Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Shake Shack - that featherlite bun won me over


Shake Shack London Covent Garden review
Queues building up on a regular day (Photo by Bex Walton)

Address: Covent Market (south side),
24 Market Building, The Piazza
London WC2E 8RD
Phone: 0203 5981360
Nearest Tube station:
Covent Garden

Ratings (out of 5 *)
Price: below £15
Service charge: N/A
Taste: ****
Service: ***
Ambience: **
It was sheer madness, I tell myself. I just had a heavy dinner and got this sudden urge to check out the burger joints, which are so popular in New York and both have now established their branches in Covent Garden. I don't know what got into me but I sent a message to AR and we are at Convent Garden at 9.30pm that very same night.

AR, who has spent some time in New York has been raving about the burger joints almost the moment they are opened in London. "You must try them," he said, "they are absolutely the best!" I am two minds about giving both Five Guys and Shake Shack a go one after another but decide that that would be pure madness and a recipe for serious indigestion, especially unwise if the next day is a working day.

So it shall be Shake Shack, purely because it is nearer to the Tube station and Five Guys looks like a vamped up MacDonalds. Not that Shake Shack looks like much but that's the whole point, AR says. Apparently, it is meant to look like a shack, thus the name. The ordering counter and kitchen is all efficiently tucked into a shop front.

One benefit of turning up at 9.45pm on a Sunday night (Shake Shack closes at 10.30pm on Sundays) is that the queue is almost non-existent. Some ten people are in front of me and I am right at the front within ten minutes. Looking at the rows of queue barriers neatly lined up outside, Shake Shack is definitely used to dealing with much longer queues. Unsurprisingly, Londoners are keen to check out the burger joint that has been making waves in New York City. If they aren't, they would be dragged there by their New Yorker mates. AR was there just two days back - the queue stretched three ranks fifteen minutes before closing time.

Shake Shack London Covent Garden review
Barely keeping myself together in anticipation of the burger

The counter service is as pleasant as can be at a fast food restaurant. "Have you been here before?" the guy behind the counter asks. He proceeds to explain to me how it works. It's simple really: you order and pay for your food at the counter, get a token and go stand outside the "shack". Once your order is ready for collection, the token will vibrate and bleeping red. You then go to a side window to collect your orders. Very tidy.

When the counter staff told me that "there are lots of seating inside", he wasn't exaggerating. Shake Shack has covered a portion of the covered area within Covent Garden with two and four seaters. It also took over another shop space plus some outdoor seating, which is brilliant when the weather is right.

Now, let's get down to business and talk about the burger, shall we? I read that the buns are air flown from across the pond. So I can't wait to tear off a piece of that. I'm happy to report that they taste good. Not flaky, extremely pliable an soft. These buns made of mash potatoes taste remarkably like those served at the likes of Suen Luen Snack Bar just over at Chinatown. For those, it boils down to how much protein you have in the bun. The French calls this baking the water roux method, the Japanese and Chinese know it as tangzong.

Shake Shack London Covent Garden review shakestack burger
The melted cheese...

I am told expressively by AR that as the Shake Shack novice, I should go for the Shack Stack (£7.75). A cheese burger with a crisp-fried portobello mushroom with lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce. Never had a burger with a mushroom in it? Me neither. The result is oddly satisfying. The portobello mushroom (already limped when I finally get to it) is already meaty o its own (they actually have mushroom burger for vegetarians with the dubious name of Shroom), with the actual beef patty, it is like having two different meats in a single burger.

That somewhat compensates for the relevatively thin meat patty (think MacDonald's cheeseburger). That is overshadowed by the melted cheese, which reminds me of the age old pizza advertisement where the cheese just stretches on and on when a slice of pizza is gradually pulled away. Someone told me later that he actually burnt his tongue when he tucked into one with a piping hot cheese. There you go, tongue burning cheese. Ah, and the ShackSauce. That tastes like your regular brown sauce only sweeter and beefier.

Shake Shack London Covent Garden review shakestack burger
Just look at the battered mushroom - pity that it was limped

All in all, the ShackStack (I can never say it without having my tongue tied - Shake Shack's ShackStack burger - give that a go) is a sinful bite. If I have anything bad to say about it, it would be that it is a bit too busy - you don't really taste its individual bits. Then again, burgers are meant to be such, aren't they? They are never meant to be eaten with forks and knives; you tend to lose the spirit of it all when you do that. They are meant to be messy though MEATmission carries that a tad too far.

Speaking of sinful, there is the milk shakes. Vanilla, chocolate, caramel, strawberry and peanut butter. You can even have them malted. Darn the New Yorkers really know how to live it up. Having had a full meal before this, I went for the saner coffee shake made from Arabica Fairtrade beans, aptly named Fair Shake (£4.50). It turns out to be rather creamy (good) but also gives me a sugar rush (not good). Perhaps I'm getting too old for such stuff.

I would have gone for the the Root beer float, also classified under the Shakes section. But I thought it is a bit cheeky to charge a fiver for a scoop of ice-cream on a mug of root beer. Or is there something else to that?

Like all serious burger joints, Shake Shack requires you to order your fries (not chips mind you, fries!) seperately. Stiffly deep fried, I can't stop popping the crinkled fries (£2,50) in. The fleeting thought of mounting calories is swiftly cast aside, the crunching just goes on. Another New Yorker pal once observed that the English bacon is always limp, "nothing like the crunchy ones that we get at home". Suffice to say, that crunch makes heck of a difference.

Shake Shack London Covent Garden review bowling alley table

While savouring that, you might be interested to know that the long heavy duty wooden table that you are resting your arms on are handcrafted in Brooklyn from a former bowling alley floor panel. One up for style but not so much for carbon footprint.

Considering that I arrive at Shake Shack after a heavy dinner, the meal turns out much better than expected. But how does Shake Shack compare with Byron, the local burger strongman? I'm not sure whether that's fair. While Byron is a full service restaurant, Shake Shack is really more for a quick bite. What I would be craving for would be the Shake Stack with Byron's milk shake and skin on chips.


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