Sawyer

The Place
Sawyer
3709 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
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If you asked someone with little or no knowledge of Los Angeles to describe Sunday brunch here, she might paint a picture that looks a lot like Sawyer.  Sunlight would stream through a constantly open window fronting Sunset Boulevard, filling the place with golden warmth.  It would splash onto the face of the bright bar whose tiles evoke what you might find in the breezy colonnade of a Mediterranean – or maybe Aegean? – villa.  To heighten the charm of it all, there would be a snug little patio out back, with a few tables, a fireplace, strings of unlit lights (“You should see them at dinner,” the host assures us).

That impossibly bright sunlight would bathe the crowd of diners, all trying very hard to look as if they weren’t trying hard.  The men would sit, NIck Fouquet hats balanced on golden locks, henleys unbuttoned to there, draining Peroni from glasses that look too much like jars.  Across from them would be ladies in vintage everything, wrists cocked, a glass of rosé balanced just so in their hands, nursing avocado toast with whisper thin discs of radish scattered atop.  Everyone would be wearing sunglasses.  Everyone would be beautiful.

The food would be typical Los Angeles brunch fare: the aforementioned ubiquitous avocado toast.  Something with quinoa and kale.  Mexican inspired items (here, shrimp tacos and a breakfast burrito).  Chicken and waffles.  A breakfast sandwich.  And, of course, a burger.

Granted, this person might not know to paint Kelsey and me into her picture.  Unless, I suppose, she envisioned Los Angeles as a place where wonderful girls like Kelsey voluntarily spend their birthday with burger-obsessed nerds.  In which case, perhaps you’d find us painted into that idyllic scene right where we were today, at a corner table relishing the superlative people-watching Silver Lake generally (and Sawyer specifically) has on offer, and discussing whether Fear of God jeans would be worth the investment (the verdict: likely not), and contemplating the finer points of the Sawyer Burger.

The Order: Sawyer Burger (added bacon and avocado)

The Price: $18 ($14 base, optional additions (sunny side up egg, bacon, and/or avocado) $2 each)

The Burger
First, a quick overview of the presentation: between seeded rolls is a hefty patty, cooked medium (per our server’s recommendation) and thinly filmed with Grafton cheddar.  The meat sits atop a single piece of lettuce about the size of a catalpa leaf. On top of the patty is a splash of tomato relish that looks like it came off the end of Jackson Pollock’s brush.  The bacon and avocado were added last.

It’s the kind of burger you might expect from a restaurant focused on seafood.  That’s not really a ringing endorsement off the bat, I realize, but for what it’s worth, it’s more a comment on the approach to this dish than it is one on its quality.

The patty is the burger’s greatest weakness.  The seasoning was ham-fisted, unsophisticated, and excessive, creating a constant peppery undercurrent to every bite that was more annoying than charming (probably because of the lack of a subtle complementary flavor).  The texture of the beef might perhaps best be characterized as “unsettling.”  It’s hard to describe, but also decidedly…well, wrong.  Whereas one might expect a beef patty to have a certain coarse crumble to it, Sawyer’s patty had an off-putting, sticky coherence to it.  When cut, the patty looked – and tasted – downright raw in some places.

The cheddar may as well not have been there.  Indeed, I almost forgot it had been included in the first instance as I ate it.  It added no texture, no taste, no contrast, nothing.  A true disappointment, especially considering the excellent Vermont cheese on offer.  The lettuce was unwieldy and far too large, seemingly there more for artistic reasons than culinary ones.  The bun was a soggy, tasteless mess, soaked before I even took a bite, and disintegrating like Lot’s wife once I laid hands on it.

The tomato relish was a theoretically interesting presentation, but based on the taste, I suspect that “relish” is being used more as an impressive label than a reflection of reality.  It was pulverized tomato, a halfhearted, uninspired stew that merely impersonated a culinary flourish.  In point of fact, the relish did nothing but soak the buns into oblivion, making the whole enterprise much messier than it needed to be.  As even casual readers of this publication know (and yes, I’m indulging in the rank fiction that I may have another kind of reader), I’m not averse to getting my hands dirty, but it’s got to be in service of something.

Not to harp on it, but the relish really captures my sense that this burger was a seafood restaurant’s burger.  Relishes, often work on fish as a means by which to complement the flaky, buttery flesh of the catch (as a trip to basically any hotel restaurant in Hawai’i would prove conclusively), but they’re less inherently at home on a burger.  Burgers generally benefit from the presence of a true sauce.  If you’re going to add a relish or a jam, fine, but it should have a purpose that comes across in every bite.  This slurried, nascent pico de gallo did not achieve that.

This burger is not without positives.  Like so many college electives, the bacon and avocado were the most pleasant aspects of this experience, largely because they were the least challenging.  The former was thick and savory, cooked to a pleasant, succulent crisp.  The wedges of avocado were rich and buttery, playing well – if predictably – with the bacon.  But again, these garnishes stood largely alone.  And it’s telling that the optional elements of the burger were its strongest elements.

Another issue is the sheer structure of this dish.  It is so large, so unwieldy, that I never at any point got a bite with all the ingredients in it.  In addition to being frustrating, it makes the burger an incoherent experiential jumble with no real arc.  I daresay, $18 is quite a dear sum to fork over for such a burger like this, which is as poorly conceived as it is executed.

I’m not saying a seafood restaurant can’t make a good burger.  I am sort of saying that you can’t approach a burger like you’d approach seafood, and just hope that you can let people throw some bacon and avocado on it and forgive all your sins.  The team at Sawyer has created a burger in a Mahi Mahi fillet’s body.  Idyllic atmosphere aside, this burger is a miss.  Come for the ambience, maybe stay for the smoked trout salad?  This is, after all, a seafood restaurant.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.00 / 10.00
Value: 6.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.10 / 10.00
Bun: 6.80 / 10.00
Patty: 5.10 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.90 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.00 / 10.00
Balance: 5.00 / 10.00

Total: 66.30 / 100.00

Ashland Hill

IMG_3219Two things will occur to you immediately when you walk into Ashland Hill. First, you likely will think something to the effect of, “How am I going to get a seat at this place?” Seating at Ashland Hill approaches Father’s Official levels of maddening awkwardness. After hovering like a stalker for twenty to thirty minutes around a group of hipster-y, Venice-y surf nerds (who, parenthetically, are engaging in a troubling amount of PDA), you eventually notice another group of people get up, and you bolt over to grab their vacated table like it’s the golden snitch.

The next thing you note is a mural over the far end of the patio. It appears to be Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Next to Humphrey and Lauren is a Raymond Chandler quote: “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.” Egregious hanging prepositions aside (Shame on you, Ray; and shame on you, Ashland Hill, for memorializing such deviant grammatical practices on your walls), it isn’t immediately (or subsequently) clear whether that’s a tip of the cap to Santa Monica, or an oblique indication that going to Ashland Hill is the brand of bad habit to which Santa Monica is so happily conducive. But I guess that’s neither here nor there.

Otherwise, Bradley Miller’s spot is pretty much what you’d expect. It’s appropriately trendy for a beer garden located in that soft space where Santa Monica starts to melt into Venice. The hostess is sweet but superfluous (she doesn’t seat you; she merely explains the fact that sitting and eating at that restaurant is a logistical clustercuss). The service is competent and unobtrusive. The food comes out fast. The staff are friendly enough that you have a perfectly pleasant experience, but not so friendly as to allow you to forget that they’re way cooler than you. The clientele oozes practiced quirkiness.

Regardless of all that ballyhoo, this much is certain: There are many places in Santa Monica the Project is slated to try. Ashland Hill generated more excitement among the locals than most of them. So on Wolf’s last night in town, he, Alexandra, Rumi, Megan, and I went to see what all the fuss was about.

The Place
Ashland Hill
2807 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405

The Order: Ashland Hill Burger, medium rare (herb and parmesan fries included)

The Price: $17 (before tax)

The Burger
It seems pretty clear that Ashland Hill was looking to do something a bit different here. There are a lot of singular flavors here, and they interact in novel ways. The best way to understand it, I think, will be for me to describe the individual pieces, and then talk about one interaction that stuck with me.

First, there’s the meat. Ashland Hill employs a strange pressing technique. I don’t know what it is, but the patty is texturally and structurally distinct from any other burger I’ve ever had. In the first place, it’s coarse. But more notably (and kind of relatedly, actually), the patty seems to fall apart – not melt, but actually crumble – as you eat it. And that seems intentional.

It’s weird, but it works. You bite into the burger, and the patty kind of fragments in your mouth as you eat. It’s very strange, but it also exposes a larger surface area of meat to your mouth, which can never be a bad thing. The result? You really taste the beef, even through all the other ingredients. The patty is topped with a thick melted slab of what is advertised as sharp white cheddar cheese (but which is, in point of fact, quite mild-mannered indeed), and it sits atop a bed of cool watercress, leafy and distantly peppery.

Next, there is the paprika aioli. It is a bright, burnt orange, adding a nice burst of color. The sunny, dusty, spicy flavor of paprika is very present, even through the eggy base of the sauce. Though it isn’t half bad, the aioli is probably the most confusing part of the burger, if I’m being honest. But more on that in a hot minute.

I suspect Ashland Hill is proudest of the bacon and red onion jam that coats the patty (or they should be). It’s titanic. Chunks of bacon and onion hang suspended in a sweet, vaguely fruity matrix. Internally, this jam plays on the sweet-savory contrast, and serves a similar role within the context of the entire burger (on balance it’s sweet, so in its capacity as a topping, it complements the other savory components). It also adds an interesting textural subtlety to the burger.

Yeah, this is some rococo shit.

By far the most important interaction in the burger is that between the jam and the aioli. While I’m hesitant to call it a flaw, I conclusively can say the decision to include both didn’t make a ton of sense to me. The flavors butted heads, because the paprika couldn’t coexist peacefully with the sweet little ropes of onion or the bricks of bacon. It’s not entirely clear why the aioli needed to be a paprika aioli as opposed to…anything else.

Using multiple sauces – or sauce analogues, like jams or relishes – is a risky proposition. It demands careful balancing and perfect proportioning. While the sauces on this burger seem to have been conceived really carefully, it’s less clear that the decision to put them together was as well thought-out. Ultimately, they get in each others’ way. For my money, I’d ditch the aioli altogether. Luckily, that’s an option; modifications are welcome, and they’ll happily hold the aioli.

That minor balancing gripe aside, this is a good burger. The beef is good and well-assembled. The ingredients are fresh and well prepared. The bun is eggy, rich, and hardy. It holds up well to the substantial slab of meat it’s tasked to contain, and supplies its share of flavor without being too intrusive. The only other complaint, then, is that it’s really expensive. At seventeen bucks, it’ll put a dent in your wallet. That said, it’s a huge meal. I came hungry and ate half of mine (for reference, Wolf came feeling normal and demolished his inside of ten minutes. For further reference, he’s very manly and I am less manly). And it comes with (decent but thoroughly uninspiring) herb and parmesan fries. So it’s expensive, but not utterly unjustifiable.

All told, if you don’t mind braving the seating nightmare, taking the financial hit, and holding the aioli, Ashland Hill has a pretty good, if slightly baroque, burger for you.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 5.50 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 9.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 6.70 / 10.00

Total: 83.60 / 100.00