The burger: When I think of Sea Change, the Guthrie Theater’s well-managed restaurant and bar, burger isn’t the first word that flashes across my cortex. Dumb of me.

Chef Ryan Cook said that there has always been a burger on the Sea Change menu, and he should know. He has been a key presence in the restaurant’s kitchen for more than four years, and he took over its leadership last summer after Jamie Malone’s departure.

The burger has evolved over those years. “It has gotten simpler,” said Cook. “When I started, there were all these components. There was bacon ground into the beef, there was a grilled onion, there was this kind of Thousand Island-style sauce. Erik [Anderson, Sea Change’s opening chef] was going for a kind of a play on the Big Mac.”

The Cook regime’s burger is much simpler, pared to its essence, and while I can’t make comparisons to that earlier iteration — if I ever tasted it, I have no memory of doing so — I can say, without hesitation, that the phrase game-changing applies.

The beef is chuck roll, ground in house and formed into a thick-ish patty that stretches out to the bun’s outer edges. Cook chooses chuck for its 80/20 meat/fat ratio. “It’s enough fat to keep the burger from drying out,” he said.

Good call. The kitchen sears it on a flattop grill so that the exterior takes on an agreeable char, and the interior remains juicy and barely cooked. At least that was the case of the one I ordered.

“Pink, or no pink?” asked my server. As always, I opted for the former. Word to the wise:  What arrived could have been characterized as “ruby” and not “pink.” Not that I cared. It was delicious.

It’s topped by a double whammy of American cheese (“It’s my favorite cheese for a cheeseburger, because it melts really well,” he said), that drapes itself over the top of the patty. Underneath is a nest of shredded iceberg lettuce, and the buttered and toasted bun gets a generous swipe of a flavor-packed sauce that Cook fashions from mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard and brightens with slow-simmered chicken stock and a dash of preserving liquid from jarred peppers. “It’s our secret sauce,” he said.

That’s it. Well, except for the bun. It’s one of the best I’ve encountered in months. They’re pulled from the kitchen’s ovens on a daily basis, and they have all the right burger bun attributes: A deep bronze color, and a sturdy enough to handle the demands of that fabulous patty. The secret ingredient? Koji, a key ingredient in sake production. “It gives them this mild sweet-savory thing, a little umami,” said Cook. “We were fooling around with fermenting leeks in koji,  and we thought, ‘Let’s put this in the hamburger bun.’”

What can I say? Burger purists, you’re going to love it. Cook said that about half of the bar’s patrons who order food order the burger. I’m surprised that number isn’t higher. Yeah, it’s that good.

Price: $15 at lunch and brunch, $12 at the bar.

Fries: Included at lunch and brunch, a $5 surcharge when the burger is ordered a la carte at the bar. And yes, order them. Cook relies upon a prepackaged, frozen product, but it’s everything a burger-eater wants in a french fries: Skinny, crisp, piping hot and deftly seasoned; I think of them as the fries you’d encounter at McDonald’s if someone with actual culinary training was standing at the deep fryer. Of course, Cook tosses in a fine-dining finishing touch in the form of a compound salt: Ground bonito flakes mixed with kosher salt. “It’s a seafood restaurant,” said Cook. “That’s our twist.”

A bread-basket golden age: Nothing makes me happier, carb hound that I am, than being greeted by a well-stocked bread basket. One of the most measurable changes in the Cook regime at Sea Change is the restaurant’s bread-baking program. “Baking bread is my hobby,” he said. “I started making loaves at work — a sourdough — and they made their way into the bread basket.” Cook and baker Michael Fitzgerald (the whiz who opened Fika) mix up the assortment. “But there’s always sourdough, and sometimes we’ll have a focaccia, or buttermilk rolls,” said Cook. Fitzgerald also turns out breads for the menu’s sandwiches — white, rye, brioche — and of course those exceptional hamburger buns.

Inside information: I asked Cook what he’s most loving at the moment on his menu. “There’s a sweetbreads dish that I really like,” he said, and then he uttered the magic words: Shrimp and grits. It’s on the bar menu. “It includes chicken Andouille sausage and make a really dark roux, we make a shellfish stock and braise some collard greens, and the shrimp is rubbed with a chile-citrus butter. It’s nice.”

Where the chefs eat: When Cook craves a burger — and he’s not dining at Sea Change, of course — he heads to Parlour. Matt’s Bar, too. “But the plain burger, not the Jucy Lucy,” he said, referring to the joint’s iconic cheese-stuffed burger. “And I think Eli’s downtown has a great, no-nonsense burger.”

Address book: 806 S. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-225-6499. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (open at 11 a.m. on matinee days). Open for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Open for brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

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