The burger: Venison is not an everyday occurrence on local restaurant menus. That scarcity was certainly one impetus behind the creation of a venison burger at 6Smith. “We did our research,” said chef Angel Luna. “We wanted something unique."
But 6Smith takes it one gigantic step further. "As far as we know, no one else is doing a venison Juicy Lucy,” he said.
That's right: venison and Juicy Lucy. It's an attention-grabbing combination, right?
What’s more made-in-Minnesota than the cheese-stuffed burger? And with deer season -- the firearms portion of it, anyway -- set to open in a few weeks, the state’s zillions of hunters certainly have venison on their minds.
Caution: for those who equate “venison” with “deer,” the term originally covered a range of large-game meat animals beyond deer, including elk, moose, reindeer, caribou and antelope. At 6Smith, “venison” translates into elk, sourced from North Dakota and Minnesota farms.
And for those who want to run from the prospect of an all-elk burger, slow down. Luna devised a formula that’s predominantly beef (a Kobe-style variety), supplemented with elk, in a 65/35 ratio.
There’s a science behind those numbers: tapping that fattier beef in greater proportions counters the effects of the exceptionally lean elk, and it also tamps down the elk’s tendency towards great-outdoors gaminess. “We wanted an appreciation of both flavors, but you also want a nice, moist patty when you’re having a burger,” said Luna.
It's a labor-intensive process. Each meat gets its own grind. They’re fused in a second grind, then formed into a thick 8-oz. patty, their centers filled with 1 1/2 ounces of smoked Gouda (“It’s dense, so it won’t melt the way a traditional Cheddar or American would,” said Luna), bacon jam (more on that little touch of heaven in a moment) and fresh jalapenos.
That earthy, sweet-yet-hot combination is something of an engineering marvel; this is one Juicy Lucy where the cheese filling doesn’t ooze when the patty is punctured. No soaked bun, no puddle of molten dairy on the plate, no first degree burns from runaway overheated cheese, hurrah. Instead, remarkably, the filling remains in place, all the way through, infusing its flavors into each bite. Are the Nobel Prize people aware of this achievement?
The patties are cooked on the flattop stove to a medium-rare — anything more will wrench the life out of that lean elk — and it’s a precisely timed process.
“It took a lot of practice and a lot of coaching for us to figure out what was just right,” said Luna. “It takes only a few seconds for the patty to dry out and become tough and overcooked.”
The toppings are so over the top that they have front-row views of the other side. The headliner is what can only be described as a slab of that intensely smoky, ultra-decadent Gouda, a brilliant complement to the meat. But fighting for the spotlight is Luna’s bacon jam. Oh, that bacon jam. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever be able to consume another burger without it. It’s that good.
He slow-cooks premium Nueske’s bacon (“I’ve tried others, but I can’t find another one that’s better,” he said) until all the fat has been released and converted to liquid. “Then I add white onions, turn down the heat and slowly cook the onions in that bacon fat,” he said. It's a magical chain reaction: the onion’s sugars hit the caramelization sweet spot, the bacon becomes coated and soft, and the whole shebang eventually takes on the consistency of a thick compote. Think sweet and savory, with the smoke from the bacon doing the taste-bud tango with the tang of the onion. I’m getting hungry, just thinking about it.
The rest? A generous, palate-cleansing swipe of tarragon-packed aioli. Slices of fresh jalapeno. A handful of roasted mushrooms. A near-wedge of crispy iceberg lettuce. A juicy tomato slice. Yep, it’s your basic every-major-food-group meal, in a bun. Yet all the components collaborate in a well-drilled harmony.
As for the bun, it’s a soft pretzel-style beauty, with a deep, X-shaped score sliced across its brown crown. Its fresh, buttery flavor complements rather than competes with the rest of the burger’s flagrant overkill. But it’s also relatively dense, able to soak up some of the patty’s juices — as well as the moisture from that bacon-onion jam, and the aioli — without turning into a soggy sponge.
That’s a fine feat of burger engineering (although I’ll be honest: there was no way that I was going to attempt picking up the towering construction that is this burger; one look and I instinctively reached for my knife and fork). Luna sources them from Milwaukee-based Pretzilla (home cooks: the brand is widely available in Twin Cities supermarkets, including Fresh Thyme, Whole Foods Market and Cub Foods), and while they’re probably fine as is, they get a good toasting after a generous smear of butter. Doesn't that automatically make everything better?
Pickles are relegated to the side, but they merit mention. They’re cucumbers, sliced thin (well, thin-ish) and pickled for five days in vinegar, turmeric and clove (the clove lingers, nicely), and they’ve got just the right acidic punch. It’s this attention to detail that makes this burger such a runaway success.
It’s also a whole lot of burger. This is definitely one that lands in the “easily shared” category, and it holds up well as leftovers. I was trying to picture the person who could polish this monster off in a single seating, and the only image that came to mind was “linebacker.”
Luna said that the venison Juicy Lucy (no, he doesn’t observe the purist “Jucy Lucy” spelling) has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in June 2014, and it wasn’t exactly an overnight sensation. “We thought about removing it after that first year,” he said. “Customers weren’t receiving it all that well. But as with anything else, we don’t like to give up. We like to make things better, and we did make it better. Once people started to try it, they enjoyed it. We get a lot of regulars coming in, especially at lunch and early dinner, just for the venison Juicy Lucy.”
Price: $18.50. That’s a bit of a jaw-dropper, but once the burger — in all of its preposterous, excessive glory — arrives, the sticker shock dissipates. (See "easily shared," above).
Fries: Included, and excellent. They’re Idaho russets, cut fresh each morning. They’re rinsed (“To get some of the starch out,” said Luna), blanched in a low-temperature canola oil for five minutes (“To get more starch out,” said Luna) and cooled. Once ordered, they get a one- to two-minute re-fry in high-temperature canola oil. The formula obviously works, yielding fries that are lightly browned and gently crispy outside (with plenty of salt, hurrah), fluffy and piping hot inside.
Where he burgers: “I have a 14-year-old son, and when he started to like burgers, we went to the Nook,” said Luna. “Now I call that one of our favorites.”
Address book: 294 E. Grove Lane, Wayzata, 952-698-7900. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Open for dinner 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday. A fixed-price ($24.95), no-burger brunch is served 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
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