Top Ten Burgers In Southwest CT: 2017 Edition

Lou Gorfain

2017 was a good year for burger lovers in Southwest CT. A closing (Fleisher's Craft Kitchen) and a fire (The National) have sadly removed two of 2016’s winning burgers from contention in our 2017 edition of Top Ten Burgers in Southwest CT.  Nonetheless, the local burger scene remains vibrant, inventive, and ever evolving. So we happily welcome three new, mouthwatering iterations to our 2017 Top Ten Burgers list. 

We sampled over 75 burgers to arrive at this list. Our rankings this year are focused exclusively on the sandwich and its ingredients alone, not the accompanying sides. 

Herewith, the Winners….

THE CHAMP: “Harlan Burger,” Harlan Social, Stamford, Harlan Public, Sono

I first tried Steven Lewandowski’s Harlan Burger when he opened in Harbor Point five years ago. Back then, I thought it might be the most luscious sandwich in Connecticut.  I still do. It's not a burger as much as a delivery system for a flavor feast. 

A hearty half pound patty of a custom LaFreida blend of brisket, short rib and chuck forms the foundation of the sandwich, but the fixings elevate it into a full meal. The meat is first dressed in homemade Worcestershire, followed by a complex sauce of pepper jack and cheddar cheese, garlic, shallots, mustard, cream and Six Point Ale. All this augmented by an ooz-y jam of onions, caramelized in bacon fat and studded with pancetta. The savories and sweets of the Meat, Sauce and Sear are secured within a dense Portuguese Muffin, less nook and cranied than its English cousin, and sealed so it absorbs the abundant juices without getting soggy. Decadent. Delicious. Dreamy. 

One chomp … and we had our winner.

THE RUNNER UP: “The Match Burger,”  Match, Sono

Last year’s top burger boasts the deepest sear of any on the list. Important, because the outer crust, not the internal grind, is where I find most of a burger’s flavor and crunch. The secret to Chef Matt Storch’s char is … wait for it… butter. He coats the 7 ounce paddy with the fat, so when grilled, it flares, enveloping the burger in flames. Can you say Maillard Reaction?

The smoky sear and pink grind are enhanced by a creamy béchamel dip. Replacing the traditional slice of cheese (which rarely melts evenly), the cheesy sauce is coated evenly on the top and bottom of the Fleisher blended patty. The spread also complements the sweetness of the onion-sesame brioche bun from Good Bread and Bakery. Custom made for Match, the top half of the bun is dipped in a traditional pretzel wash, and the roll more than stands up to the burger and béchamel. The result is what Storch calls “full coverage,” where every flavor and texture – bun, sauce and beef – is present in every bite. Of all the burgers I tried this year, The Match was unmatched for balance and craft.

(Served only at Lunch and Thursday dinner)

A CLOSE THIRD:  “Hapa Burger,”  Hapa Food Truck

Chris Gonzales has hacked the classic American hamburger. His Hapa Burger is simply a global burger bomb. Just what you’d expect from this young, gifted, multi-cultural chef.

The moment the Hapa is served, you see the difference. A purple bun! The pillow-y roll owes its festive color and flavor to Ube, a sweet purple-blue Philippine yam used by Chris’ family to make desserts back home. The bun holds even more flavor forward surprises …

Although the 5.5 oz. LaFrieda blend topped by sharp cheddar may be traditional, East meets West with other ingredients. The onions are caramelized according to an Italian recipe, their candy counterpointed by the salty bite of a pork belly slab, an essential in every Manila pantry. The aioli with an Asian twist is sparked by heat from Gochujang (a Korean pepper paste), as the crunchy lettuce plays off the fluff of the Pacific inspired bun.  A hamburger may be the ultimate comfort food. But the assertive Hapa hamburger jolted me wonderfully out of my comfort zone. (I did deduct points for meat cooked more medium than our requested medium rare. But then added points for the price point:  less than 10 dollars, by far the least expensive on our survey.)

FORTH. “The Cottage Burger,” The Cottage, Westport

 “Sumptuous” best describes Brian Lewis’ signature hamburger. Attractively framed on a dark wood cutting board, the gruyere draped, 8 oz. burger comes topped with a bacon onion jam, millstone pickles and sriracha aioli, all towering within a butter griddled sesame seed bun from Wave Hill. An extremely appetizing presentation. (A side of optional bone marrow adds to the picture, but we’ll focus on the sandwich.) 

The patty, a LaFrieda blend of chuck, aged ribeye, short rib, with some house rib-eye added for even more richness, is fried in a cast iron skillet. The pan provides consistent heat and control, resulting in a flavorful char and an exact medium rare finish.

The few, simple ingredients produced a surprisingly complex, contrapuntal flavor experience. I first tasted the smoky, salty bacon, which balanced the caramels of the sweet onion jam and burger crust. The sweet and salty Gruyere melt brought an earthy creaminess to the mix, and the sriracha aioli added a gentle garlicy kick. In concert, the toppings deepened the rich, well-seasoned meat.  Worthy of its auspices.  

Is The Cottage Burger worth forgoing the other exquisite entries on Lewis’ menu?  Maybe on a second visit.

(Not served Saturday dinner)

THE 5th DIMINSION. “The Diva,” Jesup Hall, Westport

(Bill Taibe’s The Whelk made the 2016 Top Ten, and his transformative burgers at the late Napa & Company and Le Farm, helped rock the Connecticut dining landscape. For his new venue, Jesup Hall, Taibe wanted to shake things up again. Mission accomplished. For 2017, we shift our attention to his latest game-changer: The Diva.)

Named for the pungent Arethusa Farm’s cheese which binds the sandwich, The Diva features a caramelized onion bun from Eli’s Bakery, strands of sauerkraut for a pickled crunch, and twin meat patties instead of one. The two patties double the ratio of crust to interior grind, while redefining the texture of the burger. For distinctive flavor, Chef Daniel Sabia and Taibe experimented with various cocktails of cuts, and settled on chuck, brisket, top round, and short rib (both fresh and aged meat), achieving an 80/20 blend. I bit in and loved the ratio of bun, cheese and meat, finding the patties slightly denser and more stable than others, but perhaps a tad less juicy. 

Enter the beef marrow jus. I dipped an edge of the sandwich into the jus, and the broth instantly lifted the burger to new heights. The buttery, sweet, and slightly mineral flavors of the marrow “beefed up” the savory umami of the burger. At Le Farm, Bill’s signature ingredient was foie gras. At Jesup, it could be the marrow. On a Burger, it adds a new dimension

6th AND GAINING. “The Perfect Burger,”  Café 47 at Perfect Provenance, Greenwich

For the French-American menu in his new Greenwich digs, Chef Arik Bensimon has created a perfect blend of the two culinary cultures:  The Béarnaise Burger. An All-American classic bathed in a legendary French sauce.

Elegance and simplicity define Bensimon’s hamburger. Unblended Fleisher’s grass-fed beef. Homemade béarnaise, flecked with herbs. A semi-soft Vermont Cheddar. A Brioche Bun. All in delicious ratio. That’s it.  Oh, did I mention the butter? To achieve a sear more golden than charred, Chef Bensimon gently bastes the burger in clarified butter as he sautés the 8 oz. patty in a red-hot cast iron skillet. 

The buttery prep pairs well with the buttery béarnaise, while the Humble Herdsman cheese from Vermont lends creamy, nutty, and earthy notes to the sandwich. The brioche is eggy in a familiar French way. But the Burger steals the show, its gilded crust embracing a loose, juicy grind of pink-red medium rare beef from Fleisher’s. The flavors are clean, straightforward, and distinct, unconfused by a mélange of unnecessary flourishes. An outstanding debut for Chef Bensimon, a signature hamburger that justifies its name.  “Perfect” indeed. 

(Served at Lunch only.)

7th. “The Royale.”  Le Fat Poodle, Old Greenwich

I discovered The Royale Burger on a tip.  From a friend whose palate I respect. “One of the best,” he texted about the hamburger. “Very, very good. Was thinking of you the whole time.”

Still, I approached Le Fat Poodle with much hesitation. Not just the too cute name. But more the location. Old Greenwich is hardly a culinary hot spot. But the 2 year old bistro was jumping. Even at noon. The crowd, surprisingly young, was focused more on the food than each other. I had hope.

The mammoth burger sealed the deal. More than half a pound of a Kobe blend from Greenwich Prime Meats rested within two pillows of Brioche. Apropos of its name, the Royale was crowned with a lava-like, all-encompassing Munster-cheddar melt, and topped with an onion reduction, Thousand Island dressing, a very green leaf of Boston Bibb and twin slices of both tomato and pickle.  

I bit in. The soft-ball sized patty burst with juice and fresh flavor, having been grilled to an exactred-pink within, sear marks brandishing the surface. I wondered if the generous Munster/Cheddar cap flowing down the sides would compete with the tasty burger, but the melt, along with the other dressings and garnishes, only enhanced its robust flavors. The Royale is more than “very, very good.”  To my palate, it’s worthy of a Top Ten ranking.

 (Served at Lunch only)

8th. Pasture Raised Burger, Mill Street Bar and Grill, Byram

A burger is a sum of its parts, not just the beef. Especially at Chef Geoff Lazlo’s fresh-centric Mill Street hang-out. A standout of his signature hamburger: the plump and puffy potato bun, baked in-house by pastry artist in residence, Caryn Stabinsky. Buttery and oven fresh, it ranks as the most beguiling hamburger roll in the region. It is fluffy but brawny, containing and complementing the juicy goodies within. 

The patty, a half-pound 70/30 blend from Fleisher’s, is wood-fired on the kitchen’s hearth, and comes capped with melted Connecticut cheddar from Arethusa. Smokey, nicely crusted, with juices running, it almost tasted home-made, as if barbequed on Laslo’s Weber in his backyard. The crisp lettuce could easily have been picked in his garden, the home-made mustard straight from his pantry, the aioli whipped up on the kitchen blender. Maybe less ambitious than other burgers, the Mill Street version is still an ultra-satisfying treat, by far the most All-American of any in our 2017 survey. 

9th. “Cheeseburger,” The Spread, South Norwalk

The name may not be fancy, but Chef Carlos Baez’s “Cheeseburger” tastes very luxe. Typical of Baez and The Spread.

In addition to the melted Cheddar topping, the sandwich features a half pound of a Kobe grind, layered with two strips of bacon, and a spiced mayonnaise sauce, accented by pickles. For even more kick, I ordered the optional Jalapeño peppers, all ingredients cuddled within a sesame seed bun.

As I do with all burgers, I cut the “Cheeseburger” in half, first to check the color of the grind before biting in. The Kobe gleamed pink and red, encircled by a hearty crust. I prepared to chomp into the middle, so as to taste all the ingredients and their relationships in my very first sampling. If you start on the outer edge, the proportions are usually off.  My first bite confirmed the ratios of bread, toppings, and meat were almost perfect, the cheese accenting the grassy kobe, the bacon lending salt and smoke, the dressing adding spice, the pickles tang,  the peppers heat, and the bun a nutty fluff.  The humble Cheeseburger, elevated by a master chef. 

10th. “Dry Aged Burger.” Elm, New Canaan

The menu reads “Double Double, Animal Style,” Chef Luke Venner’s homage to the West Coast In-N-Out Burger. Their secret “Animal Style” hamburger goes unlisted on the menu, but remains an open secret to the fast food chain’s cult following. Unfortunately, I consider their burgers the most overrated in America. Fortunately, Venner’s interpretation is a voluptuous upgrade. 

“Double Double” refers to the two paddies of grass fed LaFrieda blend that came to the table plump, crusted and perfectly red-pink. “Animal Style” alludes to the unique house sauce, which like its West Coast counterpart, is a style of Russian dressing drizzled with mustard. Venner adds his own touch by sautéing the sauce with caramelized onion. A Swiss melting cheese contributes even more creaminess; and the chef finishes his burger with tomato, kohlrabi, and lettuce for added crunch and complexity. This juicy tower of food is stacked high within a sesame brioche roll.

It’s a banquet in a bun. And therein lies the problem.  After three luscious bites, the bun fell apart in my hands. Too much juicy cargo. I finished the sandwich with a knife, fork, and multiple napkins. Verdict: mouthwatering but a potential mess. New Canaan is not zoned for High Rises.

HONORABLE MENTION. The Deconstructed “VT Burger,” Village Tavern, Ridgefield

While there may be better burgers in the region, no one can match the presentation conceived by the new Village Tavern. The burger is deconstructed on a personal wood slab: a grass-fed cheese paddy nestled in a brioche bun sits alongside all the condiments, sauces and sides. The taken-apart production is fun and fetching, and the build-back burger tastes quite good, just not Top Ten Great. 

The kitchen uses an actual branding iron to burn the “VT” atop the homemade bun.  (The initials stand for Village Tavern, not Vermont. “Initially” confusing -- because the presentation board is shaped like Connecticut.)