Lest it be heard that I have insular tendencies, I have ventured – in these months of unstructured leisure between the bar exam and the proper beginning of my gainful employ – to explore other parts of the country. The next few posts to follow (and a few more later in the month) will trace my travels in the Far East.
Let’s get one thing out early: If you haven’t been to Philadelphia, you absolutely should go. This is one of the most surprising cities I’ve yet been to. It’s got the charm of Charleston without the silent-but-way-real stigma against interracial dating. It’s got the brick-lined bustle of Brooklyn without the impenetrable cloud of self-congratulation. And if you do go, you should be so lucky as to have tour guides as enchanting as mine – none other than the incomparable Kevin and Rumi.
The first stop was Parc, a Parisian belle epoque revival shop by Stephen Starr, who apparently owns, I don’t know, every restaurant in Philadelphia? Okay, that’s not true, but he owns twelve. Plus two satellites (Morimoto and Buddakan) in the meatpacking district in New York. It’s all disgustingly hip. Anyway, Parc. Tables lined the street, overlooking scenic Rittenhouse Square. Far-flung from the bustle of New York, you could almost hear yourself think.
The three of us stopped for lunch at this picturesque spot. I ordered a burger. Because after all, what do Americans do at charming French restaurants? We order cheeseburgers, damn it. So I’ll tell you about the one I ate, while resisting the temptation to replace every “f” with a “ph”. One thing’s phor certain: It’ll be a stiph challenge!
Okay, I won’t do that anymore.
227 South 18th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
The Order: Cheeseburger
The Price: $16.00
Philly’s first offering was a simple one: a pretty substantial patty (our waiter was too busy having a rad man-bun and wearing rad sunglasses and being rad to tell me anything about the composition of the patty besides, “It’s ground beef”) was wrapped in a bubbling cloak of raclette cheese (raclette, a semi-hard melting cheese, is known for its nutty acidity – imagine a softer, oilier gruyère, and you’ve got the basic idea). In the center of this cheese-coated disc sat a tangled mound of caramelized onions.
There was no sauce, save for the ketchup on the side. This seemed a conscious attempt to bring the interaction between the beef and the cheese to center stage. The onions played a largely supporting role here, offering a faint glimmer of sweetness that peeked out coyly from behind sharp bitterness. The beef was juicy and rich enough, cooked to a timidly pink medium-rare. There is no taste of grill here, which, along with the raclette, reflects the ultimately tragically French sensibilities that doom this burger to mediocrity.
At the risk of getting a little too “big picture” here, the best burgers stand out in part because they balance ingredients so well. These ingredients seem like they were put together for all the wrong reasons. Here’s how I imagine the composition of this burger going down:
“Okay, everyone, this is a restaurant in Philadelphia. We need a burger.”
“But it’s a French restaurant…isn’t a burger a little incongruous?”
“Hmm. Interesting point. What if we put a bunch of French-sounding shit on it?”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s smart. Maybe, like, French onions?”
“Exactly. That’s a good idea because it has the word French in it. What about cheese?”
“I don’t know. How about raclette? That’s the Frenchest-sounding cheese I know.”
“Hmm. Maybe. But, to be fair, I said raclette first.”
“Yeah…that’s a really good point. Let’s do that. Okay, what else?”
“I don’t know. I just googled ‘French sounding food’ and didn’t come up with anything.”
“Shit. Oh well, that’s probably good enough. Great work today.”
My point is that this burger is less a carefully constructed synthesis of cooperative ingredients and more a menagerie of things that sound like they’re “French” (leaving aside is that raclette isn’t French). It doesn’t require culinary training to intuit that a burger needs more than meat, onions, and cheese to pass muster. Not to sound jingoistic, but there are some things that are uniquely American – and uniquely un-French. If Parc is any indication, the cheeseburger may be one of them.
Flavor: 6.90 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.40 / 10.00
Value: 5.50 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.30 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.10 / 10.00
Bun: 8.50 / 10.00
Patty: 8.50 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 0.00 / 10.00
Balance: 6.80 / 10.00
Total: 64.70 / 100.00