Love & Salt

The Place
Love & Salt
317 Manhattan Beach Boulevard
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266

Love & Salt
You probably can’t live in Manhattan Beach.  The prices are too high; the lifestyle is too idyllically Californian; the people are too beautiful for their age; the parking is too scarce.  Most importantly, perhaps, the quality restaurants are too few.  While higher dining options exist – M.B. Post, Fishing With Dynamite, and the subject of this review, Love & Salt – the culinary scene in Manhattan Beach would perhaps most aptly be characterized as “family friendly.”  Perfect if you like Pitfire Pizza, less so if your preferences skew toward street food, fusion or small plates.

But Manhattan Beach really does encapsulate the Southern California lifestyle, or at least what many people outside Southern California would imagine our lifestyle to be.  It’s mostly white, mostly rich, mostly sunny, mostly upscale, mostly clean, mostly successful, and mostly USC alumni.  It exemplifies the relaxed affluence that is more closely associated with Southern California than with anywhere else.  You’ll spot an off-puttingly muscular forty-something year old man strolling down Manhattan Beach Boulevard with impossibly adorable children, his bronze arms bursting from Rip Curl t-shirts, salt-and-pepper hair cut close, smiling through his Maui Jim sunglasses at the cards life dealt him.  And just when you think you might live a life like his one day, you see the glint of the alabaster dial on his $20,000 watch as it catches the sun just so, and you’ll remember that this is not your place.

In spite of being inaccessible, though, I can’t shake the feeling whenever I’m in Manhattan Beach that there’s something missing there (besides minorities, I mean).  It’s a city that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.  It’s beachy, it’s Californian, there’s a Marine Layer, and the schools are top-notch, sure, but it feels fundamentally anti-urban.  It’s oddly devoid of genuine culture.  It’s an ecosystem, not a city.

If you’re looking for a B(a)esha Rodell-approved break from the blocks upon blocks of suburban ennui (and you are lucky enough to find a parking spot), you might stop in at Michael Fiorelli’s Love & Salt.  Chef Michael Fiorelli’s food is described by the restaurant as Italian-inspired, but “with a California soul.”  It may be that soul animating the splash of salsa verde on the grilled octopus, or (depending on how forgiving you feel) the presence of gluten-free pasta.  Good-natured ribbing aside, the food here is good.  The cocktails are excellent as well.  It may not be the most innovative menu in the world, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.

One item for which Love & Salt has become quietly regarded is a burger, which was inspired neither by Italy nor the restaurant’s soul, but rather by a particularly intransigent regular customer who persisted in ordering a burger in spite of there not being one on the menu.  Chef Fiorelli finally relented and, using what ingredients he had on hand, he served what is now known as the Downlow Burger.  It recently received sterling plaudits from local tastemakers, so I predictably felt compelled to sample it.  In the spirit of its origins, the Downlow Burger remains off the menu (as in, on the down low) at dinner, but they make a limited run of twelve per day during weekend brunch.  Calling ahead to request a set-aside is advisable.  Kelsey, Kristen, Tristan and I did just that, and took in a Saturday brunch there.

The Order: the Downlow Burger

The Price: $16

The Burger
The Downlow Burger consists of two substantial black angus beef patties, fontina cheese, caramelized onions, housemade pickles, and a tomato aioli, all on brioche.  Probably the highest praise I can heap on this burger is that it presents like a cousin of Petit Trois.  It’s a saucy, paradoxical thing: minimalistic but indulgent, familiar but challenging, understated but brazen.  Like Ludo’s masterwork, it eschews typical garnishment in favor of fewer, bolder flavors, assembled purposefully to complement one another.

The beef is the anchor, and though it was overcooked (and therefore a touch gritty), it was juicy and bursting with savor that stabilized every bite.  The fontina cheese added a lightly botanical quality, while its fruit and nut notes seeped into the meat, giving it a subtle sweetness that interacted well with the caramelized onions, the residual tang of which, in turn, married nicely with the delicate sourness of the pickles.  The buns hold everything together, but don’t impress too much in their own right.

The really impressive choice here was the tomato aioli.  While the tomato flavor was the right call, ketchup would have been too ham-fisted, too obvious, too sharp, and it wouldn’t have fit in the context of this burger, which decidedly is aiming for gourmet status.  By presenting the tomato as an aioli, Fiorelli manages to present the right flavor, but with a softer touch.  It’s a really sophisticated, thoughtful, creative stroke, and it elevates this burger and preserves a balanced flavor profile.  It’s no bordelaise sauce mounted with foie gras, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 9.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.20 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.60 / 10.00

Total: 90.80 / 100.00

Meatzilla!

The Place
Meatzilla!
646 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90014

IMG_1507
Dip your toe into the internet musings about Meatzilla, and you likely will find yourself annoyed.  The exclamatory nomenclature.  The burger with a pepperoni pizza bun.  The unshakable feeling that everything about the place was conceived with a smirk.  Indeed, even without the deviant punctuation, the name itself is really an etude in hipster snark. There’s very little in the reportage about this place that would inspire any reasonable person to take it seriously.

Most of this stuff had escaped me when DJ, a partner in my office, told me he had it on good authority that Meatzilla made the best burger in Downtown Los Angeles.  Now, having waxed adoring on a different downtown burger myself, I felt predictably compelled to investigate.  So I headed over to Meatzilla with Bret and Greg.  It’s a shack on Main Street, a pretty barebones affair, with a cramped kitchen, a whiteboard menu, stacks of soda boxes filling a side doorway, and a playlist like a Tarantino soundtrack. If they’re trying to project the image of hustling newcomers just trying to make it, it’s coming off gangbusters.  Think Steinbeck repurposed for the Snapchat generation.  Okay, that might be overstating the point a bit, but you get the idea.

The Order: Beef! Beef!

The Price: $9.50

The Burger
The whole concept of the place may seem tongue-in-cheek and affected, but the fare on offer is far from it.  While there are some experimental items on the menu to be sure, Meatzilla is conceptually a purist’s burger joint, whose bread and butter is no-frills, beef-forward presentations redolent more of summer cookout than a hipster Thanksgiving.

The Beef! Beef!, for instance, features two absolutely mammoth patties with discs of housemade pickles about the diameter of a nickel laid sporadically on top, along with tangy white onion.  A thick primordial ooze of cheese – Muenster on one patty and American on the other – drips from the meat.  You might mistake it for a runny fried egg (which you can add, by the way, for a buck fifty).  A generous – but not excessive – helping of Sriracha ketchup films both buns.  And that’s it.  No lettuce, no tomato, none of the other standard garnishes.

The beef is flavorful and surprisingly not overwhelming.  It was a hair overcooked, and while that normally wouldn’t be an issue, when there’s this much beef, there’s a smaller margin for error.  The pickles were utterly exceptional though, perfectly sour and with a healthy snap to them.  The onions were similarly well integrated, soaked in ketchup, and smartly kept raw to add more crunch and tang to complement the massive amounts of beef.  The ketchup was not overpowering, offering a nice sweet-hot undertone to each bite without being too assertive.  The cheese was a coup: gooey, rich, and indulgent, it gave every bite a sumptuous, smooth warmth.

All these garnishes, though, were just complementary though.  While Burgerlords and In-N-Out seek to harmonize all the ingredients into a coherent, synthesized whole in which all the components cooperate to create something larger than the sum of its parts, Meatzilla is, true to its name, a beef-first and beef-last kind of enterprise.  If, at Burgerlords, the burger is an orchestra in which the meat is just one instrument, at Meatzilla, the beef is the soloist, with other instruments there to add color and texture, but never to command your attention.

So is this the best burger in Los Angeles?  I guess that depends.  This burger is not a work of art.  But I left my meal with a pretty clear understanding of why someone might fall in love with it.  If you think a burger should be an unapologetically beef-focused dish, Meatzilla will appeal to you.  They’re about beef.  Not about buns (though the bun holds up impressively here, even if it isn’t the most dynamic component of the burger), or garnishes, or balance, or anything else.  But beef.

What’s more, there’s a sentimentality inherent in this dish.  Meatzilla has the sort of unbalanced charm that will take you back to the backyard cookouts with friends you only distantly remember from a washed-out photograph.  The smell of the grill would waft over and intermix with the harsh scent of chlorinated water.  It’s the burger you ate before you cared that soda was bad for you.  It’s the burger you ate before you started obsessing over calorie counts and carbohydrates.  It’s the burger that would buckle a paper plate.  It’s the burger you ate before you became a well-heeled culinary connoisseur and forgot how to enjoy something unsophisticated.  It’s the burger you ate when you cared more that your food was fun rather than an immaculately curated art project, when it didn’t matter if a dish wasn’t a perfectly manicured harmony of flavors and textures.

The last word is that while it’s hard for me to say this is downtown’s best burger, it’s hard to argue it isn’t either.  It’s a strange, unsettled feeling I left with, but it’s a feeling that is pulling me back to Meatzilla for another visit.  Which, at bottom, is all that matters, I guess.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.60 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.50 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.90 / 10.00
Balance: 7.90 / 10.00

Total: 84.60 / 100.00

Errata: Cassell’s Hamburgers

There is a line in Sophocles’ Antigone that has stuck with me.  It is a scene in which Creon seeks Teiresias’ advice regarding whether or not to free Antigone.  Teiresias tells the ruler, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil.  The only crime is pride.”  Now, I haven’t imprisoned my niece to reinforce gender roles or intemperately deployed the power of government in the context of familial conflict.  Nor have I forsaken the bonds of marital and paternal love to preserve an imagined or preferred political order.  But I like to think Teiresias’s advice is more generally applicable.  Because, you know, parables.  Right?

Anyway.  As I’ve accrued some modicum of experience in my life, I’ve had occasion to look on my past with a more critical eye.  By an large, I’m proud of the way I conducted myself.  But there are exceptions.  When one cannot or does not act to rectify past errors – to “repair the evil” – those exceptions have a way of blooming into regrets.

Having just hit a milestone, agewise, I think the time is right to come clean about an error I made early in this project.  I went with Greg and Lemi to Koreatown’s Cassell’s Hamburgers, a bustling diner nestled in the first floor of the Hotel Normandie.  I talked about how I didn’t feel as though Christian Page was reaching his potential with the burger he offered.

 

That review is, quite literally, the only one I look back on and regret.  I like to think (perhaps self-indulgently) the evaluations presented on this Project range anywhere from eminently fair to downright authoritative.  The Cassell’s review marks the lone occasion where I deviated from basing my judgment on the food on the plate.  So, in the spirit of not committing the only crime, I went back to Cassell’s with Kelsey, Kristen, Nikhil, and Tracy.  And now, I’m back before you with my proverbial hat in hand, to give Cassell’s the reconsideration it deserves.

The Burger
The chuck-brisket patty was even better than I remembered.  Flavorful, tender, and rich, it burst with juicy personality, courtesy to that nearly 70 year-old crossfire broiler.  The garnishes were as fresh as I remember.  Everything was as it was on my prior visits.  I won’t regurgitate here what I’ve written before.  If you want to read it, follow the link above.  Besides, it’s not really my sense of the burger’s quality that has changed, per se.  There are a couple of things about that review, though, that bother me.

The first problem is that I docked the burger for not “hitting its potential.”  In addition to being a maddeningly vague and subjective feeling that I struggled then (and struggle now) to justify, it’s just kind of irrelevant.  There’s not a dish that’s been cooked that couldn’t be improved somehow.  We can’t judge dishes (or anything, for that matter) on the basis of what it could have been.  We have to look, first and last, a what a thing is.  That matters more.  And what Cassell’s is, is a delicious burger–one of the best in the city.

The second problem isn’t one I could have anticipated as I penned the review initially, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Cassell’s stacks up much more formidably than I expected against the other burgers I’ve had since.  When people ask me what the best burgers in the city are, this one always comes to mind.  That’s got to count for something.

I get it.  It’s not like I’ve imprisoned one of my nieces.  There has been no mortal sin committed here.  It’s not as though I got drunk on power and perpetrated some monstrous act of megalomania.  I just docked a burger a couple points unfairly.  But a mistake is a mistake, and if this Project is to be worth relying on, you all have to know you can trust me to recognize my mistakes and correct them as they arise.  The only crime is pride.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 9.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.50 / 10.00
Patty: 9.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.40 / 10.00

Total: 91.20 / 100.00

Sawyer

The Place
Sawyer
3709 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
IMG_0801

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

The York

The Place
The York
5018 York Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90042
img_0674It feels like October has been all about the Chicago Cubs and their date with destiny.  They’re the latest beneficiary (see also 2004 Red Sox, 2010 Giants, 1998 Jay-Z) of the special treatment we give to baseball teams that are awful for long enough.  After over a century of losing, the Cubs – finally – are good.  And like the Red Sox, the Giants, and Jay-Z before them, the entire nation (but for we select few who don’t share the impulse for alacritous bandwagoneering) will love them until they finally win.  Then we’ll revile them for doing the very thing we hoped they’d do all along.  To be a “lovable loser,” you have to keep losing.

I watched the final innings of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at The York, which was a Highland Park mainstay long before Highland Park was cool.  It’s a vaulting industrial space, where Edison bulbs throw barely enough light on roughly erased chalkboards sporting the menu of the day, and onto the carmine bricks behind.  The one television is located inconveniently at the back end of the bar, obscured by something from almost any angle.  It was there that I watched Adrián González smack a game-tying single, and then shortly thereafter, Miguel Montero be spoon-fed a hanging slider with the bases loaded.

Much like the Cubs, the York has established itself as a good-natured neighborhood standard.  And much like the Cubs, it’s kind of hard to see what all the fuss is about.  Besides the cool (but imitable) vibe, the cocktails are weak, the food is fine, and the staff just mostly competent.  The clientele is a weird mashup of young fathers and old bachelors, thirty-somethings all.  It’s as if the York is the last place where those two demographics can meet and remember times not too many years ago, when their lives looked more alike.

Kristen, Tristan, Peter, Shahin, Kelsey and I took a trip to the York for dinner to catch the end of the baseball game before going to Creep LA, which – spoiler alert – was basically me paying $53.50 to be called “daddy” by an emo kid in lingerie and then locked in a closet the size of a moving box (with two other people, one of whom, blessedly, was Kelsey) by a small man in yoga pants.

The Order: Cheddar Burger, medium rare

The Price: $15

The Burger
The York’s burger is served on Bread Bar brioche, a heavily marbled sirloin and chuck hybrid patty, rocket (which, more or less, is hipster for “arugula,” which, more or less, is douchebag for “bitter spinach”), harissa aioli (harissa being a North/West-African chili paste that you may have run into at Moun-Of-Tunis, Koutoubia, or a similar spot), and pickled onion.  And cheddar, obviously.

Just by reading that list of ingredients, you may have the impression that there’s a lot – potentially too much – going on here.  That was my concern going in, too.  Imagine my surprise, then, when the burger actually wound up being strangely tame on the palette.  There was no pinching bitterness from the flaccid arugula, no astringent sourness from the too-soupy onions, no blunted bite from the aioli.  Everything got mixed together, reduced into some tasteless primordial ooze, the culinary equivalent of Cage’s 4’33”.  And to top it all off, there wasn’t even the buttery, eggy, cloudlike sweetness you would expect from the brioche (though this had more to do with the fact that it tasted a day old than any fault of poor Bread Bar’s) it was crumbly and Gobi-dry.

And that’s a shame, considering the patty was quite well-conceived.  Heavily marbled and a well-executed medium rare (evenly rouge-hued and barely bloody), the flavor was rich, the texture hardy and coarse.  It was crisped on the outside, but retained its juiciness exceptionally well.  Just like Charlize Theron in The Devil’s Advocate, it deserved a better supporting cast (instead, we got Shouty Al and dead-eyes Keanu; I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a metaphor or not).

Were I predisposed to being snarky, I’d say the good news is that the burger York was only the third-most unpleasant thing that happened to me that night.  But since I am miles above snark and the solicitation of cheap laughs, I’ll leave it at this: Notwithstanding all the neighborhood affection, all the history, all the prescient neo-industrial decor, the York’s burger left a bad taste in my mouth.  Maybe not quite as bitter and caustic as Miguel Montero left, not quite as parched and salty as being locked in that closet, but the fact that those three things are part of the same conversation probably tells you all you need to know.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.20 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 8.10 / 10.00
Value: 6.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 8.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.80 / 10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.60 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.30 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 73.80 / 100.00

Shake Shack

The Place
Shake Shack
8520 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

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If you never caught the new (like, that new new) Star Wars movie, then you missed out on Kylo Ren, the most angst-addled villain to grace the silver screen in quite some time (you may know him better as the darkest-skinned – but still white, of course – person on Girls).  See, Kylo Ren is angsty because he wants very badly to be compared favorably to Darth Vader.  He wants to be the next Darth Vader.  So he acts and talks the part.  He commands with unforgiving brutality.  He wears the mask that changes his voice, even though he doesn’t need it.  Think of his relationship with Darth Vader as being kind of like Rivers Cuomo’s relationship with Buddy Holly.

And much like Cuomo, he just isn’t quite as special as his idol.  Deep, withering suspicions – that he’s ultimately just a pale imitation of the thing he strives to be – roil in him.  They consume him.  And most of all, they make him hate the character in the film who he recognizes as truly special, truly significant.  She achieves everything he’s worked so hard for, and she doesn’t even have to try.

It’s a common trope in our world and our folklore: the figure who longs to be a feature of history, but really is just a footnote.  These are people with lofty aspirations to emulate and evoke truly monumental figures, but ultimately, they are undone by their inability to recognize that the mere imitation of an act or a sound may not – and probably will not – capture the subtleties and complexities that exist beneath it.  What I mean is, Kylo Ren choking a person out as part of his WWDVD? mentality is quite different from what animated Darth Vader – namely, living at the nexus between guilt and doubt and rage.

Similarly, putting together a burger that features some of the same ingredients as those featured on the best chain burger money can buy doesn’t guarantee that you’ll best In-N-Out.  And so, in a swaggering and expansive outpost on Santa Monica Boulevard, Shake Shack joins the ranks of these reductive imitators, clamoring for attention and plaudits, begging for favorable comparisons to a great institution.

Shake Shack is the latest in a long line of burger chains that demand to be compared to In-N-Out.  It is a chain that builds buzz via sophomoric articles like this.  Never mind that the two are in no way comparable.  The one is an international chain with an expansive menu (including three different burgers, seasonal/weekly/monthly/whateverly flavors of ice cream, bespoke craft beer, Abita root beer on tap, Cold Stone Creamery style concretes), the other is willfully limited.  The one is surprisingly expensive, the other almost guilt-inducingly cheap.

But the comparison is being made.  So if you drive by Shake Shack, you will see crowds of impossibly cool West Hollywood types: New York imports with trendy haircuts; t-shirts featuring a sneering slogan or maybe a reference they only almost understand; shadowed and lined eyes drooping under the weight of their contempt for the world, smiling with half their face as they post a link from a blog about an article they haven’t read about a study they haven’t read but which reinforces the fact that everyone who disagrees with their particular opinion on their particular cause celebre du jour (based on exhaustive review of numerous blog posts like this) is ill-informed and probably malicious.

These are people bound together by fibrous, almost extant strands of supercilious energy, people who are fueled not by the Krebs cycle like the rest of us, but by the knowledge of their superiority.  And even for these walking superlatives, the need to know if Shake Shack really is better than In-N-Out is so pressing, so dire, that it can wrest them from the urgent business of being better than you.

I went with my parents and Kelsey.  Because while I may not be cool, I am the purveyor of a publication about burgers in Los Angeles, so I’m drawn to trendy burger spots like a fly to a turd.

The Order: Shack Burger

The Price: $5.29 (not including fries or drink)

The Burger
Roughly speaking, I think there are two types of people who might argue that Shake Shack is better than In-N-Out: the first are the reflexively contrarian naysayers.  These are people who don’t have particularly strong or well-developed feelings about In-N-Out (or any alternative), but dislike its ubiquitous appeal and enjoy the idea that their opinion is challenging and controversial.  Then there are people who need New York to be better at everything (rather than just better at being bigger and smellier).  I’ve talked about this phenomenon at some length before.

The goal of this piece, though, is not to take up the issue with either group.  In point of fact, I prefer not to entertain the comparison at all.  As I mentioned before, these restaurants are different enough that the comparison itself is more than a little spurious.  Shake Shack is a peri-industrial hipster chic millennial iteration of a soda fountain, whereas In-N-Out begins and ends as a burger stand out of time, a relic of its founding age.  Another reason behind my rejection of a comparative discussion – and I smirk as I type this – is that these two products are not in the same league.

Shake Shack’s offering features an oversalted, overcooked patty, watery tomato, heat-wilted lettuce, and insipid Thousand Island (Shack sauce) between two feeble, infirm, too-doughy potato buns (this actually surprised me, because I remembered the buns being much better when I first tried Shake Shack in Washington, D.C.).  The entire presentation is a pittance, a burger so small it barely qualifies as a burger.  You will not savor every bite, and after you finish, you will wonder why you waited in line for so long with all those impossibly self-obsessed trendchasers and paid more than double the cost of a Double-Double for it.

If in Shake Shack you were hoping to find The Chirping Crickets, you’ll have to settle for Raditude.  If you were hoping for Luke’s father, you’ll have to settle for Leia’s emo brat.  Shake Shack talks the talk.  It’s high on swagger and hype, but it’s little more than a well-appointed disappointment.  This restaurant doesn’t deliver a product worth mentioning in the same sentence as In-N-Out, let alone comparing to it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 7.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.90 / 10.o0
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.40 / 100.00

Winsome

The Place
Winsome
1115 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90012

IMG_0580Winsome is not on Sunset Boulevard.  Head west down Sunset (away from Downtown) and as you pass Beaudry, you’ll see the Holy Community Church on your right.  Beyond that, you’ll see a new apartment building made of white stone and glass.  Just past the church, make a right on to White Knoll Drive.  That’s where Winsome is, in the ground floor of the aforementioned stone and glass building.  Just a public service announcement, lest you wind up wandering aimless and befuddled down Sunset like Kelsey, Erin, and I did (that is, until finally we gave up and called the restaurant to whimper a desperate request for directions).

I couldn’t help but wonder why they say they’re on Sunset if the restaurant demonstrably is not on Sunset?  Well, this is Los Angeles, which means it’s all about appearances.  It’s easier to brand yourself as a trendy new Los Angeles eatery if you’ve got an address on an iconic Los Angeles thoroughfare.  Per contra, it’s much harder to do it when you front some tributary with a name that sounds like a sleepy cul-de-sac.  And if people get confused or lost by this branding chicanery, all the better; being impossible to find in spite being on a major street is another mark of effortless cool.

Make no mistake, though.  This place is far more polished than Echo Park, a neighborhood renowned more for its unvarnished charm than for its sparkling new real estate developments.  It’s beautiful for being the situs of a cultural collision of sorts, where numerous ethnic and socioeconomic groups live side by side.  There’s something aspirational about that Echo Park.

Winsome represents the “new” (or, if you prefer, the “approaching”) Echo Park.  The building that houses it resembles one of those swanky new high rises over by L.A. Live.  It’s the kind of building that one suspects will be ubiquitous in a few years’ time.  It’s the kind of building that multiplies and slowly, inexorably drains the charm right out of a place, until all that’s left is a spiritually vacant enclave occupied by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of incalculably basic USC alumni.  It’s a nice enough building in itself, but as more of them crop up, before long, Echo Park will be a place where you only see soul if it’s immediately followed by the word “cycle.”

Right, anyway; the restaurant.

Winsome has developed a fair amount of buzz as a brunch-and-pastry spot.  Its light-wood, airy interior has the body of a diner but the heart of a case study house.  The long, dining room is flanked along one edge by a long, white oak bar and on the other by booths with windows for walls.  This breezy, midcentury space spills out onto an idyllic patio, on which strings of lights hang languidly above.  This charming outdoor area is loosely packed with amateur food photographers trying to no-filter their way to fame.

But it still bears markers of the old Echo Park.  Our laconic waiter was clad all in black but for old white Reeboks and an apron the color of pond scum (the latter of which was splattered inexplicably with persimmon-hued paint).  He oozed edgy and aloof Echo Park cool, and he did his job without all the fanfare of interpersonal warmth.

Atmosphere aside, the place is renowned for its brunch offerings.  The pastries are local celebrities and, in the aggregate, merit the acclaim they receive (the strawberry-vanilla brioche is especially superb).  The caramelized grapefruit is a novel idea, but largely ham-fisted in execution.  The slathering of honey provides a syrupy front end to the flavor profile, yielding a product that tastes like Taylor Swift’s personality: saccharine on the surface, but ultimately and fundamentally marred by a gothic – almost corporate, definitely innate – bitterness.

There is a burger on the menu, but no one really talks about it.  I went with Kelsey and Erin to find out if they ought to talk about it.

The Order: The Burger

The Price: $16

The Burger
There’s a scene in The Fountainhead where Ellsworth Toohey says to Howard Roark, “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here.  Why don’t you tell me what you think of me?  In any words you wish.  No one will hear us.”  Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you.”  That exchange flitted into my head as I tried to collect my thoughts in preparation for writing this; I just didn’t have that many thoughts to collect.

On the face of it, there’s nothing objectionable about this burger, and one might even think there is the potential for something quite good.  The bun is a seeded pan de mie sourced from Gjusta.  A bun from a different bakery is an odd choice for a restaurant that prides itself on its superlative baked goods, but I suppose Gjusta is an estimable choice if you’ve chosen to outsource your bun-making.  Delicately sweet and soft at its heart with perfectly toasted edges, this bun was the highlight of the burger.  The patty is about a third of a pound of grass-fed Sunfed Ranch beef, with a slice of milky white Hook’s aged cheddar melted on top.  It is rounded out by pickled shallots (allegedly) and a tall, tangled stack of mustard frills.

The server recommended I order the patty cooked medium.  That was an error; it was overcooked, dry, and charmless.  The patty scarcely deserved the exceptional cheese that was melted on top of it, a truly lovely Hook’s aged white.  It was distantly sweet, mild, perfectly melted, and utterly wasted by the lifeless piece of flesh it was meant to complement.

With a better cast around it, this cheese would have been a wonderful final touch.  But even ignoring the patty, the rest of the burger is rather a mess.  The mustard greens were flaccid, virally overabundant, and bland.  The pickled shallots so nearly approached absolute zero on the palate that I actually doubted their existence.  The sauces, served on the side, were ketchup (from a bottle) and an almost oppressively banal aioli, which essentially tasted like mayonnaise that had been left sitting out.  They weren’t much, but they were just about all I tasted every time I took a bite.

I rarely make overt mention of price unless it is a virtue.  In this case, though this is far from an offensive product, it does not even nearly approach being worth $16.  This price tag is wholly unjustifiable.  I couldn’t help feeling I was paying for the delicious inattention of our server and the string of patio lights more than I was paying for a good meal.  I very seldom feel as though I have wasted money eating a burger.  This was one such occasion.

This is a burger without personality; it is a lazily conceived pro forma offering that expresses nothing, demands nothing, gives nothing.  It smacks of brunch menu tokenism (which is a thing I made up just now, but essentially amounts to the creative minds behind this restaurant saying something like, “Ugh, we probably should put more lunch items on this menu, because otherwise it’ll be all ‘br’ and no ‘unch.'”).

Is this the folly of a young restaurant?  Probably not.  Most young restaurants err by trying too hard.  This just feels lazy.  There’s something respectable in a calculated, but ultimately botched, gamble.  There is little to respect – let alone consider or discuss – in paint-by-numbers concepts executed poorly.

So try as I might, it’s hard to articulate exactly what I think of it.  I just don’t think of it.  Nor should you.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 4.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.20 / 10.00
Bun: 9.10 / 10.00
Patty: 6.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 4.80 / 10.00
Balance: 6.30 / 10.00

Total: 67.40 / 100.00