Sunday, June 3, 2012

Vegas Vacation, Part 2: Burger Bar by Hubert Keller reaches near perfection

(This is burger #2 from my recent Las Vegas adventure. You can read about the first one here)

We don't have any celebrity-chef restaurants in Ottawa, although as the stars of several of our hometown chefs (go Johnathan!) rise perhaps that will soon change. Several foodies that I have spoken to ritualistically shy away from restaurants owned by the self-promoting, empire-building type, figuring that while good, they will be expensive for the quality. We actually visited two such restaurants in Vegas: American Fish by Michael Mina (which was amazing but falls outside this blog) and Burger Bar by Hubert Keller.

Hubert Keller fits the celebrity chef bill nicely. An Alsatian chef living in the United States, he is the owner of Michelin-starred Fleur de Lys in San Francisco and Fleur in Las Vegas. He appeared on Top Chef as a judge and Top Chef Masters as a competitor, has a bunch of awards on his mantle, and rocks a killer hairdo. Chef Keller has a love affair with burgers too, which puts him high in my books. Fleur offers the famous $5000 "Fleur burger 5000" on its menu, which is actually a luxe burger served with a bottle of 1995 Chateau P├ętrus. He also wrote a cookbook about burgers.
The stuff of memories.

I was very excited to visit. Fellow blogger, foodie and friend Christine raved about it, Vegas Burger Blog praised it as one of the city's best, and a good heap of professional reviewers gave it top marks. So it was clearly time to visit this temple to meat-on-bun. On the other hand, this was still the Vegas strip, I was a bit burned by my experience at Holstein's, so I had to keep my expectations in check.

I should note that readers in the US don't have to go to Vegas for Burger Bar: two other locations in San Francisco and St. Louis serve up the good stuff with pretty much identical menus.

What an unassuming place for a celebrity chef joint. It is very much a sports bar; service was professional but casual, TVs in the booth were playing the NBA playoffs, milkshakes and beer took prominence over cocktails, and the music was lost in 1987. The menu at BB is also pretty simple: there are a few chef-designed options to choose from, but the emphasis is clearly placed on designing your own burger, with an incredible assortment of meat and veggie patties, toppings and buns on offer. Since I needed to follow my guidelines, I had to choose a pre-designed item from the menu, and what better choice than the burger named after the man himself?

The Hubert Keller burger is a 6oz bison burger with bleu cheese, sauteed baby spinach and caramelized onions on ciabatta, with a red wine and shallot reduction served on the side, for $22. Was it good? Very. Why? Read on.

The burger

The patty was 6oz of pure Wyoming bison goodness. It had nice char and ample flavour, soft, slightly gamey and lean. I ordered it medium-rare and it came so, a glorious deep red, cool and so flavourful. Seasoning of the meat was a bit on the mellow side, but the cheese ably carried that baton.
Look at that gorgeous monster!

Crumbled bleu cheese was plentifully piled on, half melted, half slightly firmer, leading to the odd nugget of that sharp acidity it's famous for. There was plenty of spinach as well, which gave an entire bite a really fulfilling earthy flavour with a lingering buttery finish. Sweetness from the perfectly caramelized onions balanced the salt from the cheese and stood out well.

Bison. Bleu. Gleaming spinach. Droolface.
I was interested by the inclusion of the red wine and shallot reduction, as I had until that point never encountered this at a burger joint. Bison is naturally very lean and could dry out easily if not cooked carefully. While not really an issue when eaten medium-rare, to the bulk of diners who order their burgers with greyer cores than myself, the reduction adds moisture while being viscous enough to not over-saturate the bun.  Wanting to provide my dear readers with good-quality analysis, I cut my burger in half, poured the reduction on one side, and did a taste comparison.

The result: the reduction was quite mellow but definitely added a nice undercurrent of savoury flavour and richness on the palate. I definitely found myself preferring the sauced side to the one without. I would suggest that it would have really brought the burger together had it been cooked more thoroughly, but as it was already quite moist it was not revolutionary. 

I want to laaaaay down on a bed on spinach
The only kink in the package was the ciabatta bun. Baked fresh in house, it was soft, lightly toasted and in good ratio to the meat and toppings, but it was less than stellar. You see, the burger in concept mirrors Chef Keller himself, a man who brings formal French cuisine to the United States using local ingredients when possible. Bison meat is quintessentially (North) American, whereas the sauteed spinach and bleu cheese are the French influences. So what is ciabatta doing there? If there was a time for brioche it would be now. The heavier, eggier bread would have really made the experience perfect.

Time for pricing. The burger is $22, the second most expensive on the menu, which is a lot to ask for in a sports bar. Caveat emptor, right? A celebrity's name was attached and I was in the desert hunting ground of corporate vultures, but I still found the price a bit high for a place where I sat barside and watched LeBron do his thing. No amuses bouches and white cloth service here. That said, I still highly recommend checking out Burger Bar; I loved my burger and I'm sure you will too.

The sides

I had onion rings, which were perfect. A crunchy and thick batter fried a deep brown and a very tender onion. Each bite went right through, no trailing onions here. Very little residual grease. My wife's skinny fries were meh; skins off, too salty and altogether too fast food for my liking. I paired with a New Belgium Ranger IPA, which really outstanding.


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