I think about judgment day a lot. Call it the end of the world, or the apocalypse, or whatever you want. I think about it. I think about when fire and brimstone rain down heavy and hot from skies that split like the seam of a too-small blazer. When it turns out the Old Testament was right. When God gets sick of all our shit and exacts vengeance on us for our innumerable sins. When we all find out that we were fools to be cynical and supercilious. When the joke, as it happens, was on us all along. When it doesn’t matter whether we’ve found God, because he finds us. When it doesn’t matter what we believe. When nothing matters but the lives we’ve led.
When that day of reckoning comes, I hope I’m sitting at Redbird with the tar-black summer sky above me, a meal settling, the cold sting of a scotch and sherry cocktail lingering on my lips, waiting for my pavlova to arrive. That’s not because Redbird is the best restaurant in this city, or even the fanciest. It’s not because Neal Fraser is the best chef in the city (though he must be in any conversation on the topic). But I can’t think of a better place to face the apocalypse (leaving aside the delicious irony of being condemned to an eternity alongside Dante’s most wanted while sitting in a repurposed rectory).
See, when it all ends, I want to be somewhere beautiful, and I want to be doing something delightful. Redbird is the most beautiful place to eat in Los Angeles. Bar none. It also is one of the ten best restaurants in this city. Its décor is as eclectic as its menu, which in turn is as eclectic as Los Angeles. Fraser presents crudo with bright wedges of citrus and an adobe-red dusting of peppery togarashi; delicate, crisped slabs of Wyoming trout; a symphonic barbecued tofu (which, by the way, is dream-hauntingly good – better even than Sang Yoon’s resplendent chicory-coffee barbecue sauce-bathed Kurobuta pork ribs at Lukshon – whether or not you like tofu). And he presents them all with such easy familiarity that you’ll forget how weird it is to find them all on the same menu. Just like Los Angeles, in which so many different cultures and kinds live side by side. It’s curated chaos, but to those of us who have been fortunate enough to really come to know it, its splendor is difficult to match. The perfect place to watch it all end.
Wednesday was not the apocalypse, so Bret and I settled for lunch at Redbird. It’s a perfect option for those who ache for a longer intermissio from the raw grind of the work day. Fraser offers a slightly abbreviated version of his menu, including a prix fixe for the indecisive and slightly profligate, and a burger for … well, not least for the man who writes about burgers.
The Order: Prime Burger
The Price: $18
This might be the burger for the end times. See, if you happen to be jonesing for a burger when the fabric of the earth falls away and reveals the roiling inferno that lies behind it all, you won’t have time to let the marrow melt, or caramelize the onions, or pull any other high-cuisine moves. You’ll have time to throw together a few ingredients – whatever is at hand – into the last burger you’ll ever eat. Now, having said that, it’s the last burger you’ll ever eat. And you’ll be damned if you’ll let it be pedestrian. Even at the end of the world, you’ll have to compromise, to balance countervailing interests.
The Prime Burger at Redbird manages that. It is spartan in an indulgent kind of way, deceptively complex, intensely flavorful but stripped of pretense and unnecessary ornamentation. This feels like the burger chefs will make when there is no one left to cook for. If Howard Roark spent his life behind a grill instead of a drafting table, he would have aspired to create this burger. It is the product of passion and craft. Every ingredient serves a purpose. Nothing is out of place. The fact that it’s a crowd-pleaser? That’s merely an externality.
The patty is pure Fraser: massive, marbled, loosely packed, pink and bloody. It might be overwhelming, I guess, were it executed with anything less than perfect mastery. But this is Neal Fraser, so it’s executed with nothing less than perfect mastery. The remoulade is piquant, tart, and generously portioned (and why not? You’ll want an extra scoop of sauce when the apocalypse is impending). This sauce is a beautiful, rich, indulgent complement to the sumptuous, almost buttery, beef. Aged cheddar drips like sap, so slowly that it forms an amorphous tendon that seems to connect patty to plate. It’s creamy and thick, with a distant whispering sharpness. There is a chile relish that adds a smoky sweetness (but almost no heat), and extra pickles to add more zip if you want them.
The bun is the burger’s weakest part. A too-dry, too-thick brioche, it tasted a day old and was a bit too imposing for this burger. The dryness of the thing wasn’t helped by the fact that it was flaked with sea salt. It’s a noticeable imperfection, but the rest of the flavors are bold enough to compensate for it. In the end, the burger hangs together impressively well in spite of a disappointing bun. Besides, when judgment day comes, you probably won’t be too picky about the bun on your burger.
In case it isn’t abundantly clear, I liked this burger very much. It’s big and brash, but is ultimately memorable for its relative simplicity. It’s a really well-prepared, thoughtful offering. It manages to achieve simultaneously simplicity and complexity, boldness and subtlety, immediacy and depth. It’s a great burger. Don’t wait until the end of the world to try it.
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 7.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.30 / 10.00
Bun: 6.80 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Balance: 9.30 / 10.00
Total: 88.20 / 100.00