Images: Hamburger with cheese and bacon
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Many restaurants are tinkering with ways to make a better burger. Sometimes it's for business reasons, and sometimes it's out of boredom with the usual sandwich.
updated 7/26/2009 2:24:35 PM ET 2009-07-26T18:24:35

Innovating on the familiar hamburger is no easy task. But a combination of recessionary times and perhaps fatigue with vertically stacked food, or that which is formed in metal rings before serving, has prompted chefs and restaurateurs to rethink, if not reimagine, what a hamburger could be or should be.

Take Richard Blais, chef-owner of Flip in Atlanta, who has burgers on his menu ranging from $6.50 for a basic patty with onions, tomato, pickles and lettuce to $35 for Japanese Kobe beef with seared foie gras and truffle oil. In between, he is offering burgers made with shrimp, lobster, smoked salmon, or even mushrooms (vegetarians like burgers, too—if they aren't made from anything that had a mother). But with a nod to the times, perhaps, he says his average ticket is around $12. And he has funding to open several more Flips around the Southeast.

Blais takes innovation seriously. A finalist on Bravo's "Top Chef" last season, Blais is a student of molecular gastronomy, cooking with nitrogen and the like. One of his beef burgers is cooked sous-vide, which is French for "under vacuum," and describes food that is cooked inside an airtight plastic bag over a long period at low temperatures. What Blaise brokers in is not so much hamburgers as proteins of any ilk stuck between two buns.

Indeed, the existence of a bun, rather than the existence of meat, is what seems to define a dish as a burger these days. The rest is up to the chef to decide. And the bun is at the core of how the burger was innovated in the first place. The story has been proffered that the true innovator of what we know as the burger today was Charlie Nagreen. The Horton (Wis.) native claimed that in 1885, while a vendor at the Seymour Fair in Seymour, Wis., he was selling meatballs in sauce, requiring a fork and plate. But they didn't move so well, the patrons not wild about having to eat with two hands while taking in the exhibits. So, Nagreen, the story goes, started offering the meatballs flattened in a roll. He stuck by his story until his death in 1951.

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A “Hamburg-style” sandwich
The word "hamburger" comes to us, though, from the late 18th century when harbor cities such as New York, Boston and London began selling a minced steak that had been spiced and stretched with breadcrumbs as a binder, a recipe said to have started at food stands at the Hamburg, Germany, docks. So, signs went up at stands elsewhere offering meat or steak cooked in the "Hamburg style."

World’s most original burgers

They may have European roots, but hamburgers have become a quintessentially American food. But that hasn't stopped overseas innovation. MOS Burger in Japan serves up a tempura burger made of scallops, shrimp and squid. And in Australia, some restaurants offer burgers made from kangaroos. Because their methane emissions are much lower than those of cattle, kangaroos are the more environmentally friendly burger meat, some say.

Some places are sticking to the basics, though. Nagreen may have claimed he served the first hamburger, but Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Conn., begs to differ. The restaurant's hamburger is the same as it was in 1900: a patty topped with cheese, tomato and onion served between two slices of white bread. Ketchup and mustard are still off-limits.

As hamburger has become the rage, from a resurgent McDonald's business in the past 12 months to fine dining rooms in New York and Las Vegas, and a new string of burger restaurants from celebrity chef Bobby Flay, the conversation with chefs and eatery owners on the burger can get as messy as a Big Mac in the hands of a 5-year-old. "The thing you have to realize is that chefs are usually burger fanatics," says Flay, whose four Bobby's Burger Palaces opened this year in New York and New Jersey, with more on the way. "When we go out after a tough shift, we go for burgers, and so we have a lot of opinions about how to do it right."

Keeping it simple
Flay, who just published Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shakes in April, says he has had the idea of a string of burger joints for 10 years. He believes the griddle is the right approach, so the hamburger cooks in its own juices. A dimple in the burger with your thumb also makes for a more evenly cooked burger. It gets flipped once and only once, and gets Kosher salt and pepper before cooking. No special cuts of meat either, says Flay: 100 percent certified Angus sirloin and chuck, with 20 percent fat content. At Blais' Flip, in contrast, the 5.5-ounce beef burgers are a blend of brisket, hangar steak and short rib. The same blend is used at Laurent Tourondel's BLT Burger restaurants, where patrons build their own burgers with the toppings they want.

Five hundred miles to the west in Ann Arbor, Mich., though, chef Alex Young at Zingerman's Roadhouse cooks his burgers on a grill fueled with oak. And the wood comes through in the taste. He salts and peppers his meat the night before it goes into the grinder, which it does fresh every morning. And he uses a 3/16-inch grind, coarser than most. Young is persnickety about his meat and uses only beef from California's Niman Ranch. It is grass fed, finished for a short time on corn, and the steers are allowed to get older—15 to 24 months—than most big beef suppliers. But he is looking to use local Michigan grass-fed beef in the next couple of years if he can nail down adequate supply.

Young says he toured dozens of so-called famous burger places before opening the Roadhouse a few years ago. To him, the innovation in the burger, if there is any, is in the core ingredients, and taking stuff away rather than piling it on. "I have an idea of serving a burger on a plate with nothing else, no bun and no condiments, but that may be a little extreme," he says.

Zingerman's has an advantage over many burger purveyors in that it is has total control over its own bun, as the Zingerman's group of businesses includes one of the most highly acclaimed bakeries in the country. After experimenting, Young settled on an onion roll. The texture, about halfway between a soft potato roll and a Kaiser roll, started out as a "New York" roll served at Zingerman's Deli with minced onion in the dough and a pocket of minced onion inside. He took out the pocket of onion and it has proved to be the perfect carrier for the $9.95 Roadhouse burger.

A turn to slower food
The push for better burgers with better ingredients no doubt stems from a backlash in recent years against fast food restaurants like McDonald's and Burger King and their use of antibiotic-infused factory-farmed beef. McDonald's, which fries burgers, has always been at odds with Burger King, which flame-broils. And as most college kids know, White Castle, home of the steamed "slider" burger, is the ultimate downscale burger rush and the place you want at 4 a.m.

It could be that the embrace of the pricier burger these days is a reaction to the dumbing down of the burger at fast-fooderies to an almost tasteless jumble of fat, salt and sweeteners, which, while seducing our baser taste buds going down, leaves an aftertaste that's indistinguishable from that of the milkshake we drank alongside it. Add to that the desire for comfort food in difficult times, and the $100-dinner check going out of fashion in favor of the $20 check for two, and a trend is born.

It's worth remembering that McDonald's founder Ray Kroc was an innovator more of distribution and mass production than the food itself. The magic of McDonald's dating back to it beginning was its low-cost, mass production, so that the experience was the same coast to coast, and of course the ubiquity of the restaurants. Kroc was the Henry Ford of food.

While the hamburger might seem to some to be as American as gun racks and apple pie, it's good to remember the name is European derived. And European and Euro-influenced chefs have been tinkering with burgers of late. Of course, it was when French-born Daniel Boulud stuffed truffles and foie gras into a ground sirloin burger at his DB Bistro Moderne a few years ago that the upper crust restaurants began tinkering with burgers in the first place. Recently, Boulud, like a French aristocrat who falls in love with an old Ford pickup truck, opened DBGB Kitchen & Bar on the Bowery in Manhattan with more burger offerings and a lower-priced menu than his Michelin-rated restaurant.

Eating with a fork
Boulud's infatuation with the burger caused bistros in Paris, no less, to start adding burgers to their menus in the past two years. Even the most recalcitrant French bureaucrats today can be seen using knives and forks on hamburgers, dipping forkfuls (yikes, use your hands, man!) into dainty porcelain crocks of ketchup.

Can the French really be influencing the U.S. hamburger? Could it be retribution for some Americans campaigning to rename deep-fried potato strips "Freedom Fries" when the French government wouldn't support the war in Iraq? The very American fast-food chain Hardee's is now launching the French Dip Thickburger, what it calls in its promotional material "a perfect 'pas de deux' of beef: a 100 percent Black Angus Beef Thickburger patty topped with thinly sliced roast beef and melting Swiss cheese served with a cup of au jus for dipping." To market the new burger, four "gorgeous Hardee's French Maids," (Sophie, Antoinette, Gabrielle and Isabelle) will cruise the country on Segways, hitting 11 markets in the South and Midwest.

That's a bit too much for Michael Psilakis, an American of Greek descent, who now operates four restaurants in Manhattan, including the new Gus & Gabriel, which has six burgers on the menu. Psilakis, who has received top honors from both Gourmet and Esquire, focused more on the ingredients of a burger that would be familiar and comforting, rather than reinventing the experience. Starting at $11.50 and going up to $14, the craziest G&G gets with a burger is adding garlic confit or Gruyere cheese. Psilakis, who has an elaborate lamb burger cut with chuck and fatback on the menu at his fine dining restaurant Anthos in Midtown Manhattan, said he experimented a lot with new burger ideas before going back to basics.

"When we were working out the menu, I felt some personal challenge to really make a new statement in burgers," says Psilakis. His team experimented with aged beef, adding pork fat, duck fat, and all sorts of other haute innovations, such as braising rib meat before it went into the burger. In the end, he decided a burger made from chuck, brisket and short rib meat and grilled over a wood fire was unbeatable. The fact that every ingredient is fresh — nothing from a can in the restaurant — was a good starting point for him. Then he focused on treating the bun with great care to provide some of the point of difference from other restaurants. Some of his burger buns, for example, are buttered with his own compound butter recipe made with pecorino cheese, caramelized onion and a few other carefully chosen ingredients and heated up so the mixture penetrates the bread.

Psilakis majored in business in college and never attended culinary school. And he has opened two new restaurants since the recession set in, both focusing on menus where a diner can easily walk out with a dinner check under $20. Being innovative with something as basic and familiar to the U.S. and to the palate is defined, he says, "by making sure you exceed all expectations on what it tastes like no matter what you choose to put in or on the burger or on the plate."

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P.All rights reserved.


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