Here at BurgerBusiness.com, restaurant award nominees traditionally are greeted with “Congratulations. But do you make a good burger?” Myopic? Yes; great, isn’t it? So now we ask it of the 29 restaurants honored by the James Beard Foundation as semi-finalists for the 2012 Best New Restaurant award.
This may seem an unfair question to put to a restaurant such as Pondicheri in Houston, which serves “classic, home style and street foods of India.” But, in fact, Chef Anita Jaisinghani laps the field by preparing not one but three interesting burgers. Don’t tell me your last burger had onion masala on it. Chef Jaisinghani puts it on Pondicheri’s $10 Lamb Mint Burger along with house-made cheese spread and green chutney. There’s also a Fish Masala Burger ($12) with pan-seared seasonal fish, coconut chutney and pickled onions. Third is a Tandoori Chicken Burger ($10) with sliced and sautéed tandoori chicken and onion, cumin yogurt and cherry tomato.
If an Indian street-food concept finds a place for a burger, is there a reason every other restaurant can’t do the same? Apparently yes, since only 11 of the 29 nominees currently menu burgers. That’s fine, of course. But let’s salute the burgers on the menus of the other 10:
►The Macintosh, Charleston, S.C.: Chef Jeremiah Bacon gets to jump to the top of this otherwise-alphabetical list not only because of his name but also because while The Macintosh dinner menu changes daily, his Mac Burger is always available. It’s the constant in a changing world. The Mac is an 8-oz. house-ground patty on a bun from a local bakery (Fabrice’s) with aged Cheddar and Neuske bacon. Pecorino-truffle fries are on the side.
►AQ, San Francisco: Yes, $18 is a lot for a burger, even a house-named one like the AQ Burger. It’s served only for brunch and is topped with farmstead tomme cheese, frisée and smoked-tomato ketchup.
►Bistronomic, Chicago: A “modern take on a classic bistro,” Bistronomic and Chef Martial Noguier understand that burgers have modernity. The $14 Bistronomic Burger is simple and savory with Cheddar, bacon and shallot marmalade.
►Fiola, Washington, D.C.: Famed Chef Fabio Trabocchi understands the Pondicheri Maxim that every menu has a place for a good burger. His is found between the grilled branzino with oysters, leeks and lemons, and the pheasant with rosemary. His Fiola BLT Beef Burger offers overlayed flavors of Provolone cheese, pancetta and tomatoes ($17). Fries? Of course.
►Harvest, Louisville, Ky.: Harvest is a self-described “gathering place that celebrates the farmers who grow what we eat.” The food is fresh, local and seasonal. So seasonal, in fact, that a changing “seasonal house-made condiment” can be ordered with the house burger for an additional 50¢. That $12 burger already is served with chevre, lettuce and hog-jowl bacon jam on a pretzel bun. Side options include three-cheese grits, braised greens, potato chips, spicy basil slaw and herb-Dijon potato salad.
►Ollie Irene, Mountain Brook, Ala.: I’d have liked to have met Chef-owner Chris Newsome’s grandmother for whom Ollie Irene is named if the Ollie Burger is her recipe. On top: mild blue cheese and bourbon onions and a house-made bun with house bread & butter pickles. On the side: Pub fries. $15.
►Park Tavern, San Francisco: Does Anna Weinberg and Jennifer Puccio’s “upscale American tavern” have an upscale American burger? Yep, adopted from the duo’s popular Marlowe restaurant across town. The Marlowe Burger is $14, which gets you caramelized onion, Cheddar, bacon and horseradish aïoli. Fries.
►Petite Jacqueline, Portland, Maine: Yet another bistro, this from Chef Michelle Corry in that other Portland. The brunch menu has a fine Bistro Burger. Priced at $12, it has caramelized onion, Gruyere and aïoli. Fries? Oui.
►Trade, Boston: Respected Chef Jody Adams gets casual with Trade, but she doesn’t forget the burger. Her house Trade Burger is available on both lunch and dinner menus ($15 at lunch, $16 dinner), topped with pancetta, Vermont Cheddar and grilled onion.
►Tremont, New York City: Three friends from Cleveland make it big in the West Village. On the lunch and brunch menus, the Tremont Burger has caramelized onions and aged Cheddar. At the bar, it gets fois gras onions and aged Gruyere. Each is $16 and is missing fries.
For a complete list of semi-finalists for the 2012 James Beard Foundation Best New Restaurant award, go here.