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The $30 Burger Edition
Why the humble hamburger is the best way to gauge a restaurant's quality.
Ab Ovo is a weekly newsletter produced by Clay Dillow (CD) and Tim McKirdy (TM). If you enjoy our work, we’d love to have you as a subscriber (it’s free!). If you already subscribe, we appreciate the support — and don’t forget to forward this to a friend. Thanks for reading.
Is it proper to order a burger when dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant?
This very question crossed my mind when scanning the menu at my first pandemic-era outdoor dining experience late last summer. The venue in question: Manhattan’s vaunted Gramercy Tavern. The burger: a $32 blend of chuck, brisket, and short rib, accompanied by duck fat potato chips and smoked onion aioli, and known as “The Tavern Burger.”
On the one hand, ordering the burger didn’t seem like a very “gourmand-y” thing to do — like sitting down for a five-course tasting menu and pairing each dish with a pint of cold, draft Bud Light. Then again, I thought, is there any better way to experience and even understand an establishment than bearing witness to how they handle the humble hamburger?
No one reading this needs me to remind them that the burger is a culinary icon. But perhaps you haven’t considered how useful this menu item is in judging a restaurant’s quality. Regardless of an establishment’s stars or status, the burger requires the kitchen to handle a number of different components well. Beyond that, it shows us the philosophy of the chef — whether they’re happy to let ingredients and cooking do the talking, and resist the temptation to overthink and over-innovate.
My dilemma at Gramercy Tavern didn’t exist for diners 20 years ago. Then along came Daniel Bolud with his $27 DB Burger in 2001, and everything changed. Few would copy his blueprint of red-wine-braised short rib and foie gras, encased in a softball of ground sirloin. But the burger’s very existence birthed the idea that those with Michelin Stars on their resumes shouldn’t consider themselves above the burger.
Soon, cooks of all calibers were sharing their own unique burger takes, with innovative garnishes and loaded sides sparking a gluttonous, artery-clogging arms race. The trend propelled previously unconsidered items like the brioche bun to overnight fame. But in many instances, the desire to take the burger to new heights went too far. If the “Chef Burger” was a descriptor initially yielded by food media to celebrate this era of experimentation and elevation, it ultimately became a term of tongue-in-cheek derision.
For there are Chef Burgers and then there are burgers that capture the skills and knowledge of a chef, and these are two very different beasts. The ideals that distinguish them reveal a restaurant’s quality and answer the very question of whether one can and should order a $30 burger from a fine dining establishment.
It begins with the bread, as all memorable dining experiences should. There is no correct answer to the identity of the bun. Instead it’s a horses-for-courses scenario. Whether potato, milk, or brioche, the bread must be fresh from that day, proportional to the size of the patty, and toasted and sauced in a manner that ensures the completed burger maintains its structural integrity from start to finish. While it would be nice for the bread to be made in-house, if the kitchen can order something better from a supplier and is aware of that fact, more props to them.
After all, the patty is the star of the show. It’s here where we truly want to see the kitchen proving its nous, and more crucially knowing how to walk right up to the line separating decadence and overkill without crossing it. A carefully considered custom blend of cuts that spans lean and fatty is a good thing. It shows us a lot of trial has gone into perfecting the patty. Stuffings and seasonings other than salt and pepper only distract from the quality of the produce, and are therefore a superfluous distraction.
If the server asks how you want it cooked on a scale of rare to well done, consider it a red flag. We’re not talking about a chateaubriand here; this is eight to 12 ounces of lightly packed minced beef. Medium and well done are the only two cuissons that matter in the burger realm. (And if a restaurant claims it can confidently and consistently serve the burger medium rare, it’s likely being pre-cooked in a water bath. That’s not cooking, that’s painting by numbers.)
Moving to the sides, I see no excuse for serving anything other than crispy-on-the-outside, pillowy-soft-on-the-inside french fries. Herein arrived the first worrying indication that the Tavern Burger was a Chef Burger. I should have caught-on to this before ordering, but my British English kicked in for a second and I forgot that “duck fried chips” was another term for overpriced, fancy crisps.
Gramercy Tavern is by no means the only offender here, as anyone who’s had to endure a side of those god awful “shoestring fries” that invariably arrive overly crispy, overly colored, and overly seasoned. New Yorkers who recall the burger at the now-shuttered Spotted Pig will know what I mean. And I bring up this example not to kick a broken, problematic restaurant while it’s down, but to segue into the area that suffers the most egregious examples of abuse: the garnish.
Until it closed, the Spotted Pig offered its signature burger with or without roquefort, but allowed no other cheese to be substituted. Such policies provide easy fodder for headline writers but are ideologically absurd. So, too, are almost all attempts to reinvent what should top the burger. Why serve bacon jam when bacon is right there? See also: tomato relish and perfectly ripe fresh tomatoes. And let’s not get started on homemade ketchup.
Subtle innovation is fine, but how often does the chef’s creation exceed the holy trinity of pickles, onion, and tomato? The smoked onion aioli that accompanied the Tavern Burger at least evoked the marriage of ketchup, mayo, and chargrilled onions (the pickles arrived on the side). But did the aioli surpass those simple ingredients? Not that I can recall. And it certainly didn’t make up for the utter disappointment of the duck-fat-fried Lays — or Walkers, for our British readers.
Ultimately, most of these burgers suffer from the chef’s ego, and the lofty notion that the world needs another take on the hamburger. The burger already lays claim to its own, iconic identity. Above that, though, it’s probably also a question of fear.
There’s very little room to hide when you send out a burger, french fries, and simple toppings, and say “that’ll be $30, please.” It’s likely the same reason you rarely come across examples of gin and dry vermouth Martinis on the menus of world class cocktail bars. And yet, those that do offer them — The American Bar at London's Savoy Hotel, for example, or Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere — succeed because of their stunning attention to simple details.
More kitchens would do well to remember that it’s quality ingredients and honed technique that earn them accolades from the tire manufacturers of this world. In gaining such recognition, they’ve even earned the right to charge crazy amounts of money to punters who are willing to pay. As for me, I’ll take my burger without the chef’s imprint, please. — TM
What We’re Drinking: Burger-Worthy Wines
Speaking of burgers, it’s that time of year when it pays to keep a few good bottles of cookout-friendly red wines on hand. There are a lot of places you can go here. Suitable burger wines can run the gamut from almost-rosés to deep, inky reds. We personally will reach for anything from a chilled light red like an Italian Cerasuolo to a Mencía from Ribeira Sacra to the occasional Pinotage. But whether you’re working with a classic beef burger, a veggie patty, or one of the many new non-meat meat offerings, your wines have to stand up to a mélange of flavors while remaining light enough to deploy on a warm summer evening. While this list is by no means comprehensive, here are a few bottles we’ve recently cracked here at Ab Ovo HQ that more than meet the criteria:
To crowd-please: Trapiche Broquel Select Barrel Malbec 2019 ($15) This crowd-pleaser won’t crush you financially and has everything a good burger requires: medium body, solid tannic structure, and heaps of dark plum, blackberry, peppery spice, earthy smoke, and vanilla. A fantastic bang-for-buck option. (If you can’t find the 2019 vintage — it’s currently rolling out across the U.S. — the 2018 bottling hits all the same notes).
To savor: Viña Ardanza Rioja Reserva 2012 ($37) The first time we cracked this bottle we were blown away by this wine’s freshness from the get-go, especially considering its age. While light on its feet this bottle manages a very solid depth of flavor, teeming with bright red cherry, dried herbs, balsamic, white pepper, and vanilla. Incredibly complex for the price, this one belongs next to burgers topped with any kind of aggressively flavored cheese.
To splurge on: Ram’s Gate Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2018 ($45) Red fruit leads the way here, with cherry and raspberry followed by some piney green notes and warm spice. But tasting notes aside, this wine simply does a bang-up job of allowing the fruit to shine while the oak and spice hang back in a supporting role. A very controlled dose of tannin provides this Pinot with burger-strength texture while allowing it to remain super light on the palate. — CD