Chefs have thrown away the rulebook on what can go on a bun.
This article first appeared in the 1 November 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Scott Hume, Special to R&I
At chic Terzo Piano cafe (Bon Appétit Management Company) in the Art Institute of Chicago, five-year-aged vinegar dresses a salad of roasted acorn squash and pear, and locally made chorizo tops flatbreads with manchego cheese. Now that restaurants of all styles and price points menu burgers, chefs are going beyond the traditional, and often beyond beef, to stand out. In this realm in particular, there is no shortage of creative ideas.
"We like to do twists on the classics, not something someone could do at home," says Duskie Estes, chef at Zazu in Santa Rosa, Calif., where wild-boar burgers are served with house-made sauce. Sister restaurant Bovolo in Healdsburg, Calif., menus a burger that's made from Duroc pork, a heritage breed, and topped with local-apple marmalade.
A new wave of upscale fast-casual chains has accelerated the movement toward nontraditional builds. Angus and Kobe beef are on the menu at Square One Burgers in Tampa, Fla., but other patty choices include bison, portobello mushroom and sashimi-style tuna. Santa Monica, Calif.-based chain The Counter features a different offbeat burger monthly, usually with a nonbeef patty. In October, it was a halibut burger topped with spicy jicama, roasted red peppers, baby greens, Bermuda and green onion, and chimichurri sauce.
THE BURGER RULES
When fish or chicken replaces a beef patty on a bun, the boundaries of what is truly a burger may be blurred.
Richard Blais, the runner-up on Bravo's "Top Chef" Season 4, opened Atlanta's Flip Burger Boutique in December 2008 and sees the parameters this way: "We started with two rules," he says. "Whatever we call a burger has to be ground, and it has to be on a bun. But really those are [our] only rules." At Flip, The Fish n Chips Burger is a ground-grouper patty topped with English-pea purée and French-onion tartar sauce. The Lamburger gets green-olive relish, cucumber yogurt, fresh mint and raisin ketchup.
"With me and most of the team coming from a more fine-dining background, we came up with the corny phrase that Flip is really ‘fine dining between two buns,'" Blais says.
That white-tablecloth sensibility is evident in Flip's PÁ¢té Melt burger, featuring a veal-and-pork patty with Swiss cheese, cornichons, lingonberries and Dijon mustard. "That's one of my favorites because it combines some of my favorite things: French country pÁ¢té with a patty melt," says Blais. "To me, it's clever and certainly delicious."
ON EQUAL GROUND
Vegetarian burgers have been standard fare at colleges and universities for decades, and it's common practice for restaurants to honor diners' requests to substitute nonmeat patties for beef. But many consumers also want original nonbeef burger options that are special creations in their own right.
Smith College in Northampton, Mass., creates a black-bean burger paired with vegan sweet-potato fries. At Kitchen 24 in Los Angeles, the K24 Veggie Burger is a house-made patty of spiced garbanzo beans topped with tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, lettuce and pickles on a toasted French roll.
Diners want to see respect for fresh ingredients, and they respond to "dishes that have a playful edge," says Mark Stark, owner of Stark's Steakhouse in Santa Rosa, Calif. One of his most popular summer appetizers is a foie gras "bacon burger." Says Stark, "We sear foie gras from a local producer, top it with applewood-smoked bacon, present it on caramelized-peach ‘buns' and drizzle the plate with cherry ketchup made in-house."
"Michelle's Melt" at Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C. (owned by Spike Mendelsohn, another "Top Chef" alum), was named after one of the restaurant's most famous guests, First Lady Michelle Obama. The free-range-turkey burger with caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, tomato, lettuce and herb mayonnaise was inspired by Mrs. Obama's White House garden. Proceeds from sales of the burger help feed the hungry at D.C. Central Kitchen.
On the lunch menu at Eve in Chicago, Chef Troy Graves' lamb burger is crusted with dukkah (an Egyptian blend of nuts, seeds and spices) and served with avocado, dried apricots and feta cheese. "The staff loves it so much that they tell dinner guests to come back the next day just to try the burger," says Graves.