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Year of the burger

Aioli, truffles, Kobe -- this summer, every chef in town has a fabulous spin.

August 02, 2006|Amy Scattergood | 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.

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."

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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