Redbird

IMG_1334
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

The Burger
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.

The Ratings
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

Miro

The Place
image
Miro

888 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90017

Reservations: 213.988.8880
Bar: Full bar (plus this…gracious)

The weird thing about modern urban renaissances – well, one of the weird things – is that they all have an inflection point.  Before that point, things are cheap, and gems are hard to find.  And while it’s never entirely clear precisely when a given neighborhood reaches that point, after it is reached it matters less how good your chilaquiles or fatty tuna or octopus salad or burger or whatever is, and more how good your relationship with your investors is.  Take Ari Taymor’s iconic and beloved Alma: shuttered in spite of fawning praise from critics and customers alike.

I don’t mean to hate on rich folks funding restaurants (to the contrary – keep them coming), but even the most successful restaurateurs have their ups and downs.  What’s more, when investors define a restaurant’s identity, sometimes the focus can shift from the meat to marketing.  When image starts to trump the product on the plate, places run into trouble.  This tends to happen more as neighborhoods gentrify and it becomes harder for people to open restaurants without investor backing.  Tricky business.

Which brings us to Miro, an aggressively trendy new restaurant, which seems to cater to downtown power brokers who yearn to be farm-to-table foodies.  Reclaimed wood abounds, the servers have hair and vests pulled straight from the roaring 20s, and the menu is a sprawling exploration of current food scene obsessions.  Don’t have time to get the crudo at Wolf and the house-cured charcuterie at Chi Spacca?  Can’t pencil in time for craft cocktails at The Fiscal Agent and garganelli at Union?  Not a moment to spare for biscuits at the Hart and the Hunter and the pork chop at Salt’s Cure?  No problem – come to Miro and get it all.  To call it the refuge of the dilettante might be a little harsh (especially in light of the fact that it has the best whiskey bar in California, which is a connoisseur’s paradise), but it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either.

Anyway, one entry on Miro’s – ahem – *diverse* menu was a burger.  Johnny and I took some summer associates for lunch, and I tried it on the firm’s dime.  Is Miro the first sign that Downtown Los Angeles has passed its inflection point?

The Order: Grass-fed burger

The Price: $15

The Burger
The burger really embodies what Miro is trying to do – for better and worse.  Onion jam and bacon (made in-house!) are ostensible pride points, but they are lost in the shuffle.  You may detect a whisper of one or the other amid the bitter, charred swirl of the flavor profile, but only just a whisper, and it will not overwhelm you.  The bacon was cut thick into slabs, fatty and without taste.  The onion jam was so difficult to detect that I’m not even certain it was there at all.  Same with the aioli and cheese, while we’re on the topic.  Much of what is on this burger is swallowed by two ingredients: the arugula and the beef.

The grass-fed patty is well-intentioned but overcooked.  It’s big enough; easily a third of a pound, and with a promising, estimably charred crust.  But it is cooked well past medium until brittle and bland.  There is some residual juice left to keep things from getting too dry, but unfortunately, the final product is even less flavorful than the grass on which the poor cow subsisted.  To cook a patty that much, you have to justify it with a blend of meats.  Miro failed to do so, leaving us with little more than fancied up chuck, which doesn’t forgive overcooking.

Grass-fed though the patty may have been, the fine folks in the kitchen at Miro seem to have felt it was starved for roughage.  At least, that’s the most plausible explanation for the Chugach-worth of arugula (one supposes, a ham-fisted tip of the cap to Father’s Office) asymmetrically heaped atop the patty.  It spills out of one end of the bun like a Kardashian out of an Herve Leger dress that’s one size too small, and is barely present at all on the other end.  If all it did was add a (too-heavy) dose of  fresh bitterness to the burger, it wouldn’t be so bad.  But in this case, it masked the remainder of the flavors at work, obfuscating an otherwise intriguing suite of ingredients.

So you won’t taste the subtle interplay between still-melting cheese and bacon drippings.  You won’t taste the sweet matrix of onion jam flirting with the creamy aioli.  You won’t even get to enjoy how the delicious – if slightly dry – bun holds it all together.  You’ll get overcooked meat and an impenetrable thicket of arugula.  For all this burger’s ambitions, it winds up being a poorly executed, unbalanced affair, where the two most pedestrian ingredients outshine the more interesting – though, admittedly, a bit try-hard – additions.

The burger reflects the restaurant that serves it.  A lot of sizzle without much steak.  Miro is swanky, modern, eclectic, and has all the features you’d expect to find in a trendy, delicious restaurant.  Similarly, the burger looks great and features a slew of really of-the-moment ingredients.  Ultimately, though, it just doesn’t deliver.  It looks better than it is.  It’s too trendy for its own good.  It puts image above execution. Is this a portent of things to come in Downtown? Hopefully and probably not.  But it’s hardly encouraging.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 6.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.50 / 10.00
Value: 5.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.40 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.00 / 10.00
Balance: 6.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.90 / 100.00 

The Top Ten (April 12, 2016)

I haven’t updated this list since October, and there has been considerable shake-up since then.  At the risk of being behind the times, here are the top ten burgers I’ve written about so far.

  1. Burgerlords (93.20 / 100.00)
  2. In-N-Out (93.00 / 100.00)
  3. The Bowery (91.90 / 100.00)
  4. Super Burger (90.00 / 100.00)
  5. Plan Check Kitchen + Bar (89.80 / 100.00)
  6. Dudley Market (88.90 / 100.00)
  7. The Flintridge Proper (88.70 / 100.00)
  8. Republique (88.20 / 100.00)
  9. TIE: ERB and Badmaash (88.10 / 100.00)

Stay tuned, clearly.  More changes are basically a sure thing.  After all, as you may have read on the label of a pair of Volcom Stone pants you had in sixth grade, “The Only Constant Is Change.”

ERB

The Place
Everson Royce Bar (ERB)
1936 7th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90021

I knew Everson Royce as a liquor store in Pasadena with a pretty good selection of whiskey and (apparently) a considerably better selection of wine. Today, it’s grown up into one of the trendiest bars in one of the trendiest neighborhoods (mine, incidentally – NBD but KBD) in Los Angeles. The façade is spartan: bare neon lights, buzzing, form the word “BAR” in white capitals. To the right of the threshold, a simple goal plaque bears the name of the bar and the year of its establishment — 2015.

Mozzaplex alumnus Matt Molina is the mind behind ERB’s menu. After a weirdly sudden (but evidently, not acrimonious) departure from the Mozza empire, Molina came here, to a scaled down bar-restaurant concept that is much less in the “high cuisine” category. From a tasteful mid-city icon with a voluminous wine list to a buzzing hipster hive with a menu section dedicated to boilermakers? Welcome to L.A.

Anyway, this burger has earned some pretty considerable hype. Nikhil, Bret, Shawn, and I went to give it a try.

The Order: Single Burger

The Price: $10

The Burger
Molina keeps it simple. The bun is buttered brioche. The patty is prime beef chuck overrun by decadent, soupy Tillamook that is something in between a topping and a sauce. There’s a thin film of a bright garlic aioli under the patty. It’s accompanied by a few wedges of dill pickle. All of the ingredients are expertly assembled and beautifully complementary. Operating at the curious nexus of minimalism and decadence, this burger is a surprising and satisfying offering.

The sweetness of the just-browned bun finishes with round notes of toasted butter that sidle up against the milky, sharp cheese before melting into the hardy, uncomplicated savor of the chuck. The aioli peeks out intermittently, not intrusive, but allowing it’s presence to be felt, and adding a subtle spark of creamy sharpness.

This might come as a surprise, but I won’t complain about the lack of toppings. There’s enough complexity in play here to keep your palate occupied from bite to bite. But when you offer a barebones presentation like this, it’s important not to cut corners on quality. Molina’s burger sidesteps the skimping issues that make Eggslut‘s burger a frustrating endeavor. The patty here is substantial enough to satisfy. The problem is in meat quality. For such a meat-centric offering, Molina asks a lot out of straight chuck. A more subtle – and yeah, maybe more indulgent – patty construction would have gone a long way towards making this burger something really special. You know, that or a few orders off the boilermaker menu.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 8.70 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.10 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.70 / 10.00
Patty: 7.80 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.30 / 10.00

Total: 88.10 / 100.00