How long would you queue for a hotdog? You must answer this question if you are planning to go to Bubbledogs on Charlotte Street, one of the ‘recession-proof’ luxury fast food restaurants to have opened in London since 2008. Each is defined by its ‘food concept’. Spud in Covent Garden bakes potatoes and covers them in toppings ‘guaranteed’ to cause ‘serious food envy’. Bubbledogs’s USP is pairing champagne with hotdogs. Bubbledogs overcomes some serious obstacles to success, foremost of which is the outright incompatibility of champagne and hotdogs. Yet the queue is worthwhile, unless it exceeds the hour mark. Bubbledogs is a stylish, buzzing and unexpectedly romantic spot. Even the floozie enjoyed being taken out for a hotdog.
The next luxury fast-food contender was Union Jacks, Jamie Oliver’s infant chain. It attempts to unite Oliver’s idea of classic British fare and Hollywood’s idea of an American diner. But the novelty of eating potted shrimps on the set of Grease is short-lived if the shrimps taste like they were served at Abigail’s Party.
The saving grace of Union Jacks in St Giles is the service, and even that is charming in a lackadaisical way rather than serene. Our waitress was a shy rose rather than one of the fearsome tribe who demand that you ‘enjoy’ everything from the breaking of the bread to the signing of the bill. Her timidity was her downfall.
It was Friday night. We were two drinks up and debating whether Poirot was superior to Marple. The waitress loitered somewhere behind my shoulder, presumably to clear away the shrimps and whatever misfortune had befallen my companion. Guided perhaps by the rule of service which dictates that the only sin is intrusion, she decided not to interrupt our absurd set-to. Her error became apparent five minutes later when she brought the main courses. There was a cacophony of fumbling as she began to clear away the used plates while clinging to the laden fresh ones. Miraculously, the only casualty was a fork, although the carafe of pinot noir from the Chapel Down vineyard in Kent flirted briefly with catastrophe.
Soon we were three drinks up. I mention this because the meat was so dry that it had to be washed down or else it stuck in your gullet. My pork chop did not so much recall Merrie England as the Harvester at Morden circa 1983. The floozie asked for and was promised medium rare lamb; but she got a piece of leathery matter instead. The vegetables were cold, which is unforgivable. Pudding was no better; the retro arctic roll belonged in the discount bin at Iceland. My English whisky, ordered more in hope than expectation by this late stage, was undrinkable (which was a first); but the floozie saved Jamie’s nostalgic venture with a dash of Chaucerian honeydew wine. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that Mr Oliver intended to go back quite so far in time.
Union Jacks was disappointing, but not wholly surprising: some chains smell of mediocrity when you cross the threshold. Pizza Express has nothing to fear from Union Jacks. The meal was a waste of £77. In comparison, the £74 for a hotdog and two glasses of bubbly apiece was an easy spend.
Mark Hix’s Tramshed should worry someone, only I can’t think of an exact rival. Its unprepossessing name refers to the fact that it is situated in an old tram shed in Rivington Street, Shoreditch. The vast space is dominated by a Damien Hirst sculpture of a cockerel seemingly nailed to the back of a bull preserved in formaldehyde. The witty, self-deprecating piece expresses the twinkle that pervades Hix’s restaurant. This glamour comes at a cost: you’ll be lucky to get a table without a reservation. One reason for this is the reasonably priced menu: starters are £7.95 and main courses range from £9.95 to £20.
Hix’s guiding principle is to deny his diners choice except over the wine. If you want a starter, you are given three English tapas dishes. The trio changes each day; we shared a Yorkshire pudding with cauliflower puree, haddock croquettes with a garnish to savour and an array of marinated tomatoes of different varieties accompanied by soft blue cheese. You then have a choice of sirloin steak, roast chicken and two salads. Naturally, everything apart from the salads comes with chips.
I once ate chicken and chips on a beach in Marbella. The chef who ran that dive would have benefited from a trip to Tramshed. Each dish is presented with humour — bird on a stick, haunch on a slab, that kind of thing. More importantly, though, the simple cooking of quality produce is well executed. If you order medium rare, you get medium rare. The floozie’s beef was perfect; my chicken was succulent. The vegetables benefited from having been prepared with care. The chips were not semi-submerged in fat, like logs in a swamp. Best of all, the sauces showed that the chefs possess flair: creamed garlic and herbs dressed the chicken and a light béarnaise accompanied the beef.
Tramshed is a proper restaurant masquerading as a fast-food joint. Burger & Lobster is another famous name in this mould. Predictably, Burger & Lobster sells burger and lobster. Unpredictably, it prices them at £20 each. I was sceptical. Twenty pounds for a burger? Lobster for only £20? But my scepticism was misplaced. It was an actual lobster. It was big, too, having been imported from Nova Scotia. Crucially, it had been well cooked. It retained its moisture and therefore its elastic texture and delicate flavour. Not every London restaurant can do this.
The burgers are all meat and no filling, which is good. The meat comes from Irish and American cattle fed respectively on a diet of grass and corn. (You’ll have noticed that this is not an environmentally friendly restaurant.) I don’t care if the beef was hand-reared by God and slaughtered by St Peter — £20 for a burger (even a very good one) is pushing it. But £20 for a lobster of such quality is a bargain. Burger & Lobster and Tramshed are famous for being recession-proof. I’ll wager that both will be boomproof.