Another week and another new restaurant opens in London… specialising in burgers. Shoosh! Hold your misgivings, just get there and queue – and expect to queue, the night we went there was a ninety minute wait. But don’t be deterred, it’s worth the wait.
Shake Shack has a short but illustrious history. From a humble hot dog cart in 2001, within just three years it had premises in Madison Square Park and today has restaurants all across the States, scattered around the Middle East, two restaurants in Istanbul and later this year are opening in Moscow. Plus they have a highly anticipated opening in Grand Central in New York, something they they’re extremely excited about. Their first venture for London sees them set up shop in the humble location of the very centre of the Piazza in Covent Garden.
“This is a completely different Shake Shack than you will find anywhere”, their manager told us. “All Shake Shacks are uniquely designed to fit their location and the items on the menu are just as carefully selected”. It’s this attention to detail, this desire to make each restaurant custom designed for the location and international customers it’s servicing that really impressed me. It’s not simply a successful business that moves into a territory, rolls out the same brand of food popular in another branch and has its sights set on the all mighty dollar. A whole team of trainers are still over from the US training the staff, and from the results they’re doing a great job. Despite the queues and fast turnaround the restaurant was clean and a calm atmosphere greeted us. Anyway, all this aside, how is the food? Because the proof of the burger is in the eating.
The burger menu is simple: Shack Burger, which is a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato and their special Shack Sauce – tangier than mayo but as tangy as burger sauce – and the Smoke Shack, which is the same as the above but topped with Wiltshire Bacon and chopped cherry peppers. You can get them in singles, which will cost you £5 and £6.50 respectively or doubles which are £7.50 and £9. No burger is above £9, which is common place in most establishments. Pleasingly you could quite easily manage a single burger, fries and a drink for little over ten pounds.
The burgers arrive on a tray; they’re colourful, good looking burgers, more akin to a gourmet kitchen that the fast food surroundings. Incredibly well constructed; the bun is durable but not tough or rubbery, in the fact it is the contrary; soft, fluffy, fresh and light. The crisp saltiness of the bacon offers a great contrast to the sweet heat of the cheery peppers. The meat is medium rare; perhaps not as juicy as others, but very flavoursome. The cheese is a perfect consistency and the Shack Sauce gives it a final tangy twist. What’s really interesting about the burgers is how they are almost completely void of any grease. If there is such a thing as a burger that creates the illusion of being healthy while actually tasting great then Shake Shack just might have managed it with this delectable little gem. A single is satisfying, it didn’t leave me bloated or feeling like my GP would have a heart attack for me if he saw me eating it.
The comically named Shroom Burger is no laughing matter, unless you’re laughing with joy at how good it really is. A Portobello mushroom is stuffed with cheese and deep-fried until crisp. The result is a gooey hit of meaty mushroom and melted cheese that oozes out and mixes with the creamy shack sauce. I’m not a veggie but if I had to go without meat this would be a staple on my menu. And at £5.25 it’s another testament to Shack Stack being an affordable option.
Staying true to their roots, you can also get a hot dog. I am not a hot dog man; the hot dog craze that seemed to stem from Bubble Dogs that is still going strong has passed me by. I’ve never been a frankfurter fellow, but the prospect of Shake Shack’s Cumberland dog that embraces more local produce (well, local to the UK) tickled my patriotic bone. The sausage was meaty and flavoursome – a true Cumberland sausage. But anaemic and served smothered in cheese. The crispy shallots are a nice twist on the oh-so-often soggy onions and the bun was just as soft and light as the burger bun.
The fries are crinkle cut, a nice twist, which I haven’t seen in a restaurant or outside of the much maligned Micro-chips range of the 90’s. Crunchy on the outside and soft in the centre, but lacking flavour or seasoning. Like the burgers they’re not greasy in the least, nor are they soggy like the microchips but they’re sadly lacking in the flavour department. The unlimited condiments and seasonings on offer at handy counters throughout the restaurant hard lighten the blow of the blandness and disappointment.
The name, Shake Shack, would suggest they do a mean milkshake; and indeed this is true. The hand-spun vanilla shake is a dense, smooth and creamy delight. But the highlights for me in the beverage category are the ones that I honestly have not tasted anything close to in the UK or outside of the US. The iced tea is not the sugary, sweet variety that Lipton’s produce and the lemonade the carbonated, artificial stuff that you can pick up a gallon for 99p in Asda. The former is freshly brewed and served iced cold, while the later tastes like icy Earl Grey and takes me back to California. While the lemonade comes from freshly squeezed lemons and achieves the perfect blend of sweet and sour. Both are pure Americana in a cup.
Thick, creamy milkshakes and still beverages that take me back to your days in America aside; do they serve any other drinks to quench one’s thirst? Yes, of course. And yes, Shake Shack is fully licensed to sell alcohol, so no need to borrow granddad’s liquor flask for this outing. Oddly for what is ostensibly a burger bar, they have an extensive wine list – fourteen in total. Yes, fourteen, including reds, whites, rose’s and a Proseco. Still, we are in Covent Garden; and frankly, who the Hell decided that you couldn’t enjoy a glass of wine with a burger?! From reasonably priced and flavoursome “Shack”(house) reds and whites at under £5 a glass to Chassagne Montrachet that will set you back £59 a bottle,
But if beer is your booze of choice while chowing on a burger – and it is – then there’s an equally stellar selection on offer. From the tangy Kernel lager, to the zesty Thornbridge IPA and the rich, chocolaty Meantime Chocolate Porter, Shake Shack boast a selection of astutely chosen beers from local brewers, further displaying their desire to stick to a personalised policy for every branch. Sadly the one American option, Shackmeister Ale, which is brewed exclusively for Shake Shack by Brooklyn Brewery, was not available on the night we visited. If I needed an excuse to return, then the opportunity to try this would have provided it.
Back on to the subject of uniqueness; the frozen custard offering known as a concrete, ticks the unique box. Why are they called concretes? Well, apart from the sheer denseness of the frozen custard, the scattering of ‘mix-ins’ make eating one a satisfying challenge, akin to wading through wet cement. The Big Blend will take you to chocolate heaven – literally. Thick chunks of brownie and sweet biscuit are encased in the delicious custard. It’s Shake Shack’s staple dessert. However, it was the Drury Lane Jam Concrete that really left an impression. Vanilla custard mixed with local strawberries, bananas and brown sugar biscuit from St John create a really, seriously special dessert. My dinner companion defined it in a far more eloquent, dare I say, poetic manner: “it’s like the jam tarts with custard you used to get at school”. Much like the evil critic in Pixar’s Ratatouille, she had been transported back to her childhood by a dessert. And in that moment, I too felt that strange sense of nostalgia that a food rarely achieves.
If you’re going to open a restaurant in a saturated market, such as we have in London, then you must endeavour to do both of the following to achieve long-term success: provide a product of outstanding quality and offer something a little different to cash in on the novelty factor. You need to give people a desire and a reason to return for something you won’t get anywhere else. The fact that within an hour of leaving Shack Shack, my dinner companion and I were planning our next visit should stand as testament to just how good Shack Shack are. Two days later, I still have that craving for iced tea, traditional lemonade, a concrete and that elusive taste of nostalgia.
Shake Shack is located in the centre of the Piazza in Covent Garden.
This article was first posted on July 20, 2013