You would think that Burger Project had a bulletproof formula: a fast-food joint in World Square, created with the top-grade pedigree of Neil Perry. Accessible prices, high-calibre produce, a worthy nod to sustainability, with a portion of proceeds redirected to charity. Just hand out the gold stars already, what isn’t there to like?
I was so confident that I would be a huge fan of Burger Project, but my expectations really got upended. I wanted to like this venture, a lot, but my experience never quite hit the highs of the sales pitch.
After a series of soft launches and media previews, Burger Project opened last Friday. Naively, I thought if we got there early, we’d outsmart the inevitable queues. The lines were inescapable, it turned out, but they weren’t too much of a strain. It took about 25 minutes to get to the counter to place an order. Sweet. We grabbed our seats and waited. And waited. And waited. 40 minutes later and our buzzers had not yet gone off. But a bunch of dudes who had ordered long after us had already collected their food. I took a look around and the people who’d queued up around the time we had were all sitting at empty tables – they didn’t have their orders, either.
Will went up to investigate and learnt that our dockets had been lost and told me I’d have to go up and battle it out to get my food. So, with my receipt still in hand, I walked up and tried to find a staff member that might help me sort this out. Some (very cranky) customer had beaten me to it, and was having a massive tantrum in front of a very sympathetic restaurant manager who basically underwent everything she could have reasonably done to placate this woman. By the time I found someone who could track down my missing food, the response was a little underwhelming. I explained that my docket had likely gone missing. The employee didn’t seem to believe this, and explained that “the burgers take different times to cook, so it just depends on what burger you ordered”. I pointed out that I’d been waiting nearly an hour and that it probably didn’t have much to do with how long it took to prepare the burger. Eventually, he returned with a tray of food and I was off to hopefully enjoy my meal.
Except – I can’t honestly say that I did. The Passion Pop House-Made Soda ($4.50) was all watery, because it had been just sitting out for ages, waiting for someone to pick it up – in the meantime, all the ice had melted. I noticed that the counter was full of drinks and shakes waiting for collection and wondered how diluted and flavour-drained they’d all become. The burgers did not fare much better. Will’s Cheese Burger ($8.90) which – despite being romantically touted in Burger Project’s sales buzz for its provenance and highly-screened selection of 36-month grass-fed beef and quality ingredients (and its descent from the acclaimed Rockpool Bar & Grill Burger) – wasn’t in any way exceptional. My Magic Mushrooms ($12.50) with grilled confit mushroom was OK, but not at all a patch on what Mary’s does. The Pavlova Ice Cream ($6) with passionfruit sauce and meringue was fine enough. Will’s Crispy Hot Wings (3 for $9) were so bread-like, he didn’t even bother finishing the trio. We didn’t have any chips because they had sold out of fries before 12.30pm that day.
It was a flat-out killjoy way to conclude an hour+ wait for such highly lauded food. We just didn’t expect the food to be so average.
Now, I totally concede that it was Burger Project’s first day of operation and it got smashed with customers. The burgers were all gone before 1.30pm. So I was incredibly open to the fact that we just got a bad run of luck.
Out of curiosity, I took a look on Instagram, and the response spanned the entire spectrum: from utter “city’s best burger!”-type raves to people who were mortified by the wait or the fact that they had “cheated on Mary’s” and regretted being so unfaithful (and being karmically stung with such a unsatisfying experience).
Still, I didn’t want to write it off; after all, my friend Charlotte Ree raved about how it was her “new favourite burger joint” and said “the 36-month-old grass-fed beef in this burger is like no other”. In the Herald, Callan Boys called Burger Project a “game-changer” and dialled up the praise to a dizzying point, claiming the menu was worthy of a “19/20” rating (giving the burgers a perfect 10 for taste).
So we returned for round two – maybe our opinions would radically shift in this instance. We purposefully went very early on Sunday evening and this time only had to (literally) wait three minutes for our burgers to arrive. But to be honest, the food was only minorly better than our first visit. The general feeling was that the menu was middling, unexciting and pretty unrevolutionary – what was being sold to us was really “the Coldplay of burgers”.
Sure, the produce and philosophy is right-on, but it’s sabotaged by incredibly dry, impenetrable buns that overpower the flavour of any other ingredients that might have a fighting chance of making an impact. They’re so distractingly dry – I’ve talked to other people who’ve endured the burgers and we’ve concluded that (as unapologetic carb lovers), this would be the only time we’d seriously consider getting the bun-less option. I don’t think I’ve ever had a burger where the bread was such a letdown. Will tried the Classic Burger ($7.90), which (for all the poetic copy about the 36-month grass-fed Cape Grim beef chuck and brisket that’s hand-pounded in-house) is still undone by the taste-sapping bun and the odd way in which the ingredients don’t really gel. In my mushroom burger, it just feels like all the elements are pretending they’re not on a date with each other – the secret sauce does not cut through, the frilly lettuce gets lost, the cheese just kinda vaporises on impact, and occasionally you get the burst of a pickled cucumber, but none of it coheres as a delicious Voltron-like whole. If you subtracted everything and just had the mushroom, it’s actually garlicky and ultra-savoury and flavoursome – but stack on all the other key features and it gets overwhelmed by the dense bun.
Over the last few days, I’ve gotten a variety of text messages and emails from people who went to Burger Project with pure enthusiasm and open minds and were cut down by how utterly disappointed they were. The burgers just aren’t all that, they reckon. Also, the Shakes ($6.50) are just really expensive and milky – we needed a search party to actually find the Dulce De Leche flavour in ours. One uniting fact, though: the thrice-cooked House-Made Chips ($4.90) are pretty good. They’re hand-cut and dosed with salt, vinegar or chipotle chilli; if Burger Project sent a food truck around town just selling that, I’d be happy to chase it down for these crisp Tetris-blocks of salt and grease.
After scanning the coverage that Burger Project has received, I can’t help but notice that all the glowing notices are from establishments that drew their conclusions from media previews – I don’t know if that experience really compares to having to wait for an order that’s gone AWOL or trying the food when the kitchen’s under proper pressure. The majority of punter comments and feedback I’ve come across paints a different picture from the rosy reviews. A friend even emailed me today to say that he was so disappointed by his time there that he couldn’t even talk about it properly.
I know that it’s only a week in, and I imagine things will improve over time. But, unless they switch their buns or radically alter the menu, I wonder if my opinion can really shift that much?
In theory, I really like what Burger Project is about. The focus on quality and sustainability in a fast-food setting is worth kudos, and it’s impressive that they’ve managed to keep the prices fairly accessible (although, it is a little strange that the most expensive option on the menu happens to be the vegetarian one). And seeing all those pictures of a highly acclaimed, three-hatted chef like Neil Perry deep in the kitchen of Burger Project, in uniform like everyone else, definitely conveys the egalitarian spirit of the venture. There’s undoubtedly an unshakeable enthusiasm in the concept – a feeling that’s strongly echoed by the queues; demand isn’t exactly going to disappear soon, it seems.
I don’t think the buzz around Burger Project is going to shake my lifelong allegiance to Mary’s in Newtown, though, especially as Mary’s is about to open a branch in the city soon. I know who I’m going to back when asked about the best burgers in Sydney.
But if you haven’t been to Neil Perry’s new establishment, it’s definitely worth going at least once, just to draw your own conclusions. And snap up those salted fries.