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Year of the burger

Special to The Times

A cityscape studded with palm trees. A historic Sunset Boulevard hotel. Your dinner served to you poolside, your waiter bearing aloft the perfect hamburger. It’s the quintessential L.A. experience.

And yes, that includes the hamburger. Not a California roll, not a chic plate of fusion food, but a burger.

From a wooden counter in Santa Monica to an industrial-looking foodie haunt in Hollywood to the swankiest dining room on Orange County’s Gold Coast, right now the burger is getting more play in this town than Colin Farrell. Suddenly, L.A. chefs are taking the burger very seriously: No longer a kids’ meal or de rigueur bar food, the hamburger is now a menu centerpiece, even a showstopper.

At the Terrace, the patio-with-a-view restaurant that opened last week at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood, Sunday night is burger night: The entire menu is devoted to the burger in all its glory.

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Yes, there’s the fabulous sirloin burger, smothered in brie and caramelized onions, but you can also order a duck burger, made from chopped duck breast and shredded duck confit and smeared with Dijon creme fraiche, or a monkfish burger, in which monkfish is diced with fresh scampi, bound with a lemongrass infusion, and served with lobster aioli. All are grilled before you on the terrace by a whites-clad chef and served with a copper cassoulet pan of fries for the table. While you wait, you can take a dip in the pool and watch the sun spread out over the Los Angeles skyline.

This Kobe is on fire

AT Stonehill Tavern, the elegant restaurant at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort and Spa, chef-partner Michael Mina offers a decadent truffled Kobe burger, replete with creamy truffle aioli, truffled ketchup, shaved black truffle and a brioche bun made with truffle butter. It may sound like overkill, but it’s a surprisingly subtle creation: The truffle plays off the separate components and unites them without drowning them out. And tangy pickled onions, oven-dried tomato and peppery cress keep the richness of the beef and aioli from overwhelming the palate. There’s also some enforced restraint -- there’s just a dab of the truffle aioli.

Burger-wise, Kobe is very hot. Not real Japanese Kobe of course, which wholesales for $80 per pound, but Wagyu, American Kobe-style beef. Stonehill uses Snake River Farms American Kobe in its burgers. “You use it for two reasons,” says Mina. “The flavor and the fat.”

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Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse Cut, which recently opened its Richard Meier-designed doors at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, offers Kobe sliders that actually contain a percentage of true Japanese Kobe.

Spago executive chef Lee Hefter, who helped chef Ari Rosenson create the menu, says the burgers are made mostly from American Kobe, but with some sirloin added “for flavor,” along with some true Kobe, extra from the cuts he gets flown in from Japan for the steakhouse menu. They’re served on delicate brioche buns, with shallot-jalapeno marmalade, tomato confit, aged Gouda and diced onion.

Kobe sliders are also on the menu at the chic new Social Hollywood, where they’re made with Wagyu beef and piled with melted Gruyere, caramelized onions, a thatch of iceberg, sliced tomatoes and rich “Moroccan” aioli -- infused with roasted garlic and ground coriander. They’re served pierced with skewers, atop three individual plates on a wooden board.

But not everyone thinks Kobe is best for burgers. Just as Angelenos love to debate whether the Apple Pan is better than Pie n’ Burger, or whether In-N-Out was ever as great as the original Fatburger, or whether the Counter is as amazing as Father’s Office, hamburgers have lately become a topic of hot debate for chefs. It all comes down to Kobe versus not.

“I think the Kobe thing is over,” says Jeff Klein, owner of the Terrace. It simply doesn’t have the depth of flavor that sirloin has, he says.

In West L.A. at Literati II, chef Chris Kidder turns out one of the city’s best burgers, using sirloin. A Zuni Cafe alum, Kidder salts the chuck and lets it stand overnight a la Judy Rodgers (his former boss at Zuni) before grinding it himself (twice) and grilling it over pecan wood. The result is a spectacularly flavorful burger that’s served simply, with just a touch of aioli, a grilled slice of red onion, a slice of really ripe tomato sprinkled with fleur de sel and a perfectly cut triangle of iceberg lettuce.

For chef Ben Ford at Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City, it’s chuck all the way for his equally old-school pub burger, topped simply with shredded iceberg lettuce, a slice of beefsteak tomato and some caramelized onions. “I dance around, trying to elevate the pub concept,” Ford says.

Making of a craze

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SO what makes a great burger? Spago’s Hefter says it’s two very simple but crucial things: great meat, and meat that’s ground fresh. Literati II’s Kidder echoes this, emphasizing the quality of the meat as being the most important, plus “a bun that can handle the patty” and fresh accompaniments “that complement the meat rather than overpower it.” And “lots of love,” Kidder adds.

Hefter explains the current burger craze this way: “People are bored with this surge of crazy food -- foams and gelees and mousses. These days people want something with some familiarity. Comfort level is very important when you’re eating.” Also, he points out, “more chefs are cooking for themselves.” And what chefs secretly want to eat is, it seems, what we all want to eat: hamburgers.

The epicenter of the new hamburger explosion is Hollywood, where three relatively new places have some of the best gourmet burgers in town, both Kobe and not Kobe.

At 25 Degrees, Tim Goodell’s burger-and-wine bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, the burgers are a blend of chuck and sirloin, with a secret ingredient: a dash of pork fat. Goodell’s burgers come medium-rare, as befits a restaurant named after the difference in degrees between a medium-rare and a well-done burger. They can be built from a variety of ingredients and come wrapped in parchment paper with a big side of fries.

Just down the street, Lucky Vanous’ haute diner, Lucky Devils, offers a massive Kobe burger served either standard, with caramelized onions, arugula and garlic aioli on a brioche bun, or as one of “Lucky’s Favorites,” fully loaded with all of the above plus Maytag blue cheese, Gruyere and Nueske bacon.

And then there’s the Hungry Cat, David Lentz’s seafood place, which has what might be the best burger in town -- a gigantic paean to sirloin known as the Pug burger. (Named after Lentz’s and wife Suzanne Goin’s dog.) It’s topped with mixed greens, an enormous wedge of blue cheese, thick aioli and served with more fries than you’ll be able to eat in two sittings.

What goes into the burger itself is important to Lentz. “I’m suspicious of Kobe burgers,” he says, noting that some places mix different cuts of meat together into their burgers, and burgers labeled as Kobe burgers are not necessarily 100% Kobe. And Wagyu “isn’t even close” to Japanese Kobe, he says.

Whatever goes into them -- Kobe, sirloin, chuck or duck -- we’re eating them up.

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Both Terrace’s Klein and 25 Degrees’ Goodell agree: Their research shows burgers as the most-ordered item in the country. In hotels, Klein says, it’s “80% burgers, 20% other.”

“L.A. is a burger mecca,” says Jeff Weinstein, owner of the Counter, a build-your-own burger cafe in Santa Monica. But “it’s not about the burger,” he says, “it’s about the experience.” The experience at the Counter is like one big childhood memory -- legions of happy kids, and equally happy adults, wait in droves to create their own burgers from the list of possible combinations. Which, if you do the math, works out to more than 312,000 possible burgers -- and that doesn’t even include the specials.

But for the Counter’s fans, it is about the burger, which is thick and juicy, with all-natural chuck Weinstein has ground daily. It’s served cooked to medium, with wonderfully fresh toppers such as Greek feta, roasted red peppers, house-made guacamole or roasted corn-and-black-bean salsa that you choose from a big board.

Another Westside gourmet burger favorite, Father’s Office is a direct contrast to the Counter: Instead of legions of kids, no one under 21 is even allowed through the doors. And instead of thousands of combinations, try one burger, no substitutions.

Owner Sang Yoon is just as draconian in his opinions on burgers as he is about restaurant policies: “Kobe beef is a useless thing in hamburgers,” he says. “When you grind it, you disrupt the integrity. It’s something different.” The lines of people waiting to get into Yoon’s clubby little spot must agree: His burger, made from chuck and dry-aged New York strip loin and served on a French roll with caramelized onions, blue cheese and arugula, is a city legend.

Though, of course, there are detractors.

The Counter’s Weinstein argues that the hamburger is a particularly nostalgic food and that people therefore have very strong -- and often territorial -- feelings about it. “When people migrated towards the ocean, there were all these little burger places that opened up,” he says. Angelenos, often transplanted from other places (Weinstein himself is from Washington, D.C.), took their new burger places personally, which tapped into a nostalgia generated by the burgers themselves.

In other words, home is where the burger is.

*

Stonehill Tavern Kobe burger

Total time: 3 hours, plus overnight standing time

Serves: 4

Note: From chef-partner Michael Mina of Stonehill Tavern. You don’t have to make all parts of this showstopping burger -- the buns, ketchup or mayonnaise can be store-bought. But any one of them, even just the truffle cheese, elevates it to something special. Truffle butter and truffle cheese are available at gourmet shops such as Monsieur Marcel in Los Angeles and Nicole’s in Pasadena. The brioche dough makes six buns. The pickled onions are best started the day before.

Truffle brioche buns

1/4 cup milk

1 ( 1/4 -ounce) package dry yeast

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided

5 eggs, divided

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

4 ounces truffle butter, at room temperature

1. In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk to 105 to 110 degrees. Pour it into a large bowl, add the yeast and stir to dissolve. When the yeast gets slightly foamy (after about 10 minutes), stir in one-half cup of flour. Cover with plastic wrap; set aside for an hour in a warm place.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place four eggs, the yeast mixture, 2 1/4 cups of the flour, and the salt and sugar in the bowl of a 5-quart stand mixer. With the paddle attachment, beat the mixture on medium speed until well mixed. Continuing on medium speed, slowly add in the butter and truffle butter.

3. When completely mixed, the dough should be fairly wet but pull away cleanly from the sides of the bowl. Add flour as necessary, up to 1 cup. When the mixture starts to pull together, switch to a dough hook and knead for a few minutes.

4. Remove the dough from the mixer and shape into six flattened balls about half the size of the buns that you want. Place the balls on a greased and floured cookie sheet, leaving space for them to rise. Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray. Place the buns in a warm place, and allow them to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

5. Brush the buns with an egg wash -- one egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the tops are a deep golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack before cutting.

Pickled onions

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 large red onion

1. In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, 1 cup of water, salt and peppercorns to a boil.

2. Cut the onion into one-half-inch thick slices. In a heatproof bowl, pour the boiling liquid over the onion.

3. Cool the mixture to room temperature, and then store in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours and ideally overnight.

Oven-dried tomatoes

2 beefsteak tomatoes

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1. Heat the oven to 250 degrees.

2. Cut the tomatoes into half-inch-thick slices and season both sides with salt and pepper. Lay the slices on a metal cooling rack set over a sheet tray and brush them with olive oil.

3. Bake the tomatoes for about 2 hours, or until they shrink by half and are about half-dried. Cool and reserve.

Truffle aioli

2 egg yolks

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon truffle scraps or pieces (optional)

3/4 cup canola or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon truffle oil (or more to taste)

1. In a small food processor, combine the egg yolks, salt, lemon juice and truffle pieces (if using).

2. With the food processor on, slowly add the canola oil in a thin stream into the eggs. Finish by adding the truffle oil. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Cool and reserve.

Truffle ketchup

1/2 cup tomato paste

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup truffle vinegar

2 teaspoons kosher salt

In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring 1 cup of water, the tomato paste, sugar, vinegar and salt to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, until a ketchup-like consistency has been reached, about 10 minutes. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Cool and reserve.

Burgers and assembly

4 (8-ounce) Kobe-style hamburger patties (the restaurant uses Snake River Farms)

1/4 pound truffle cheese

4 brioche buns

2 tablespoons truffle butter

2 bunches watercress

1 recipe oven-dried tomatoes

1 recipe pickled onions

1 shaved fresh black truffle (optional)

Truffle ketchup

Truffle aioli

1. Grill the hamburgers over medium-high heat, preferably over wood charcoal (ideally oak) until medium rare, 3 to 5 minutes per side.

2. Cover the burgers with slices of the truffle cheese and allow the cheese to melt.

3. Brush the cut sides of the buns with truffle butter and grill, cut side down, until slightly toasted.

4. Place the burgers on the buns and garnish with the watercress, oven-dried tomato, pickled onions, optional shaved truffle, truffle ketchup and truffle aioli. Serve immediately.

Each serving with 1 tablespoon ketchup and 1 tablespoon aioli: 1,585 calories; 75 grams protein; 99 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 99 grams fat; 47 grams saturated fat; 570 mg. cholesterol; 1,330 mg. sodium.

*

The Terrace duck burger

Total time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, plus overnight standing time

Servings: 4

Note: From Andrea Tamburini of Tower Bar and the Terrace in the Sunset Tower Hotel. Start the confit the day before, or purchased duck confit can be used. For the Dijon creme fraiche, mix 4 tablespoons of creme fraiche with 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard; refrigerate until ready to use.

Duck leg confit

3 duck legs

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 1/2 to 3 cups duck fat

1. Salt the duck legs with about one-half teaspoon salt for each leg. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2. Rinse the duck legs with cold water and pat them dry.

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large ovenproof pot, bring to a simmer over medium heat enough duck fat to cover the legs. Once the fat has come to a simmer, place the legs in the pot. Cover and cook in the oven for about 2 hours.

4. Allow the duck legs to cool in the fat. Using tongs, remove the duck legs from the pan. Remove the skin and pull the meat from the legs.

Duck burgers and assembly

1 recipe duck leg confit

1 3/4 pounds ground (skinless) duck breast

2 teaspoons finely minced red onion

1 teaspoon chopped chives

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 good-quality hamburger buns

4 slices heirloom tomato

1/2 head butter lettuce

2 tablespoons butter

4 organic eggs

1. In a large bowl, mix the duck confit with the ground duck breasts. Mix in the red onion, chives, freshly ground white pepper, olive oil, egg yolk and salt.

2. Form four patties, about 7 to 8 ounces each. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

3. In a very hot saute pan, sear the patties for about 1 minute on each side and finish in the oven for 4 to 6 minutes, until medium rare.

4. Wipe clean the saute pan and grill the buns until they are just crisp.

5. Place each burger on a crisp bun, and top with a slice of heirloom tomato and a couple leaves of butter lettuce.

6. In the saute pan, heat the butter over medium-high heat for a few minutes. Fry the eggs -- sunny side up -- for about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, until the egg whites have solidified and set.

7. Place an egg on top of each burger. Serve open face with a drizzle of Dijon creme fraiche.

Each serving: 619 calories; 67 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 27 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 490 mg. cholesterol; 978 mg. sodium.

*

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Where the glam burgers hang out

The Counter. Order any combination from a huge matrix of ingredients in this popular, airy spot. 2901 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 399-8383. $6.50 to $12.

Cut. Made from American and Japanese Kobe and sirloin, topped with shallot-jalapeno marmalade, tomato confit and aged gouda, Kobe sliders are served on house-made brioche buns. Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 276-8500. $20 (for 4 sliders).

Father’s Office. This Westside bar has a fantastic burger: French roll, blue cheese, caramelized onions, arugula and a “no substitutions” policy. 1018 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 393-2337. $10.75.

Ford’s Filling Station. Ben Ford’s gastropub has a classic take on the burger, made with house-ground beef, Point Reyes blue cheese, caramelized onions and a La Brea Bakery bun. 9531 Culver Blvd., Culver City; (310) 202-1470. $14 at lunch; $16 at dinner.

The Hungry Cat. This may be a fish house, but David Lentz’s Pug burger is terrific. Served with aioli, field greens, blue cheese and a mountain of fries. 1535 Vine St., Hollywood; (323) 462-2155. $14.

Literati II. This casual West L.A. spot serves a classic burger done right: a stellar patty, a triangle of iceberg lettuce, tomato, red onion and a dab of aioli. 12081 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 479-3400. $14.

Lucky Devils. Massive burger, made with Australian Kobe and available in classic or fully loaded with Maytag Blue, Gruyere (yes, both), Nueske bacon and garlic aioli. 6613 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 465-8259. $12.95 or $15.50.

Social Hollywood. Kobe sliders at the Moroccan-themed bar come with Gruyere and caramelized onions. 6525 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 462-5222. $17 (for 3 sliders).

Stonehill Tavern. The truffled Kobe burger is hedonistic, but not pointlessly so; it’s got lots of smart truffled accouterments, any of which would be great on its own on a burger. St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, 1 Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point; (949) 234-3318. $28.

The Terrace. Though there’s a great sirloin burger on the nightly menu, on Sunday burger nights by the pool, there are five to choose from, including a boffo duck burger. Sunset Tower Hotel, 8358 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 654-7100. $21 to $25.

25 Degrees. This retro hotel bar serves flavorful, assemble-your-own burgers, wrapped in parchment like a gift. Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 785-7244. $9 and up.

-- Amy Scattergood


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