Food: Bunsen is burning
Bunsen, 22 East Essex Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2. (01) 5599532
There was no shortage of volunteers to accompany me on my visit to Bunsen. The very mention of the place inspires a drooling enthusiasm; the younger residents of my house talk about its burgers with a reverence that us more mature gourmands reserve for the first wild salmon of the season and Bordeaux first growths (not necessarily in that order, or - heaven forbid - together).
My in-house experts are on familiar terms with most of the burger joints around town and, for their money, Bunsen is the preferred option. They say that its burger is the best in the city.
The first Bunsen opened on Wexford Street two years ago. Its owner, Tom Gleeson, is a Trinity business and politics graduate who took himself off to Ballymaloe after college and worked stages in some serious restaurants (including Le Bernardin in New York and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck), before taking the plunge into restaurant ownership. Now, he has opened a second branch, on the main tourist drag in Temple Bar. It's a much bigger space, with tables on two levels, and the room at the back has views out over the river. The interior is painted in sharp, dark grey and limed white. Tables are functional, but there is some nice tobacco leather seating along the walls.
It takes an amount of confidence to open a restaurant that sells only one thing. At Bunsen, that thing is a classic American burger. You can have it with cheese, or you can have a double, or a double with cheese. You can have it with fries: hand- cut, shoestring or sweet potato. And that's it. There's no vegetarian option. There's no lamb burger or fish burger. There are no toppings other than the standard pickle, onion, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard and mayo. There are no desserts.
So don't go to Bunsen unless you want to eat a burger.
Of course, you can get a burger in just about any restaurant in Dublin. It's one of those menu items that's expected, along with some variation on the theme of chicken breast, and a beetroot and goat's cheese salad for the vegetarians (yawn). Most are mediocre. There are also plenty of restaurants that specialise in burgers, from the global multiples that we love to hate, to the home-grown chains that we wish were better. Let's face it, you don't usually emerge from one of these places feeling good about yourself, and you don't advertise your patronage.
A couple of years ago, during the course of writing The Irish Beef Book with butcher Pat Whelan, of James Whelan Butchers, I spent weeks testing dozens of burger recipes in pursuit of burger perfection. In the end, the version we settled on was one of the simplest, involving nothing more than once-minced beef (twice makes for a pappy texture), and a sprinkle of sea salt on the patty before it hit the griddle. No egg. No onion. No breadcrumbs. No seasoning, bar the salt that promotes the Maillard reaction, which happens when there's a chemical interaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives meat cooked at high temperature that delicious browning and flavour. It's a winning recipe if the quality of the beef is excellent, the cut is flavoursome and the meat to fat ratio is 80:20.
Dry-aged chuck is a good option, and is naturally 80:20, but you can achieve the same ratio by combining other cuts, such as fatty short-rib with leaner sirloin. Lean meat does not make for a juicy burger. And when it comes to burgers, you've got to trust your butcher. If I'm making burgers at home, I have the meat minced to order. I wouldn't make them with a pre-pack tray of generic mince from the supermarket.
At Bunsen, they use Black Aberdeen Angus beef and a mixture of cuts from the fore and hindquarter - they're not saying which ones. I'll hazard there's a decent amount of fat in there.
According to a film on their website, they mince the meat on the premises several times each day in a chilled room, which is what enables them to offer the burgers cooked as much or as little as the customer requests. This is such a rarity that we find ourselves asking our waitress if she's sure that's an option.
As it happens, I'm the only one who opts for rare. I choose the Paleo version of a double cheeseburger, wrapped in iceberg lettuce rather than sandwiched between buns. It's as good a burger as I've eaten anywhere, even though the cheese is nothing fancy. The Bunsen cooking method involves steaming the burger for the last bit of the cooking time to retain moisture, and its success is evidenced by the trickles of juice down my wrists as I tuck in. It's a visceral experience, but not a pretty one.
My guests go for medium; they're equally happy, and they love the buns. We try all three types of fries, and our favourite is the sweet potato version, although none is hot enough.
The burgers come to the table wrapped in smart branded paper on a rectangular aluminium tray, the fries in a cardboard boat. The ketchup is Heinz, the mayo Hellman's, the vinegar Sarson's and the mustard French's American yellow. At Bunsen they do one thing and they do it well.
Our bill for three - one double cheese burger and two singles, plus three orders of fries and a few soft drinks - came to €44.95 before service.
On a budget
The plain hamburger is €6.95.
On a blowout
The double cheeseburger with sweet potato fries and a milkshake will set you back €16.90.
The high point
A seriously good (and good-quality) burger for a seriously low price. In a restaurant a couple of minutes' walk away from Bunsen, you'll find a burger priced at €25. It's not a patch on Bunsen's.
The low point
The Bunsen model only works because the tables are turned quickly. The downside of the modest prices is that lingering is not encouraged. Not a problem for those wanting a quick bite.
10/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
One of the pleasures of a visit to Dingle is an ice-cream at Murphy's, the emporium run by brothers Kieran and Seán Murphy, who have a second outlet on the pier, and shops in Killarney and Dublin. New to their offering for summer 2015 are rainwater sorbets, made from - you guessed it - the plentiful natural resource that has plagued many a Kerry family holiday for this writer. The Murphys have obviously decided that if you can't beat it, you may as well use it to your advantage, and are distilling pure Dingle rainwater for dark Valrhona chocolate and raspberry flavours.