The burger: When Feller chef Sam Collins decided to include a burger on his menu, he had one goal.
“We asked ourselves, how can we make the best classic cheeseburger that anyone has ever had?” he said. “That was the whole process behind it. And it had to start with the bun, because no burger is complete without the perfect bun. If the bun falls short, the burger falls short. It has to be bulletproof, and then you move on to the rest of the burger.”
He’s right, and he also practices what he preaches, because the bun for the “Feller” burger does not disappoint. It’s a brioche dough, baked on the premises, and it’s everything a burger bun should be: a tightrope walk between sturdy and tender, and sports an unapologetic richness. Every bite screams “butter,” because it’s both incorporated into the dough and lavishly spread on the inside flat surfaces before they’re toasted. The sesame seeds scattered on the top are a thoughtful, back-to-basics touch.
Turns out, there’s nothing about the Feller burger that disappoints. The patty, a thickish 6-ounce-er that hugs the bun’s edges, is also scrupulously prepared. It’s a grass-fed blend of chuck and the scraps from the menu’s New York strip steaks, and Collins leaves nothing to chance, grinding and pattying the beef himself. “It’s more than ratios, and weights,” he said. “A lot of it is feel, and eye, and that’s tough to explain. It’s not the same as just handing someone a recipe. It’s constant technique.”
The well-seasoned patty is cooked on the flat top grill, and it retains plenty of sizzle and juice and radiates a pronounced beefiness. Cheese is American, and plenty of it.
“I could have gone with a million different cheeses, but American is a lot of people’s idea of what constitutes a classic cheeseburger,” said Collins. “American, it just feels homey, you know?”
But Collins skipped the whole factory-made product routine and makes his own. “I wanted it to be real, and substantial, and I wanted it to have some flavor,” he said. It’s an uncomplicated process: he combines a Wisconsin-made smoked Cheddar with milk, butter and a bit of gelatin, pours the mixture into terrine molds and lets it sit for a day. Then he slices it, and lays it on thick. “I want every bite to be gooey,” he said. “And to be honest, I’m inspired by Tyler, our chef at the Village Pub. When he makes an American cheeseburger, he piles on three or four slices of cheese. His theory is, ‘If you put on enough cheese, you don’t need sauce.’”
That was the original plan: a no-sauce burger. But owner Corey Burstad thought — wisely, as it turns out — otherwise.
“He said it was the one thing that was missing,” said Collins. Wisely listening to the guy who signs his paychecks, Collins devised a Thousand Island-style formula that incorporates a lustrous housemade ketchup (teased with a roasted ancho chile bite), along with a spicy brown mustard, mayonnaise, celery, onions, pickled jalapeños, some first-rate bread-and-butter pickles and a dash of Sriracha, “for a background heat note,” said Collins.
Along with a layer of those crisp, palate-cleansing pickles (like the ketchup, they’re prepared in-house), the burger’s only other embellishment is a pile of soft — and softly sweet — onions, cooked on the flat top in a bit of olive oil, and seasoned with kosher salt, white pepper and a surprise ingredient: a bit of tamari. “It’s just a hint,” said Collins. “But that helps develop an extra flavor depth. The saltiness of the tamari brings out the sweetness of the onions.”
At every turn, the attention to detail is obvious (right down to the inclusion of a steak knife on the plate, because, yes, in the end, this mountain of burger bliss lands squarely in cutlery-required territory). Which explains why Collins has a hit on his hands.
“It’s our No. 1 seller, by a long shot, and it’s definitely our flagship menu item of the moment,” he said. “I’ve had at least two dozen people walk up to the window and tell me that they felt it was the best burger they’ve ever had, period. That makes it worth the effort that we put into developing it.”
Price: $16, and so worth it. The portion is easily shareable.
Fries: Included, and tauntingly addictive. They’re long, skinny, crispy and generously flecked with kosher salt, and, like this cheeseburger, darned near perfect. “I’ll be honest, it’s not something that I’m proud of, but they’re a product that I’m purchasing,” said Collins. “It’s the only item on that plate that we’re not making here. We’d make them, but due to the space in our kitchen, we’d have to take other items off the menu to make room for them.” Collins said he taste-tested his way through an enormous number of variations until he landed on the ones he’s serving. “They’ve got the right feel,” he said. “They’re thin, more like pommes frites, and that slenderness means that they retain their crispiness longer. Besides, I’ve always been a thin-fries guy.”
Where he burgers: “Going out and having a cheeseburger is pretty rare because of my work schedule,” said Collins. “When I am off, I try to spend time with my wife and our son, who just turned two. On the rare occasions when we go, it’s usually when we’re visiting my wife’s parents in South Dakota. She’s from Sioux Falls, so when we’re there, we’ll go to JL Beers, it’s right by the hotel [there’s a branch of the Fargo-based chain in Minneapolis]. One of the reasons why I like their burger so much is that you can tell they put some thought into the kind of bun they wanted to use. That’s so important.”
Address book: Feller is located in the new Lora Hotel, 402 S. Main St., Stillwater, 651-571-3501. Open 7 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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