We’ve done it. We’ve broken the code. We know we’re going to get mail disputing this, and chef Sang Yoon may well deny that we’ve divined his secret, but we know how to make the Office burger.
That would be the hamburger that has brought fame to a little Santa Monica joint named Father’s Office. It’s been widely reviewed and talked about since Yoon took over the kitchen early last year. In January, Esquire’s Man at His Best column awarded the Office burger “three fries"--over just 2 1/2 for the truffled, foie gras-infused, $29 burger served at Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne in New York.
The home of all this commotion, Father’s Office, is a plain, narrow room with blond-wood paneling. It may serve snacks after 5 p.m., but it’s definitely not a restaurant--it’s a bar dating from the ‘50s. A very busy, noisy bar at that, even on weeknights.
If you want anything to eat, you have to beg a menu from the bartender. Then you have to communicate your choice, loudly and distinctly, to somebody behind the bar, pay your $9.75 and wait. You’d better point out where you’re sitting, too, because eventually somebody will bring your food there.
The bar menu runs to Spanish tapas, but the big draw is clearly the Office burger. Sometimes Father’s Office is sold out of them by 9:45 p.m. Picture that--a place beingsold out of burgers!
Well, it is a terrific burger. Its combination of fresh meat, two pungent cheeses and a sweet, smoky compote of bacon and browned onions is overwhelming.
We had to know how to make it. So we called and asked for the recipe. “No, no, no,” Yoon replied, muttering something about a chef’s secret. Yoon has never revealed the recipe--not even to Esquire magazine, he pointed out--and he wasn’t about to now.
That was enough for us. The Times Test Kitchen loves a mystery. We determined to figure it out for ourselves.
Yoon had revealed last year that the meat was a mixture of chuck, sirloin and dry-aged New York steak trim.
It turns out that a food processor grinds this combination perfectly well, and it may mix the meats better than a meat grinder would.
Nor were the cheeses any secret, or even particularly hard to find. They’re Swiss Gruyere and Maytag blue from Iowa; likewise, the toasted mini-baguette and the arugula that plays the lettuce role in this burger.
The difficulty was with the bacon-onion compote on the patty. We got the proper Wisconsin apple-smoked bacon, but when the kitchen fried the onions (in bacon grease, of course) and added the bacon and some balsamic vinegar, the result wasn’t quite right.
We put in Worcestershire sauce; still not quite there. Some black pepper. Better, but not smoky enough.
We couldn’t put in any more bacon without making the compote too bacony. On an impulse, we added a drop of liquid smoke, which did the trick.
The compote was still not quite sweet enough to balance the sharpness of the blue cheese. The onions had been sauteed golden brown, but not terribly dark, so the kitchen began to suspect that not all the sweetness came from onions.
We added some sugar and let it caramelize.
But something was still missing. The compote on a sample Office burger we brought to our own office was a shade redder than this compote, and it had a quality that subtly suggested a barbecue sauce. So we added some ketchup and cooked some more.
Now we only needed to make an oblong patty, fry it and melt two cheeses on it, set it on toasted roll, spread it with the onion compote and sprinkle it with arugula.
A crunch between the teeth ... a hit of fresh bread flavor ... an herbal whiff of arugula ... meat juices spreading in the mouth ... the pungent tang of blue cheese, followed by a nutty Swiss flavor ... and finally, the sweet, smoky, rich, tangy flavors of the compote wrestling with the meat and the sharp cheese right to the final bell.
Now, that’s a burger.
We’d done it. In the process, the kitchen literally cooked a couple of dozen hamburgers. We all tasted burger after burger, and after work we all passed on supper.
The Test Kitchen staff went home every night and took showers to get rid of the fine layer of grease that had built up on their hair and skin.
“I haven’t been this greasy since I worked at McDonald’s,” said one.
But it was worth it, because our result was very close, indeed. And probably even better than that--we think we’ve nailed it. We’re sure we know Father’s little secret: Worcestershire, liquid smoke, sugar and ketchup.
Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Fry the bacon until crisp, 5 to 6 minutes, then remove to paper towels to drain. Crumble 1 of the slices and set aside; reserve the rest of the bacon for another use. Measure 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat into a medium heavy skillet.
Add the onions to the skillet and sprinkle with the sugar. Cook until the onions are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Halfway through, stir in the crumbled bacon. At the end of the 20 minutes, stir in the balsamic vinegar, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, salt and pepper. Cook for 2 more minutes. Set aside.
Combine the strip and rib-eye steaks and mix in the salt. Shape the meat into 4 (7-inch) oval patties, about 3/4 inch thick.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat. Fry the burgers, 2 at a time, for 3 minutes, then flip. Top each burger with 1/4 of the blue and Gruyere cheeses. Cook the burgers 3 more minutes for medium.
Remove and keep warm; melt the remaining butter in the skillet and repeat with the remaining 2 patties and cheeses.
To assemble, place the burgers on the baguettes and top with the onions and arugula, dividing evenly.
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