One of London’s best burger restaurants has introduced a new menu item for a new era. Chef-owner Zan Kaufman’s Bleecker will introduce a vegetarian burger using the hypey fermented vegetable “Symplicity” patty, one of the range of vegan foods developed by chef Neil Rankin by way of Simplicity Burger, his restaurant on Brick Lane.
“It’s a burger too good for more people not to be eating,” Kaufmann told Eater. “If you’re a vegetarian, you should definitely eat it, but also if you’re a meat eater then you should definitely give it a whirl.”
For a burger restaurant which risked (but probably didn’t lose) its title as London’s favourite after changing its beef supplier last year, Kaufmann says the decision was less about satisfying the ever-expanding meat-free market, but about serving a “unique” product aimed at everyone. “It felt important that we had something as great for vegetarians as we have for a beef eater,” she said. “If we catch more vegetarians, then great, but that wasn’t the reason we did it.”
Bleecker is known for its own simplicity, replicating the best fast food burgers with a sesame seed bun, grilled dry-aged beef patties from renowned London butchers, and adding little else. The new vegetarian burger is not the brand’s first, but it’s the first that Kaufmann hopes lots of customers won’t despise — a tofu burger has featured on the restaurants’ menus in the last two years. “I loved it but turns out a lot of people don’t like tofu in this country,” she said. “Too many people hated it, so we’ve been trying to replace it for years but hadn’t been able to find the right one.” Some trials with so-called fake meat, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, have taken place but Kaufman said they all just “have a taste that I don’t like.”
It was therefore with a sense of relief and awe that the chef enjoyed one of Rankin’s Simplicity burgers before lockdown. After trying the burger, whose patty is made from a mix of potato protein and fermented vegetables, rich in umami from the inclusion of mushrooms and tomatoes, Kaufmann said she “had a moment where I was like, ‘fuck,’ why don’t I have this!?” She says she can be so unequivocal about how good it is because it’s not hers, that she feels that she’s “borrowing it.”
Kaufman also felt the the patty complemented Bleecker’s own ethos. “It works like our beef — it doesn’t need a lot of other things, it stands on it own,” she said. Where Rankin grills his patties, Bleecker will fry them to avoid interfering with the beef cooking. It works to add extra crispiness to the exterior, while the centre remains pliable, with what Kaufman describes as a “nice sourness.” The burger will be finished with American cheese, iceberg lettuce, raw white onion, and burger sauce.
Bleecker is one of a select group of restaurants who Rankin is working with to showcase his new range of Symplicity foods, having worked to manufacture the product to meet higher volumes over lockdown. Other London burger favourites Patty and Bun has been recently running it as a vegetarian special, with Honest Burgers rumoured to be in line to replace its own Beyond Meat vegetarian burger. Steve Parle’s Pastaio uses the “mince” version of the product in a vegan mafaldine bolognese, while Homeslice Pizza features Symplicity “mozzarella” on its vegan margherita.
The decision to make the addition of a vegetarian burger comes at the end of a period in which Kaufman says the group has been “trying to be flexible.” Bleecker’s four restaurants closed on 23 March, at the beginning of lockdown, with just two, sites in Victoria and Spitalfields, so far having reopened. While the restaurants were permitted by law to offer delivery, Kaufman reasoned that doing so would have been unsafe for the staff. (The Westfield shopping centre and Bloomberg Arcade venues remain closed for now.) To counter the lack of business through closure, Bleecker launched a Deliveroo “dark kitchen” in Battersea for delivery only, brought its burger van back to the Southbank, and introduced an at-home meal delivery kit, which she says the brand will keep in place for the foreseeable future.
“Right now all we’re trying to do is break even,” Kaufman said, while conceding that she’d welcomed the changes forced upon the business in certain ways. “It’s a bit like starting over and the difference feels nicer in a sense. We’re not just talking about numbers and culture which is what you do when you’ve got something that’s scalable [and successful],” she admitted. “It feels a bit more like it did when we first set out,” she said, indicating that there are fewer complications when the need to make something work is less important than the need to stay afloat. “Things that take would have normally taken months, we’re now just like, ‘let’s just do it’.”