The burger: The lamb burger at Sparks has been a delicacy that executive chef Drew Ledo has been preparing on his own time for a long time. He finally put into play on the restaurant’s menu a few months ago, and diners have been delighting in it in ever-increasing numbers.
“It’s growing in popularity, for sure,” he said. “I get a lot of people who say they don’t like lamb, but then they order it and they say, ‘This is amazing.’”
That was my experience. Well, that second, this-is-amazing part, anyway; I love lamb. And I’m crushing, hard, on this burger. Ground lamb is tricky, because it can go from succulent to parched in five seconds flat, but Ledo utilizes a smart trick: Bulgur. You know, steamed, dried and crushed wheat kernels. The addition makes all the difference, and then some.
“When you cook lamb, all of the juices and fat runs out of it, because the fat doesn’t have a very high density,” he said. “So I put in the bulgur to soak up the juices, and the fat.”
Genius. The idea was inspired by his extended Lebanese family, and a favorite dish that Ledo grew up eating: Kibbeh, a mix of minced lamb and bulgur. The good-old American melting pot never stops, does it?
The meat, a pasture-raised product from Star Thrower Farm in Watertown, Minn., has a clean but faintly (and wonderfully) gamey bite, one that requires little seasoning (Ledo tosses in a bit of cumin) to do it justice. He forms the mixture into thick (bordering on 1-inch) patties, and rather than frying them, they’re baked.
“And you can’t tell the difference from a flattop-fried burger,” said Ledo.
He’s right. This is invention born out of necessity: the Sparks kitchen relies entirely upon a wood-burning oven (one that chef/owner Jonathan Hunt astutely nabbed, second-hand, from a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Sacramento, Calif.) for all of its cooking needs. Burgers are seared in pre-heated skillets in that oven, and that intense heat inserts a light and decidedly mouth-watering char on each patty.
Toppings are uncomplicated but harmoniously respond to that flavorful lamb. Forget about ketchup, mustard or mayo. There’s a lively, lamb-friendly sauce that turns out to be just lemon juice, vegetable oil and plenty of garlic. Then Ledo adds a few vegetable basics – tender lettuce, juicy tomato and sharp red onion – all tossed in a cucumber-infused vinaigrette. Perfect.
Ledo brushes off the bun as a food-service standard, but I was impressed by its rich texture and sturdy build, attributes that more than stand up to that plus-size patty but don't overpower it. Maybe it’s the brush of butter, followed by a quick toast on one of those scalding-hot pans, that gives each bun that extra, noticeable umph.
The results? Just what the doctor ordered to cure a case of burger boredom. My final note: After three years at Sparks, Ledo is moving on to the kitchen at the Aster Cafe, so it’s anyone’s guess whether the burger will follow him to Main St. S.E. when he starts his new gig in three weeks.
“John told me I should take it with me, and I told him that I wasn’t sure,” said Ledo. “I told him he could keep it on the menu.” On behalf of burger lovers everywhere, here’s hoping Hunt does exactly that.
Fries: None. Instead, dreary tortilla chips. More like, a handful of dull, bottom-of-the-bag remnants of tortilla chips. It’s a disappointment, after that superior burger.
Must-have: Stupidly, it has been a while since I’ve dined at Sparks, and while there have been changes (including the appearance of a great-looking, roomy and much-needed second dining room), I was delighted to discover plenty of constants. Notably, the menu still features an A-plus hummus ($7), and I happily rediscovered how it remains one of my favorite ways to kick-start a meal. Hunt picked up the recipe ages ago (while he was cooking at a Greek restaurant in Zimbabwe, of all places), and it’s one of those powerless-to-resist dishes that makes the restaurant a destination beyond the Bryn Mawr neighborhood's borders. Each garlicky morsel is underscored by sneaky hints of tahini, and the smoked paprika garnish is the icing on the cake. A big creamy blob of the stuff is served in a pool of golden, fruity and unabashedly complementary olive oil, and both are easily scooped with wedges of warm, crusty house-baked pita. Simple pleasures, right?
Address book: 230 S. Cedar Lake Rd., Mpls., 612-259-8943. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Open for dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Open for brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
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