Monday, 3 May 2010
Grand Union, Brixton
“Try the Grand Union burgers,” someone, I can’t remember who, suggested the other week. Come to think of it, it may have been Grand Union themselves, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m not doing freebies anymore. There’s part of me that wishes I was brazen and morally deficient enough to suck back as many free meals as possible and to hell with the consequences – in fact, there’s quite a large part of me that is – but the exhausted, abused white angel on the other shoulder has just enough influence to render any such invitations sufficiently awkward so as to be no fun at all. So I turned down the offer of a free burger and instead toddled on down to Brixton to try Grand Union with no nervous PR lady hovering in the metaphorical background and no tacit pressure to score up a mediocre meal. Which in this case was just as well.
Leaving the food aside, as a place to sit and drink your weekend away you can do a lot worse than the Grand Union Brixton. On a sunny day particularly, the spectacular and spectacularly huge beer garden must come into its own, but sadly this weekend – a bank holiday weekend, naturally – the hail and high winds ensured the only habitable section of the venue was inside, and it was here I sat, perched on a high stool trying to make sense of the menu.
If choice equaled quality, Grand Union would be onto a winner. There are no fewer than 23 different listed styles of burger, along with a couple of dozen or more starters, salads and ‘lite bites’, so if you woke up one morning with an insatiable craving for a half rack of BBQ ribs followed by a mozzarella and pesto beef burger, this is your place. In the end, although very nearly going for the control variable “Cheese & Bacon” burger, curiosity got the better of me and I decided upon something called “Fired Earth” – chilli spiced beef with peppered cheese, sliced jalapenos, fresh rocket and “secret” spicy sauce.
In retrospect, I suppose I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. I’ve railed against fancy speciality burgers in the past, and you could accuse me of deliberately ordering something I knew would be awful just because it was more fun to write up. But that’s honestly not what happened here – I had (reasonably) high hopes for the GU burger, not least because of a few spots of good press and the fact the places seem to be genuinely popular whenever I’ve wandered past. Plus I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a Tex-Mex burger, providing all the bits work together and it delivers on the promised chilli hit. This is what arrived:
I’ll just give you a few seconds to take that picture in. This is not a practical joke or an April Fool or some kind of industrial sabotage, I promise – it really did look like that. I could have done with something next to it to give you a sense of scale, but hopefully it comes across well enough. From the plate to the top of the bun was about ten inches; this is a ludicrous height and there’s nobody on the planet who could have eaten that with their hands – a disastrous failing for a burger. The thing was so tall it was held together not with a cocktail stick as you sometimes find places doing but with a wooden kebab skewer, and even that only just protruded from the top of the bun. But worse than that, the reason for the crazy dimensions was, as you can probably tell, a half a pound of undressed, slightly wilted rocket crushed into the middle in such catastrophically huge amounts that they may as well have called it a salad and have done with it.
Rocket is, as I’m sure you’re aware, a very strongly-flavoured plant even in small amounts, and if I’d attempted to eat this towering monstrosity as delivered not only would I have needed the jawline of a boa constrictor but I would have tasted nothing but rocket. So in order to get some kind of idea of what the Grand Union burger tastes like when not hidden beneath half a pound of rabbit food, I scooped out the greens and ate it without. To be fair, the burger itself was alright, cooked medium and with a nice crunchy exterior from the grill. Also, the ‘peppered cheese’ was, although not in the least bit peppery as far as I could make out, quite similar to proper US burger cheese and worked pretty well. But the slice of beef tomato was too thick, the buns were too splintery and small, and the ‘secret spicy sauce’ tasted remarkably like normal sweet burger relish – in fact I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it was. Sliced jalapenos turned out to be identical to those ones you get on your nachos at the cinema, and there was an unpleasant thick layer of cheap mayonnaise beneath the beef that made the bun base greasy and fragile.
At £12.50 with a bowl of (OK) fries, this was not a cheap burger, and unless you have a particular fondness for rocket you can’t say you got your money’s worth. It’s not the worst burger I’ve eaten so far this year – that record is safe for the time being – but it was awkwardly presented, unbalanced and irritating to eat. Everything a good burger shouldn’t be. That this place is so depressingly popular I think says more about London’s astonishingly low expectations of a burger than it does about anything that Grand Union are doing right, and yet again I’m left wondering what’s so difficult about serving a nice bit of beef in between two soft buns and a dill pickle that seems to elude almost every restaurant in London. I mean, excuse the pun, but it’s hardly rocket science.