Editor's note: Please welcome Ibrahim Salha to AHT!—re-welcome, rather. He did some London burger reporting for us back in 2010, and now he's back with a look at London's first Shake Shack. Here's his report from Shake Shack's preview event on Wednesday.
If you weren't convinced of London's credentials as a fully realized burger town, then the two most recent restaurant openings will surely go some way to changing your opinion. Right on the heels of Five Guys—which had the edge with a Fourth of July opening—Danny Meyer's Shake Shack opens today.
Shack Shack's first London venue is located in the heart of tourist-land, right in the middle of the market building of Covent Garden Piazza, clearly targeting that passing foot traffic. It seems set up for success: the crucial combination of world-famous brand and amenable audience means they'll have to do something drastic to fail.
The question is, how does the London branch compare to the original location in Madison Square Park? The answer, in short, is that they're pretty much identical. It's good. The Shake Shack team have managed to take the burgers that many Brits have become familiar with on their travels and transplanted them closer to home.
That's not to say they're exactly the same as the burgers served in Madison Square Park and other New York City locations. Some allowances have been made, particularly with the beef. Instead of a blend from Pat LaFrieda, London's ShackBurger (single, £5; double, £7.50) patties are made using cattle from Scotland. In the words of Culinary Director, Mark Rosati, "In the States, we use only 100 percent Angus from the Midwest, which has ancestry from Scotland. Now that we are in London, we're excited to be using 100 percent Aberdeen Angus directly from Scotland."
The meat here is completely grass-fed, which might throw off a few taste buds more used to corn-fed, but it works. The beef is plenty fatty and very tasty. They've clearly spent a long time finding the right meat. Same goes for the vine ripened tomatoes from Holland, which are vibrant in color and taste. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect is the fact they've brought along their preferred choice of bun, the esteemed Martin's Potato Roll. As well as the Shack sauce, the squidgy, buttery and slightly sweet bun lets you know you're eating a Shake Shack burger.
One slight incongruity I noted was the lack of sear on the burgers I tried. While they were cooked slightly pink in the middle, the meat didn't have that desirable, Maillard-reacted crust like the ones I've experienced in New York City. Perhaps this is due to the person behind the Keating MiraClean griddle and perhaps the smash technique will be perfected with time. Either way, they were juicy and well-salted.
Bacon on the SmokeShack (single, £6.50; double, £9) is free-range Wiltshire cure smoked bacon—a nice British touch alongside the Italian-accented chopped cherry peppers. An Italo-Anglo-American burger, if you will.
Rounding things off in terms of the big three is the 'Shroom Burger (£5.25), the vegetarian burger that could turn even the most ardent carnivores.
Fries (£2.50; with cheese, +£1), often looked at as an afterthought at Shake Shack, are the crinkle cut, salty, and crunchy numbers you'll be familiar with, but they're made of a yellow variety of potatoes sourced throughout Europe, according to Mark Rosati.
The local accent really shines in their Flat-Top Dogs and Concretes sections. In the former, the team are using a specially made Cumberland sausage from Sillfield Farm, made with rare breed British pork. You can get it plain or topped with cheese sauce and fried shallots, which have been marinating in their own ShackMeister Ale.
When it comes to the Concretes (single, £4; double, £6.50), you can tell a lot of research (read: eating) has been done in the name of creating ice creams with a local touch. The Union Shack, for example, features chocolate hazelnut brownie pieces from St. John Bakery and chocolate chunks from Paul A Young. St. John Bakery also play a part in the creation of the Big Blend, creating a brown sugar biscuit (cookie) that gives the Concrete a pleasant crunch, contrasting with the chewy brownie, from the same bakery.
All signs point to Shake Shack's first London location being a success. The price is accessible, the quality is high, and you can tell that a lot of care has been put into creating a restaurant that not only gives people a taste of what you can get in New York City, but is also given enough of a local touch that people in this city can recognize and identify a number of aspects. One promising thing to note is that things will probably get better.