One year, hundreds of miles, close to thirty pounds of various cuts and blends of meat, thousands of fries…searching for the ten best hamburgers.
Nestled between Shad Roe, Bahn Mi, Shrimp & Grits, Nonni's Meatballs and Montauk Black Bass was “The Burger.” It was the equalizing dish amongst the best chefs in the area. As I tasted the creativity that each of the chefs placed into their version of this 100+ year old tradition, I was in awe. The combinations were brilliant, how the flavors balanced and complemented each other, the choices that they made to place their individual mark on this dish, each was unique.
Most of the meat was sourced locally, many from the same vendor with slight variations in blend and grind...some used a medium-grind while others requested a third, finer grind. Cheese and bacon played a major supporting roll, and the choices varied amongst the chefs. Different techniques were used with the onions, some were caramelized, some were frizzled and others were fried. A few chefs added a final layer of flavor with an aioli / mayo while others offered house-made ketchup. All were encased in the final component, the bun or muffin, ranging from plain to super sweet. And the fries, from skinny to fat, double fried and topped with all sorts of creativity. And then the last step before delivery, the seasoning.
The combination and balancing of all of these elements made this assignment both an education and a culinary escapade. I learned so much about flavors, techniques, the creative process and finally the end product. To all the chefs, I want to thank you for answering some last minute questions, but more importantly, for creating some of the best hamburgers that I have ever tasted.
Ranking these was akin to deciding which child you like best. They were all so great, each deserved the top spot…but here is my list of the Best Restaurant Burgers:
1 - The Whelk (Westport) – Owner Chef Bill Taibe and Chef Geoff Lazlo created my favorite burger this year, combining rich flavored meat, sweet pickles, cry baby Swiss cheese, two varieties of bacon, crisped onions and onion mayo on a brioche bun. The dry aged blend of short rib, brisket and chuck from Craft Saugatuck Butchery was fantastic. The cheese covered, thick patty sat atop two different varieties of bacon that added saltiness and smokiness, while slices of sweet pickles, a slice of frisée and the onion accented mayo brought additional flavors and textures. Sitting atop the plump patty was a handful of crisped onions. These were all encased in a sweet brioche bun. The flavors were overwhelmingly delicious with smoky, salty, sweet all complementing the deep, rich flavors of the beef with the crisped onions adding a fun and crunchy texture. The hamburger was served with shoestring fries that were perfectly prepared and salted.
2 - The Chelsea (Fairfield) & MATCH (South Norwalk) – The “Chelsea Burger” and the “Match Burger” each delivered an incredible array of flavors. Chef Matt Storch’s burger started with Craft Saugatuck Butchery’s rich, grass fed short rib, chuck and brisket combination. After grilling to create a crisp char and smokiness, the burger was dipped in a Bacon-Cheese Béchamel, a process created by Chef Storch. Bacon bits sat atop the cheese-dipped burger to add saltiness and then sweet-sour onions finished this presentation. The burger was encased in a sweet onion brioche from the Good Bread Company in Port Chester, which added just a little more sweetness to the burger. The fries at Match were the best I tasted, and Chef Storch told me he worked years developing his technique; crunchy on the exterior, soft and moist on the interior and were the perfect complement to the burger.
2 (Tie) - South End (New Canaan) – The “South End Burger” created by Chef Nick Martschenko started with fantastic beef, topped with double smoked bacon, American cheese, South End burger sauce and served on a Wave Hill poppy seed roll. The flavor of the meat was perfect, and Chef Martschenko charred the exterior while maintaining a medium rare interior that oozed tons of juicy goodness. The bacon was crisp and flavorful and complemented the meat. A few slices of B&B pickles adorned the burger and added another delightful flavor and the melted American cheese encased the patty. The sauce was a chunky spiced ketchup-y delight, which added another flavor level. The roll was light on flavor and allowed the bold flavors inside to shine. The fries were delicious, lightly salted with a dusting of parmesan cheese and was a great side for the burger.
4 - Elm (New Canaan) – The “elmburger” is another winning dish created by Chef Brian Lewis. The burger started with an incredibly flavorful meat topped with soft and sweet caramelized onions and a layer of melted Gruyere cheese. The caramelized onions were the best that I sampled on my travels and the Gruyere added a slight nuttiness to the dish. (The cheese changes often). Unlike any other burger in the area, the elmburger sits atop a swath of Sriracha aioli that added just a touch of heat (the only burger tasted that included a spicy component) to take the flavors to another level. The bun was toasted and a delicious addition to the meal. The burger was served with thick cut fries.
5 - Harlan Social (Stamford) – The “Harlan Burger” included a special blend of short rib, chuck and brisket from Pat Lafrieda and then Managing Partner and Chef Steve Lewandowski elevated the flavors with his unique toppings. He first basted the burger with a house-made “Japanese Worcestershire Sauce” and then added his “Cheddar Ale Sauce,” comprised of four varieties of cheese, mushroom stock and cream ale. He topped these items with a delicious Bacon Onion Jam . The sweet, sour, salty, umami elements were all present. Then Chef Lewandowski encased the burger in a Portuguese Muffin from Boston (my favorite bun on the tour), which added a sweet accent.
6 - Nola Oyster Bar (Nowalk) – Chef Dan Kardos continued his tradition of great hamburgers in his newest kitchen. Kardos used Saugatuck Craft Butchery dry aged blend of short rib, chuck and brisket that was grilled to a perfect char. He topped this patty with melted Beemster cheese, mushrooms, bacon, and frizzled onions and black pepper mayo. The flavor of the meat was outstanding and the toppings were delicious. The cheese was flavorful and complemented the richness in the meat. The bacon was thick and perfectly cooked but was just a little salty. The burger was served with curly fries that were fun and fantastic.
7 - Le Farm (Westport) – The “Beef Burger” with B&B pickles, mayonnaise, Cheddar cheese and bacon on a brioche delivered incredible flavors. This hamburger was sampled while Chef Geoff Lazlo and again when Chef Arik Bensimon were in the kitchen. The meat was charred on the exterior and the interior texture was soft. The interior was perfectly prepared to medium rare and was moist and juicy. The house-made pickles added a sweet element and the cheese and mayo were delightful and creamy complements; the bacon was a little bold for the other flavors. All of these delicious ingredients were encased in a brioche bun, a favorite of mine.
8 - Napa & Company (Stamford) – Carrying on the traditions of previous chefs, Executive Chef Adam Truelove continues producing the Napa Wagyu Burger which has appeared on this list since its inception. The large, marbled meat was perfectly prepared and then topped with an onion jam, aged Gouda cheese, and pepper mayo, all encased in a brioche roll. The meat was rich and juicy and the onion jam was fantastic. The aged Gouda cheese was perfectly melted and brought a deep nutty flavor to the burger. The fries that accompanied the burger were delicious.
9 - Oak + Almond (Norwalk) – Chef Jeff Taibe’s new menu includes the Grass Fed Burger, a large patty using 80-20 of Pat Lafrieda blend meat. The patty was charred and perfectly prepared and mild in flavor and was complemented by the accompanying bold ingredients. The burger was topped with some of the best bacon slices I tasted in my tour, delicious sweet-sour cippolini onions, melted Gorgonzola cheese and aioli and then served on a Wave Hill Brioche. The toppings were deep in flavor to complement the mild meat. The fries were fantastic, fried and salted and finished with sprigs of fresh rosemary.
10 - Boulevard 18 (New Canaan) – The “Strada Burger” is the creation of Chef David Raymer and included eight-ounces of certified Black Angus and Wagyu beef. The patty was topped with caramelized onions, cherry peppers, cheese (several options), with a little garlic aioli on a sesame brioche. I chose the Gruyere cheese and the nuttiness was a great complement to the richness of the meat. The caramelized onions were perfectly prepared to a sweet and moist finish and the garlic aioli was a delicious complement to the other ingredients. The burger was served with some delicious frites.
The journey is complete for 2013. And as we look towards the 2014 entrants, please feel free to recommend your favorites for inclusion.