Meat as Sculpture
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Burger Porn: Drippy, Bloody & Sticky."
When I lived in New York not long ago, it was a city without a hamburger, a metropolis that made me yearn for an In-N-Out Double-Double, for a Pie 'n Burger, for the burgers Bruce Marder used to serve lunchtimes at the West Beach Café. There were New York hamburgers, of course, haphazard concoctions thrown together in spooky tavern backrooms, but they were dank objects, overcondimented nightmares designed to ease down a last pint of Guinness rather than to be eaten of their own accord. Times were so dire that the dB burger, a mutant softball stuffed with short ribs and foie gras, may have actually been the best hamburger in town, despite the chef's insistence on replacing catsup with sun-dried tomatoes.
But people like hamburgers. And to a certain strain of carnivore, New York City may now be less notable for its steaks and its ancient chophouses than for the excruciatingly crafted hamburgers in its specialty restaurants, not the precisely garnished Father's Office–style confections common in Los Angeles at the moment but burnished, weighty hunks of meat, barely contained within their custom artisanal buns. The new breed of New York hamburger restaurants tends to be obsessive about its meat, eschewing the time-honored masses of ground chuck or ground sirloin for exotic blends drawn from every part of the cow, baroque assemblages of prime short ribs, plate and prime filet, hanger steak and cap fat, or even the occasional chunk of Japanese wagyu, all ground into the whole. A $25 burger is not unheard of. And the burger that is driving the meatheads insane at the moment, the one that Time columnist Josh "Mr. Cutlets'' Ozersky goes on about with the passion that his forefathers probably reserved for discussions of the Torah, is the Black Label burger the Minetta Tavern puts together from a blend customized by Pat La Frieda, the third-generation West Village butcher who supplies the meat to a huge percentage of Manhattan's best restaurants. That burger, Mr. Cutlets insists, is reason enough to hop on the red-eye.
In Los Angeles, where great hamburgers are our birthright, we can pick up a few pounds of the meaty, fatty Nancy Silverton mix in the farmers market if we feel like doing the blend thing. In hamburger meat as in bread, rustic tarts and pizza, Silverton was years ahead of the curve. But if you want to experience New York–style hamburger-blend fetishism, you need to check out the Burger Kitchen — the only place this side of Chicago where you can taste La Frieda's Black Label blend.
Owned by Alan Saffron, an opinionated Australian who will make his presence known whether you want him to or not, Burger Kitchen does serve more than the Black Label burger: drippy Greek lamb burgers with olive paste and feta and flaky Australian meat pies among other things, as well as very good hamburgers made from a blend put together for Saffron at Huntington Meats. For a couple bucks extra per burger, you can have your Texas chili burger or bacon-laced Mountain Burger made with a Pat La Frieda "steakburger'' patty, which oozes the bloody minerality of aged sirloin. There is a small but nicely curated beer list that includes many of the IPAs and Belgian ales that go so well with meals of prime meat, beer-battered onion rings and jalapeño poppers that taste just like the ones at Jack in the Box.
But you're here for the Natural, Burger Kitchen's name for its $26 Black Label burger, which can resemble a Maillol bronze of a hamburger more than it does a hamburger itself: prime brisket and strip steak and skirt and some other things, dry-aged for twice as long as most men would think sensible, then ground, formed into an enormous half-pound patty the size of a shuffleboard puck, and placed naked, with a token leaf of lettuce, on a towering brioche bun from the Santa Monica baker Ca d'Oro. It may be no bigger than the other hamburgers at the restaurant, which also weigh in at eight ounces of meat, but its presence dominates the table.
Burger freaks often daydream about the airiness, the paradoxical lightness in their favorite hamburgers. But with the Natural, either because it is formed too enthusiastically or because it is glued together with the sticky juices that you might expect from meat several days in plastic, there is a density, a numbing richness that makes it difficult to eat more than a few bites. This is not the same richness of an A5 Kobe steak brought in from Japan, but a stodgier kind; a Bentley instead of a Ferrari. The flavor is strong, with overtones of grass corn sweetness and a whiff of cattle yards on a summer afternoon, but it is not quite funky. You will find neither dry-aged-rib-eye cheesiness nor the mineral tang of extra-aged steaks in the Natural, neither sourness nor a Camembert stink. (If you miss the stink, you can get Camembert on your burger in place of organic white cheddar.)
Are there gimmicky burgers on the menu? You bet. Fifty dollars will get you that Black Label burger topped with lobster and truffle oil, and $75 will get you the "From Siberia With Love" burger, slathered in caviar. Owner Saffron swears that wealthy Russians come in and order the Siberia burger all the time, although they tend to be upset that it is garnished with farmed Osetra caviar instead of the illegal wild beluga.
Burger Kitchen is among the most controversial restaurants in Los Angeles. It opened perhaps a few weeks before it was ready, and it earned some of the nastiest comments I have ever read on Yelp. Beef aged 40 days is obviously a rare commodity, and not everybody is going to like it. The guys who rhapsodize about char coefficients and burger/bun ratios may not be convinced. And although the Black Label blend wholesales for more than prime steak, $26 is a lot to pay for a hamburger. But the Natural is an extreme burger for extreme times, a burger less to be eaten than to be conquered. If you are committed enough to spend this kind of money on a hamburger, the tidy Third Street storefront may be the only logical place to go.
BURGER KITCHEN: 8048 W. Third St., L.A. (323) 944-0503. Open daily, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Beer and wine. Valet parking. Takeout. Hamburgers mostly $9-$13; the Natural $26; meat pies $10; salads $6-$11.
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