At first glance, chef Vincent Francoual’s epoch-launching foray into burger world might appear to be an ordinary excursion into grilled ground beef. But cut into that thick, carefully charred patty, and this burger’s secret appeal is revealed: a center stuffed with pulled beef short ribs (slow braised in tomatoes, peppers and a half-dozen spices until each fall-apart morsel exudes rich flavor) and hunks of smoked Gouda. Forget about the Juicy Lucy (or Jucy Lucy, depending upon one’s spelling habits), this is the stuffed burger that all others are measured against, and rightfully so; it’s fantastic.
The garnishes are deceptively old school: chopped lettuce, tomato slices and raw onion; ditto the toasted, brioche-like bun (it’s an egg-enriched dough, and it hails from the Franklin Street Bakery). Sticking with the basics is a wise decision; nothing could out-razzle dazzle that patty, so why try? One last note: Francoual mockingly refers to the finishing-touch condiment as his “secret sauce,” but the subtle cocktail sauce-style mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup, Tabasco and chopped cornichons is no joke.
Price: $15.50 at lunch and dinner, and an $8 during happy hour (4:30 to 6 p.m. weekdays and 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday), an astonishing bargain. The top-drawer touches -- white tablecloths, a well-schooled service staff, the urbane setting – are gratis. “We add a little bit of elegance in everything we do,” said Francoual.
Fries: Included, and sublime. They’re long and slender and barely golden, with a trace crispiness and just the right amount of salt. They’re fried in peanut oil, and arrive at the table piping hot. Oh, and forget about hand-cut this and farm-fresh that, because Francoual depends upon a frozen, pre-packaged potato product. “I’m a little ashamed to admit that,” he said with a laugh. “But the best compliment I ever got was when a kid told me that they were ‘better than McDonald’s.’”
They are -- think of the Ph.D version of Mickey D's -- and they're delicious with ketchup, but even better with a side of the kitchen’s awe-inspiring béarnaise, which is so worth the corresponding extra half-hour on the treadmill.
Borrowing from Daniel: About a decade ago, Francoual (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo) found the inspiration for the Vincent Burger in star chef Daniel Boulud’s famous (or is that infamous?) db Burger, a sirloin-foie gras-black truffle exercise in excess that currently knocks customers back $32 at Boulud's db Moderne Bistro in New York City.
Francoual dropped the foie gras and truffle -- and that double-take of a price -- but kept the formula's braised beef short ribs, preparing them with a technique he picked up while working at Lespinasse in Manhattan's St. Regis Hotel in the early 1990s. Bingo. Ten years later, and his namesake burger continues to fly out of the kitchen.
“It’s crazy how popular it is,” said Francoual. “Yesterday we sold about 80 of them. Maybe I should open a burger place. We make so many that the joke on the line is, ‘Hey, I thought we worked for a French restaurant.’”
Don’t miss: Francoual has recently launched a new menu, but regulars need not despair. Along with his burger, Francoual has held on to a number of crowd-pleasing favorites. “When you’ve been open for 12 years, you’ve got to find the right balance between staying up to date and keeping what people like,” he said. Which explains why he’s still featuring “Vincent’s Favorite Childhood Dessert.” Eight bucks buys a small plate of dainty, warm-from-the-oven madeleines, vanilla ice cream and a glossy chocolate sauce. Don’t leave without ordering it.
Address book: 1100 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612-630-1189.
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