Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dining Out: Fancy Burgers

The Lovely Bride© texting the
Brilliant Daughter™ from the
patio at Max Burger
It was a gorgeous day today here in southern New England, and the Lovely Bride™ and I took advantage by lunching al fresco at what is fast becoming one of our favorite restaurants, Max Burger in West Hartford. Because my dining partner must avoid gluten, you might think burgers would be a strange choice, but in fact, they're one of our go-to meals: Most places will serve a burger without a bun, or as a lettuce wrap, and increasing numbers of restaurants serve burgers on gluten-free buns.

Max Burger, part of the Hartford/Springfield area Max Restaurant Group empire, is one such place. The menu includes non-burger entrees, entree salads, and sandwiches, as well as a number of "burgers" that stretch the definition of the term, but the stars of the show are just what you'd expect: 8 oz. patties of ground sustainably raised Angus beef topped with a variety of cheeses, bacons, onions, greens, and condiments. Over a number of recent visits, we've sampled the Alfred, Inside Out, Blackjack, and Miss Daisy burgers, as well as several of the rotating list of daily "Chalkboard Burgers," and have never been disappointed.

One of my pet peeves about gourmet burgers has to do with the tendency to so load them with toppings, condiments, and sauces that it becomes impossible to actually eat them as burgers. That has never happened to me at Max: The burgers are a real handful, and each mouthful is a real mouthful, but I've never had to resort to knife and fork. Burger, handcut fries, house-made pickle slices... if I didn't need the napkin, I'd never have to unwrap the flatware setup. And that, friends, is how it should be, no matter how fancy your burger gets.

Aside from the whole eating with your hands thing, Max Burger is in all other respects a true fine dining experience, offering appetizers and desserts and a full bar, including signature cocktails and a nice (and ever changing) list of craft and local beers. Rumor has it they also serve wine, though you couldn't prove it by me, philistine that I am.

Another recent fancy burger experience was distinctly different: While moving the Brilliant Daughter into her new grad school digs, we had occasion to check out Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn's burger joint, Good Stuff Eatery, in its Crystal City, Virginia, incarnation. Where Max Burger's model is fine dining, Good Stuff's is pure burger joint: Order at the counter; pick up your burger and fries in a paper bag; stop off to serve your own fountain drink, condiments, and dipping sauces; and find your own damn table. You might as well be at Arby's... and that goes for the prices, too.

Prez Obama Burger cooking at
Good Stuff Eatery
Except... that the food is spectacular. Not better than at Max, necessarily, but every bit as good, and possibly even a bit more sophisticated: With only one visit, I haven't been about to sample the menu extensively, but the Prez Obama Burger I had was to die for. I think it was the combination of Roquefort cheese and onion marmalade... but the horseradish mayo surely didn't hurt. But as good as my burger was, the real magic was the handcut Village Fries, made with rosemary, thyme, and sea salt. They're so deliciously fragrant that you almost don't need to eat them: Just stick your nose in the top of the bag and breathe! Ever since I've been home, I keep looking at the pots of rosemary and thyme on my deck and thinking I have to learn how to make those. Foolishly, I failed to buy a copy of Mendelsohn's cookbook at the restaurant, but it's on my list.

I'll let you know what I learn.

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