Thursday night, a couple cheeky after-work pints in The Reliance and the inevitable question of food arose. Howard wanted to go to the Rivington; I said I'd been twice in the last month. I was pushing for Tayyabs; Howard had a similar counter argument. We could agree on Hawksmoor but they said they were full. Fiona claimed she wasn't coming at all. Yeah right.
In retrospect, it seems obvious now that the thing to do in these stalemate situations is to knock another contender off the Best Burger in London roster. Having sampled a disappointing effort at the well regarded Hamburger Union a couple of weeks ago (they will get another chance when I will try to be a bit less hungover and actually remember to order my burger rare), I was keen to find somewhere a bit different, somewhere perhaps that could get close to the so-far incomparable Haché. The stupidly named $ Grills and Martinis felt like it might foot the bill.
Dollar (as I shall insist on calling it) is in a converted pub at the end of Exmouth Market and presumably used to be a hang-out for postal workers at the mammoth Mount Pleasant sorting office over the road. They'd struggle to recognise it now. The basic internal geography is still pubbish but - on the ground floor at least - this is clearly eating only territory. Burgers and steaks are the order of the day, which suited us fine.
We started, though, by sampling the second house speciality: martinis. A gin (very possibly a Tanquerey 10) for Howard and some sort of posh vodka for me (Howard doesn't much approve of VMs, but I successfully placated him by letting him choose the vodka). Fiona had decided to join us after all (imagine) and went for an off-list Cosmopolitan. These were all OK, possibly suffering ever so slightly from being made in the cool-looking bar downstairs and warming slightly on their journey up. Howard's also came with a twist of lemon when he'd specifically asked for lime. Not the end of the world.
Burgers were a curates egg. The menu, for a start, steered me away from my benchmark option of rare (cheddar) cheese burger. The closest was made with Jack cheese, which does nothing for me, although Fi offered to take one for the team. I opted instead for something with bacon and mozzarella, while Howard had one of their "Million Dollar" specials. This involved avocado, mozzarella, roasted tomatoes and - bizarrely - a cashew nut sauce. It sounded a deeply odd combination... and so it proved: not actively unpleasant but not certainly not adding anything to the burger universe either. Mine was OK, although decent English-style thick-cut bacon hardly feels like a natural pairing for mozzarella, particularly run-of-the-mill stuff like this.
Fi's cheese burger looked right, despite the nasty plastic cheese, but with less weirdness going on around the edges she was best placed to spot what was in fact a seriously failing in all three burgers: this was obviously good quality beef cooked exactly as ordered, but there was a desperate lack of seasoning. A less timid hand on the salt and pepper would surely have made all the difference. We might even have forgiven some of the more experimental toppings. Maybe.
Other bits and pieces: chips were of the skinny variety. Fi pronounced them indistinguishable from MacDonald's but she was outvoted: they were far better. Presentation was dramatic, if a little silly, with a steak knife thrust down through the burger. The wine list I don't recall but I think it covered the basics. We probably had a Rioja.
Over all, then, a pleasing environment (the bar probably merits a second visit) and a well meaning stab at something a bit different. There are reasons, though, why a simple burger is so delicious and rewarding, and they have little to do with mozzarella or cashews.
$ Grills and Martinis, 2 Exmouth Market, ECIR 2PX 020 7278 0077