Burger Me!

I like burgers. As a fussy-eating child they were one of the few things I ate happily and my similarly fussy son has also recently discovered a liking for them. They’re pretty simple and so pretty hard to get badly wrong – even a greasy hoof-burger from a stall at a football match is palatable enough if hot (the main problem with these come when they’re served in frozen buns which have disintegrated on defrosting).

So, before going to see Shaun the Sheep over half term, we were both quite excited to stop off at the newish Five Guys branch at the Kirkstall Leisure Complex in Leeds. Five Guys has a “back to basics” ethos – a short menu of burgers and hot dogs, self service soft drinks machines, spartan interiors with little decoration beyond immense numbers of reproduced reviews from various London and US local newspapers and little paper trays you can fill with monkey nuts to occupy yourself while waiting for your order to be cooked and called out. The posters proclaim the freshness of the produce – “these guys don’t even have freezer!”.

After some fun fiddling with the settings on the touch screen drinks dispenser (“yes, you can have peach Coke!”) we didn’t have long between grabbing napkins and ketchup and our order being ready. As for the food, it didn’t disappoint, the burgers were tasty and the meat quality good, the skin on chips were also pretty nice. The thing is, because burgers are fundamentally a simple food, they weren’t amazing. They were just very good burgers (not quite as good as Red’s True Barbecue according to OMB though, and not as good as the ones at the Busan BBQ pop up in Leeds Trinity Kitchen which I had a couple of weeks ago). Comparable to what is on offer (although rather less quickly) across the road at Rosie’s Diner. Rather more substantial and “natural” than those at the McDonald’s a hundred yards further away. But, as Giles Coren recently wrote, how fussy can you be about a burger?

And, for me, that was the real problem. While I can’t fault the food, the price just doesn’t seem worth it. OMB and I each had a “little bacon cheeseburger” (the standard size is a double burger- which was too big for either of us to fancy at the time), shared a regular portion of chips and had a fizzy drink each (free refills, but there’s a limit to how much fizzy pop even an 8 year old can put away – particularly if you want to make sure they don’t have to miss half the film they’re going to for comfort breaks). That came to £22.50. Or, nearly four times what we’d have paid had we gone to McDonald’s. At least if you go to Rosie’s, Red’s, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron or any one of the other “premium” burger chains that gets you table service and some sense of having gone out for a meal rather than merely refuelled somewhere more starkly utilitarian than a McDonald’s. But, as the place was pretty full in the middle of a gloomy, wet Sunday afternoon by a bowling alley and multiplex, perhaps I’m still a comparatively fussy eater.

Rosie’s Diner – Kirkstall

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One of the disappointments of the transition from being young to being middle aged and having a family is that you move from being able to try out all the latest bars and restaurants to spending large amounts of your leisure time at places like Cardigan Fields – a car park with a multiplex cinema, chain restaurants, bowling alley and leisure centre. And a night club you know you’re 20 years too old for. So when a new independent restaurant opens up in such a place it’s as exciting as a new bar on The Calls would once have seemed.

Rosie’s Diner has been trumpeted as about to open for months now and last week OMB and I managed to go there for a quick meal between his swimming lesson and Beavers as a change from McDonalds or Nandos. The concept is of an American diner, complete with chrome, neon, red vinyl booths and a yellow American school bus, burgers and shakes. OMB was also very keen on the idea of playing pool there after having got hooked on the game while on holiday. The omens weren’t good, however, after reading the rather damning review in the Yorkshire Evening Post. But, surely they’d have sorted out the teething problems highlighted in the review as a first priority after having clearly invested a lot in the new venture…

Well, things weren’t quite as bad as in the review. The food was pretty good and of a decent quality. Possibly too high quality as OMB would have preferred a more traditional and processed hot dog than the locally sourced sausage! The milkshakes were really good, interestingly coming in branded milkbottles.  Unfortunately, the service was still somewhat erratic with food taking a long time to arrive and it being unclear whether the order we made for dessert actually got to the kitchen. This was not due to a lack of staff as there were a lot on duty in a sparsely populated restaurant but more due, apparently, to some of them being a little away with the fairies. This meant that we didn’t have time to wait for dessert, which was a shame as the friends we were with said that they were good last time they came.

So, I’d give the place a guardedly positive review. We’ll be back but when we are in less of a hurry and so can be more relaxed about the time. OMB will get his game of pool and given how long it takes us to pot all the balls, it’ll be someone else complaining about delays!

Cielo Blanco – Leeds Trinity

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The recently opened Leeds Trinity shopping arcade is a big improvement on the grotty 70s maze that used to be there and has brought a number of shiny new stores to add to the city centre. Disappointingly this does seem to have largely been done by encouraging existing shops to move to the new space, leaving their old stores empty, but most of those do seem to be being relet so that over the coming year it will have added to the city rather than merely cannibalised existing shops. It has also got a number of new restaurants but unfortunately most of these are parts of larger chains which already have branches in the area. One exception to this is Cielo Blanco, a Mexican cantina owned by the same family which runs one of our favourite bars from when we lived in the city centre, Oporto. Thankfully, it isn’t just another Tex Mex place catering to the bland “burgers and cocktails” diner- there’s a TGIF for that. It specialises in “street food” that works well for shoppers and local workers looking for something a little different while out in the city centre.

I went for lunch on Friday with my wife and a friend who was up visiting for the weekend and we opted for the street food selection where we each chose three dishes for a very reasonable £10.95 each. Unusually for such menus, there was no restriction on the choice of dish – often restaurants exclude the pricier dishes from the deal, but Cielo Blanco didn’t. All the food was very fresh tasting and varied with zingy salsas and dips to brighten up the potential stodge of deep fried empanadas and quesadillas. The range of Mexican beers served ice cold in frozen glasses was good too, even though, unfortunately having to drive later on to pick up OMB from school meant I couldn’t go through the list! The staff were attentive and enthusiastic about the cuisine and the place was very professional and slick in a way that independent one offs often fail to be. It wasn’t surprising that the aspiration is for the restaurant to be grown into a chain in the future.

It is certainly worth a visit if you’re in Leeds and worth looking forward to if they manage to expand the franchise to other cities.