Bunsen 36 Wexford street, dublin 2. HHHII
I wonder if Tom Gleeson regrets saying he wants "to be known as having the best burger in Dublin". The dashing south Dublin Trinity boy is still shy of 30 and this is his first venture, but when he opened shop during the summer he believed he could do it. Gleeson learnt to cook at Ballymaloe and in Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in New York, where he developed a fetish for the US hamburger. He apprenticed for Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, learning the surgical processes of molecular gastronomy from the great master, before coming home to develop his simple recipe for Bunsen. His market research into meat, bun and cheese was obsessive. "I tested every breed of beef and every part of the animal in every ratio," he said. It's like the story of Picasso, who perfected realist portraiture before painting deliberately like a child.
Bunsen is the restaurant/fast food joint that only does one thing. Burger and chips. If you don't like it, you can clear off. There are no fancy extras, just mustard, mayo, ketchup, tomato, pickle, lettuce, onion. But will this be the best burger and chips? Will it make you ditch JoBurger, Gourmet Burger, Dylan McGrath, McDonald's etc, and migrate here?
Bunsen looks the business – it looks hot, situated on raffish Wexford Street between the Liberties and Stephen's Green. A big red neon B juts from the brickwork, a sizeable window showcases the gorgeous, born-in-the-nineties clientele. I brought a gentleman who has lived so long in Berlin he knew, without even looking for a conventional coat hanger, to hang his coat from the exposed copper pipes. We definitely belonged here.
And we did not feel 56. Bunsen's lot are J1 Visa kids, Abercrombied and carefree, but not aggressively so. There was just a glimmer of gingham, a few beards, an under-cut and one tweed cap. What I'd expected to be a hipster hoedown was just a few young – and two no longer young but nonetheless youthful – folks biting into their bunsens.
The menu beams up from a business card, making up your mind for you in all its shocking simplicity. Hamburger, €6.95, Cheeseburger, €7.45. Or a double of either. Fries are shoestring or hand cut (€2.95 each) or the significantly un-shoestrung sweet potato (€4.95), which I ordered to be upmarket. Apparently model Roz Purcell likes them too. My interloper and I both chose, wait for it: Cheeseburger. Vegetarians shouldn't darken the door, though the gluten-intolerant get a special bun. We didn't risk the one type of white or red wine, nor did we revert to milkshakes. Two ice-cold PBL lagers made this an occasion, rather than just a trucker stop.
The burgers come fast, on retro metallic trays, and you might be surprised by how doll-sized everything looks, but it's enough, really. We unwrapped the branded paper, bit in, and were taken back. Not taken aback, just back. Bunsen burgers embody taste memories rather than taste experiences. To eat them is to return to the McDonald's drive-thrus of childhood; the doughy bread, sweet pickle and fried meat patties of yesteryear. But it is much better than McDonalds. The meat, sourced from Black Aberdeen Angus forequarter cuts, was robust, expertly seasoned and cooked 'medium' to our delectation. With that bracing hit of pepper, the burger performed what all childhood memories should: an improvement on how things were. The chips were indistinguishable from McDonalds chips. Sweet potato were fit for a glamour model, though no one should salt my chips before I've given the okay.
There are a few things wrong. The bread was damp and left thumb-prints: not good this, despite "Our excellent baker Derek" as he appears on the 'Provenance' list. 'Cheeseburger' meant we paid 50c extra for the easy single, described as 'gooey' and tasting of sweet nothing. It's a shame, in a country that produces winning farmhouse cheese, that they couldn't even pick a good processed one. And the table sauces. French's mustard, and Heinz ketchup delivering its uproarious lie on the label: "Bursting full of tomatoes" it is not. They could make their own.
Has Gleeson created the best burger in Dublin? Impossible. Bunsen's fare is created by technicians not cooks. A burger is but a burger, and unless you have an amazing palate for forequarter cuts it needs half-good ingredients to substantiate the package. If it is the best it's a Pyrrhic victory, for all that was lost along the way. But it is what it is. I've never been to In-N-Out Burger in the US and that's what Bunsen is getting at, quality fast food, served by people who are not miserable.
Typical dish: Burger
The damage: €35 including tip for two burgers, two fries, two beers.
On the stereo: Boy's bedroom music
At the table: Harmless hipsters