Bistro Burgers

Bistro Burgers

Chef's Creative Twists Place New Accents on an Old Favorite.

Is it just a cleverly disguised imposter, or is the beefed up sandwich really deserving of a place at the table? There it is on menus alongside entrees like dry aged rib eye filet and seared duck breast, a flame-licked slice of perfectly seasoned, well dressed Americana finished between buttery bakery buns. The sizzling popularity of the artisan burger has elevated the all-in-one meal's status at restaurants around the Northwest.

Cana Flug, general manager at Wildwood Restaurant in Portland, is among those who think the bistro-style burger has earned a spot on the menu with the higher-brow entrees. “It absolutely holds its own,” she contends. “It’s really fun taking an item like that to a higher level.” Flug describes the burger as a comfort food at its most refined point. “I think it’s something that is universal in terms of its approachability and how much people crave it,” she says.

According to Flug, Wildwood has a cult-like following for its lone gourmet burger selection, a seasonally driven recipe cooked up by Chef Dustin Clark. “If all of the employees eat it, you know it’s good,” she observes. “It’s not anything necessarily that we promote on any level. It’s something that just sells itself. Wildwood has this standard for farm-to-table dining in Northwest cuisine, so it’s taking a burger and making it through that lens using local product, produce, protein, and really elevating the whole experience.”

Bruce Carey, owner of 23Hoyt, Bluehour, Saucebox, and Clarklewis, included burgers as a dining room option during the height of the recession, but ultimately left them only on his restaurants’ bar menus. The restaurateur mentions that the hamburger felt out of place on his fine dining tables, but believes that an artisan version of the old favorite can still set new standards.

To raise the bar, Carey suggests that a better burger should be made to order. “Instead of just buying ground beef from your purveyor and forming it into patties, you’re actually grinding the beef in-house and taking the time make the mix,” he adds.

That kind of homespun product has a place at establishments like Bluehour. “In this business we are always looking to achieve a perfect balance on the menu, where people feel comforted with familiar items, along with an enticement – like a new experience,” says Carey. “Burgers are familiar. Everyone knows what to expect when they order a burger, but it is our goal to exceed expectations and blow minds. Doing that with something otherwise considered common is a sign of a great chef.”

Inventive Aaron Barnett fits the description. When he isn’t cooking at his St. Jack restaurant (which won Eater’s 2011 Restaurant of the Year Award), Chef Barnett is dreaming up creative combinations for Portland-based Foster Burger. For example, he offers, “Our Kiwi burger is actually based on how they eat hamburgers in New Zealand. In New Zealand they tend to put pickled beets and fried eggs on it, so we do just that. The funny thing is that the pickled beets kind of have that sweet tangy thing going on all at the same time, so it’s a lot like a giant bread and butter pickle essentially. It gives a nice balance to richness of the meat and the mayonnaise and the rich buns that we use.”

For those not inclined to stretch their palates all the way to kiwi country, Foster Burger developed the “Burner,” a hot selling beef burger. “It’s got a patty, fried onion straws on top, American and cheddar cheese, a ‘srirancha’ sauce that we make (an offshoot of Tai Sriracha hot sauce), and roasted jalapenos,” he reveals. “It’s just a big burly assertive burger. It’s nice and spicy without kind of blowing your mouth out.”

Barnett is restless when it comes to inventing things in his kitchens. “We have kind of a set menu with things that are proven, that people tend to be happy with, and that can bring them back,” he says. “Then what we do is we offer these specials, which allow for us to offer something more creative and more interesting. Suddenly you can get the wild boar burger, which is really tasty. You can kind of experiment and grow your pallet and grow your experience with food by just eating burgers. That’s a funny thing when you think about it.” Barnett says that as a chef, it’s one of his goals to get people to explore new foods. “I think a hamburger is a nice happy, easy way to do it. continue →