The burger: Yes, there’s a burger on the lunch menu at the Walker Art Center’s beyond gorgeous new Esker Grove. “I was a bit surprised myself,” said chef de cuisine T.J. Rawitzer. Turns out, it’s a nod to the museum’s employees, who constitute a significant percentage of the restaurant’s business and spoke out on the need/desire for everyday, approachable and affordable fare. “So Doug [Flicker, the restaurant’s executive chef] and I said, ‘Ok, fine, we can do that, but if we’re going to put a burger on the menu, we’re going to make it a good one, something that’s delicious, and no crazy bells and whistles.’”
How well they have succeeded. This is one fine burger. It’s tempting to call it a museum-quality burger.
Starting with the bun. What a bun! It’s baked on the premise, daily, and it’s a classic milk-enriched recipe, soft yet sturdy, with a dark golden crown. They’re buttered and toasted on the kitchen’s plancha, a texture-enhancing step that only accentuates their exceptional quality.
When I first saw it — and tasted it — I thought that perhaps Michelle Gayer was back in the burger bun business, due to its resemblance to the Salty Tart buns that so impressed me for so many years (it was a sad day indeed when Gayer dropped her wholesale hamburger bun business). I wasn’t so far off the mark: Turns out that one of Esker Grove’s pastry chefs -- Anna Berzelius -- is a longtime Salty Tart vet, and she’s channeling her Gayer tutelage into these extraordinary buns.
There's a lot of clear-headed editing going into the burger. Here's one example: “We originally were putting sesame seeds on the bun,” said Rawitzer. “But then we were wondering why we were covering it up. We decided to let it be itself, and just be beautiful.”
Smart. Another don’t-muck-it-up strategy? The patty.
The meat hails from Peterson Limousin Beef in Osceola, Wis. It’s an all-chuck formula. Rawitzer cures the beef overnight (home cooks, take note: he uses a 2 percent salt-to-beef ratio, by weight, tossing in thyme and black peppercorns), “which firms it up a bit,” he said. Each morning, the beef is ground, then mixed with a bit of butter (“so it doesn’t dry out,” he said) before being formed into thick-ish patties. They’re grilled on that same plancha and taken to medium, with just slight streaks of pink in the center and a robust char on the outside.
“We’re happy to cook it to how people want it,” he said. “And while there’s something rebellious about eating a burger that’s cold in the middle, it’s just not all that delicious. Medium, or medium-well, is the way to go.”
Rawitzer frowns upon turning to the grill when preparing burgers. “It’s cooking in a cast iron pan, or a flattop, or a plancha,” he said. “That’s what I’ve learned over the years. A grill gives a burger that nice bitter flavor, but there’s a tendency to dry it out. In a pan or on the plancha, a patty will cook in its own juices.”
It works. This is a burger with tons of big, beefy flavor, and plenty of juices.
Cheese is American. Two slices, a happy extravagance. “There’s something about American cheese that just makes sense,” said Rawitzer. “We put Raclette on it first, and then we tried Comté, we even had it ground into the beef mix. I’m not going to say that it wasn’t delicious, because it was, but it comes back to what’s familiar, and what’s expected, and that’s American cheese. Plus, it melts so well.”
The pickles? Superb. “They’re an important part of the burger,” said Rawitzer. “A good hamburger pickle should be acidic, they should add a little bit of salt, and they should have some texture, and that’s what we tried to achieve with these.” Again, mission accomplished. I loved their crunch, and their hint of dill, and sweetness. Plus, the rich beef needs an acidic foil, and the recipe’s basic vinegar brine supplies that.
Other add-ons follow the familiar-is-best rule: chopped iceberg lettuce,and plenty of it (“Please don’t think any less of me,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not there for nutritional value, it’s about texture, and about familiarity.”), and there are a pair of sauces: the top bun is finished with a swipe of a robust stone-ground mustard, and the bottom bun gets a luscious house-made aioli.
It’s a foolproof equation. By adhereing to principles of simplicity and familiarity, Rawitzer and Flicker have produced a classic burger. Don’t miss it.
Price: $12, a more-than-suitable amount, one that, given the level of quality, verges into deal territory.
Fries: None. Instead, it’s house-made potato chips. Russets are cut lengthwise, giving the chips a long, almost sculptural appearance; if Ellsworth Kelly made potato chips, they would look like this. It’s an uncomplicated process. Rawitzer soaks the potato slices in salted ice water — a technique that removes extra starch — then fries them in canola oil. Finishing touches are perfect: malt vinegar powder and kosher salt. I’m shocked that I found the willpower to stop eating them, they’re that good. New year’s resolutions, right?
Where he burgers: “It’s not like burgers are on the top of my list of favorite foods,” he said. “It’s not the first thing that I go for. But it’s like sushi, or pizza. You get it on your mind, and you need to go, right now, and eat it, you know what I mean? I tend to like the slightly sleazy burgers. There’s a Flameburger near my house, I like going there. And I’m not going to lie, I’ll go to Culver’s, but I think that their burgers need salt. The Borough burger is pretty solid. And I haven’t been there, but I hear that YC [that’s Young Chef, otherwise known as Mike DeCamp] has a pretty solid burger at Constantine.”
Address book: 723 Vineland Place, Mpls., 612-375-7542. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Note: Esker Grove's burger is a lunch-only item.
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