentinian steak restaurant, but that’s another story for another day – but an invite to Big Easy brought me close. A visit to a lobster and steak restaurant stinking to high-heaven of barbecue sauce is not my ideal, but luckily, after an extensive search of the online menu, I spotted it – the little (v) – alongside the veggie burger.

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The Spicy Black Bean Burger, which comes with chips and slaw included in the price, fits in to the theme of the restaurant in terms of size, if not on the flavours supposedly on show alone. The burger, as a construction, was huge – a thick, crispy bean burger with whole black beans punctuating the patty. The massive burger is dwarfed in comparison by it’s bun, big and bready, both combining to make more than a handful. To round off the ensemble and complete the tenuous link to the southern-US themed, rest of the menu, there is a relatively tiny bit of avocado, pickles and chipotle mayo. Unfortunately the burger wasn’t very moist. The sheer size of it meant that the regular fate of the bean burger (good texture but ultimately too dry) was amplified. The disproportionate amount of other fillings compared to the gigantic bun only accentuated this effect. Whilst the chips and the slaw were tasty in their own right it was, ironically, the aforementioned barbecue sauce that saved the burger, both in flavour and moistness.

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Whilst I would normally avoid places like this like the plague – they sometimes feel like a (obviously inadvertedly) massive F-you to my vegetarianism – I will keep going to them if invited. The atmosphere of the restaurant was cool, and it was packed out for a Sunday evening, all the diners there to enjoy the experience as well as the food. The unfortunate truth is that the world has not quite fully opened it’s arms to vegetarianism. And whilst I feel that Big Easy has done well enough to include one veggie option on their menu, it barely scratches the surface in terms of the amount of effort they have put into the rest of their menu. It doesn’t matter though, because as long as I have friends who eat meat, I will come, and as long as they serve veggie burgers, I will come.

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 4.5/10

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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J.D. Wetherspoon

When I started this noble quest a few months ago there was never any remit which stated that I could only go to gourmet or trendy burger restaurants in the posher or hipper corners of London. No, the point of the blog is (*checks about this blog section*) to eat and review the veggie options in places that sell burgers, and compare to them in relation to what I know, namely other veggie burgers. Like it or not, Wetherspoon’s falls into that category and it is as much my duty to try out their veggie option as any of the ‘pulled-porkeries‘ or ‘meat-chiceries‘ (Matty, V., 2015) in Marylebone or Shoreditch. The chosen drinking hole in question was the Montagu Pyke on Charring Cross Road in Soho.

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The Pub, which backs onto Greek Street, is a former music venue and, due to its location, attracts a large crowd which leads to some sort of character and atmosphere not found at most Spoon’s. Also – presumably to due to its location in the heart of the West End – it has a much larger array of beers on tap than the usual spoons, and the prices, annoyingly, reflect that. The menu is much the same as you’ll come across in all other spoons – the burger menu split into classic and gourmet sections which, through various combinations, make up about nine different burgers. The only outwardly veggie options is the aptly named ‘vegetable burger’, but I decided since the difference in cost was negligible I needed to go gourmet. On closer inspection the Mexican burger – which comes with cheese, salsa, guac and fresh chili, as well as three onion rings in the bun(! – due to it’s gourmet moniker) – had the option of having the vegetable burger as its centrepiece.

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The veggie burger patty (after I removed it from it’s unappetising looking sesame bun – lent rules still in play) was crispy and flavoursome – it avoided the generic veggie burger taste that you might associate with your usual home-brand, out-of-the-packet variety – but certainly wasn’t smashing through any culinary boundaries. The guacamole, although perfectly smooth, along with the chilli added a zing which cut through all fried elements and the cheese, was pretty bog standard, but worked nonetheless. The smattering of lettuce and onion which the burger rested on, and the pot of salsa added some much needed freshness, and another layer of crunch.

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The thing about Wetherspoon’s is that you know what your getting. Cheap but edible food, straight out the freezer into the fryer and then onto your plate. You can walk into any Spoon’s in the country and be served the same meal. Yes, the guacamole was highlighter green and the consistency of tahini but that’s only a side effect of the amount of processes it’s been through, and yes, the cheese was perfectly square, but the bottom line – and the uncomfortable truth – is that I actually quite enjoyed my meal. What’s more is that it was so cheap. My burger including chips and pint of Brewdog lager (which I bought again after the burger for £4.25) came to £8.29! I will say this though; it’s probably the only burger you’ll eat that’s better without the bun.

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 6/10

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Breakfast Club

The first thing that comes to your head when you think of The Breakfast Club (aside from the excellent 1980s coming-of-age movie) will most likely be breakfast. Many might be surprised that there is another opportunity to eat at the restaurant that doesn’t include eating eggs and/or standing outside, queuing in the cold nursing a hangover on a Sunday morning. The Breakfast Club does actually serve lunch and dinner and for those who can resist ordering from the ‘Late Late Breakfast’ section the main cuisine on offer is *drum roll*….. burgers!

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Another thing that the people might not know about TBC is that their Soho restaurant is BYOB. This makes it a great place to start relatively boozy birthday celebrations – the reason that I was there. With drinks sorted, my attention switched to the menu where there are five burgers on offer, one vegetarian (don’t let the Mushroom & Swiss burger fool you) – the Don’t Have a Cow, which consists of butternut squash and halloumi stack, topped with avocado, sour cream and Sriracha hot chilli sauce. With lent still in full-flow, my bread-less torment continued so I ordered it and waited for my beautifully disassembled burger – skin-on chips and ‘slaw included – to arrive.

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The burger itself was presented as nicely as it could have been, almost fully disassembled on the plate. The only thing that remained as it would have been in the bunned-burger was the stack, two donut ringed slices of roasted butternut squash on either side of a few thick chunks of halloumi. The other contents of the burger were placed neatly around the stacked centrepiece creating a colourful array of delights ready for me to tuck into. When I did, I was actually reasonably disappointed. Whilst the butternut squash and halloumi worked well together, the butternut squash felt too thin and the halloumi too thick. What this meant was that the thin, soft butternut squash didnt really register, whilst the halloumi dominated – which I didn’t mind at all – but was a bit squeaky on the old gnashers. The avocado was a bit timid and ended up being washed out by the huge dollop of sour cream next to it, the lettuce, as well, missed any serious crunch. The Sriracha, I ended up using as a dip for the skin-onchips – which were pretty tasty – and the coleslaw was nice and flavoursome too. The sides ended up becoming the most enjoyable part of the dish (which isn’t a good sign!)

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The Breakfast club, with its vast array of unique and filling brunches, comes up short when on the veggie burger. The argument could be made that because it was missing the bun it didn’t work but I don’t think that putting it all together in a bun would have made it any better. A burger’s patty or centrepiece should be able to hold it’s own, bun or no bun, and when the booze is flowing – as it is in the TBC’s BYOB soho restaurant – the flavours need to stand out more than ever.

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 5.5/10

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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Patty & Bun

Meeting up with some North West London-based mates gave me a reason to shift my Easton London-centric burger hunt to the West-end. If Shoreditch is the heart of East London’s burger scene, then Marylebone is the same for the West. Of all the joints in this densely burger-populated area, Patty & Bun seems to be the name on everybody’s lips. From what I’ve heard, they seem to focus on what is most important of all, making sure their burgers are something to behold, so I had to see if their veggie burger was up to scratch.

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Even early on a Tuesday evening, Patty & Bun has a small queue out the front which could only be a good sign. Their restaurant on James St – one of two in London – seats about 30 covers, so when we were seated as a three we were squeezed round a two seater table, the distance to the next table somewhere between cosy and intimate. The menu boasts an impressive looking and sounding list of six burgers (one vegetarian) as well as some specials on the board. The Portobello ‘Dig It’ Mushroom burger looked interesting enough, (not that I had a choice to make!) but what I found unusual was the lack of hot veggie sides. Only the rosemary chips were available, and even they come in a non-vegetarian option – with chicken salt. There is coleslaw and salad available but both effectively come in the burger, so it was a Dig It burger with chips for me (and every other veggie in the house).

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My gripes were swiftly forgotten when the burger arrived, though. Oh my, what a burger! The Dig It burger puts a unique spin on the tried but tested ‘shroom burger by making it a ‘mushroom fritter’ – essentially making it a giant breaded mushroom. Breaded mushrooms are delicious in any form but when one’s freshly made and consists of the juiciest and most flavoursome mushroom of them all, then you have something special on (in) your hands. The first bite into this thing is one experience I will cherish for a long time, the first sensation is the flavour burst from the mushroom itself, then comes the waves of the cheese, the tarragon mayo, the herby garlic butter all being cut through by the fresh coleslaw on the base of the perfectly-sized, glazed brioche bun (which held together until the very last bite). The colours that dripped out of the burger, mixed with the ketchup, mayo and bloody tasty house hot-sauce that I had with my chips onto the paper wrapping – or should I say canvas – that the burger came in, resembled that of an impressionist painting, but at Patty & Bun, the chefs are the artists.

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I did have a few qualms about P&B though and it’s not just concerning the lack of veggie food to choose from. First of all, there is no beer on tap, only small cans or bottles, which just isn’t the same as a freshly poured pint. Secondly, I’m still not overly enamoured with the whole everything-in-paper vibe, sometimes it’s nice to have a plate. Lastly though, and most importantly was the fact that I felt like we were being rushed through our meal. There is a fine line between good service and feeling hurried, and I felt they were just the wrong side of it. Coupled with the fact that we weren’t allowed to be seated until our whole party of three had arrived, we ended up being seated, served, fed and paid up in just over half an hour. However, it’s clear that the reason for this is because demand for what Patty & Bun serve up is so high. In this burger game, one thing is always going to guarantee the return custom, and that’s damn good burgers.

VEGGIE BURGER RATING: 9.5/10

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

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