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

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

Fritzi

The Place
Fritzi
814 Traction Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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I remember when Give Up by the Postal Service came out.  I was a sophomore in high school.  It was before winter formal.  That particular winter formal was to be a rare triumph for me in the romance department.  I took one of the prettiest and most popular girls in the freshman class.  Unfortunately, as it turned out 1) I wasn’t very attractive (please indulge my optimistic use of the past tense), 2) she was out of my league, 3) I’m inveterately and painfully awkward, and 4) teenagers are a heartless sort.

The result: she bolted as soon as we arrived, and spent the entire evening with confident, attractive junior alpha males who played sports and got bad grades.  Meanwhile, I, the archetypal beta male, sat on a bench staring into a swimming pool, waiting for high school to end, and playing various tracks from Give Up in my head to pass the time. This admittedly depressing scene was interrupted when I was rescued by my friend David and his date Sara (incidentally, about halfway through “Clark Gable”).

I still wonder why that album came into my head, especially considering my tortured relationship with it.  I hated to like Give Up.  See, some Death Cab for Cutie fans were nervous when Give Up dropped (these were the Sub Pop days, when Death Cab fans were less numerous and more proprietary than today’s breed).  Publicly, we worried side projects portend artistic restlessness, or worse, stagnation, that they threaten to reveal a beloved artist reduced to repackaging old ideas instead of presenting new ones.

Privately though, we’d admit that our real issue wasn’t artistic; it was that side projects have the whiff of infidelity.  Death Cab fans liked to envision Ben Gibbard poring over ragged spiral notebooks scribbling the lyrics to the next “A Lack Of Color,” not seeking new modes of expression.  Him having another band felt like a betrayal.

What an odd feeling. It’s not as if I didn’t love Ben Gibbard just because Give Up came out.  It’s just that the release of Give Up made me face all facets of that love, even the ugly ones: affection, loyalty, fear (of change and of loss), comfort, complacency, possessiveness, jealousy.  The only thing more frightening than watching someone you love change is the prospect of getting left behind somewhere along the way.  So I listened, with layered trepidation.

I find these feelings have survived in me, and they resurfaced again recently when Neal Fraser diverted his attention from Redbird to give Fritzi the full sit-down restaurant treatment.  When Fritzi became something more than a whimsical pop-up or a window at Arts District Brewing, that familiar proprietary jealousy, that envious dogma of mine, was impossible to escape, even though culinary side projects often work out just fine.

The Order: Fritzi Burger

The Price: $11.50

The Burger
Maybe you’ve never heard of Fritzi.  It would be hard to fault you, actually.  It first surfaced as a pop-up, then soft-opened as a practically nameless take-out window nestled in a corner of Arts District Brewing, where everyone from the merely buzzed to the blacked out could partake in some high-class, high-carb hangover prophylaxis.  The only signage to speak of was a large marquee above the window that glowingly admonished all passers-by: “DON’T FORGET TO EAT.”

By the time Fritzi actually opened a dining room directly next door to Arts District Brewing (serviced by the same kitchen as the take-out window; the two spaces are less adjacent than they are interlocked), it would have been easy to not notice.  There was almost no fanfare; besides, we’d been eating off that menu for months.

But Fritzi commands attention.  It is the brainchild of Neal Fraser, who ranks among the most deadly serious chefs in the city.  The fare is fast-food inspired and fundamentally uncomplicated.With quintessentially Arts District pretentiousness (i.e., trying far too hard to project a laid-back, industrial Bohemian charm), Fritzi will tell you they serve “artisanal nosh.”  That means no of-the-moment crudo, no robust and hearty braised goat gemelli, and – sadly – no peri-eponymous (I can’t resist making the epunymous joke) tray of veal.

Nothing here is a signature dish.  This is an off-duty project, a glimpse at what Neal Fraser might make at a cookout – nothing too high-minded…but, well, he’s still Neal Fraser.  As such, expect sophisticated, subtly reimagined classics.

The Fritzi Burger is, for lack of a better term, so Fraser.  Each component of the conventional burger is rethought, elevated.  This burger offers a hybrid patty (Nueske bacon and beef) that is given ample (viz., nine hours) sous vide time; a generous smear of Fontina fondue which offers a gooey, honeyed nuttiness; a sweet Calabrese relish with a whisperingly slow-hot finish; a fresh salve of mild thousand island; and iceberg lettuce to add cooling textural contrast.

The patty is a masterstroke, a subtle, intensely flavorful execution of an idea that sounds excellent in theory but often is butchered grotesquely in practice.  The Nueske bacon imparts a smoky, marbled dimension to the beef, evoking the faintest thoughts of a Texan barbecue pit.  The fondue creates a sumptuous, almost silken coating around the patty, mild and comforting.  Both sauces are excellent, and work well enough in concert with one another.  They offer a few redundant notes, but ultimately elevate the entire experience.  I was glad for the lettuce, if only because it offered a bit of complexity in a burger that otherwise verges on textural monotony.

While Fraser excels in reimagining individual ingredients, he sometimes almost loses sight of the forest for the trees.  It’s fine to reshape each piece of a puzzle, especially if you improve each one; but change them enough, and they won’t fit together.

In the case of the Fritzi Burger, that’s just a distant threat – this burger hangs together well, never veering into incoherence.  But it also is a mildly unsettling dish, because – as a whole – it doesn’t always feel completely intentional.  But existential niggling aside, this burger is stellar, not to be missed, and yet another shining example in a litany of Neal Fraser’s innovative genius.

Ultimately, no matter how rabid a Death Cab fan I was, I listened to Give Up.  I couldn’t help myself.  In my more honest moments, I recognize it as a superior product to solidly (maybe conservatively) 85% of Death Cab for Cutie’s oeuvre.  But even short of that admission, I know I put aside my feelings of betrayal on behalf of Gibbard’s bandmates because I wanted to understand what was compelling enough to divert his creative focus.  I didn’t really listen because I wanted to.  I listened because I had to.

So if you felt similar vicarious betrayal when Chef Fraser took time away from Redbird to launch Fritzi, you probably also feel a similar morbid curiosity regarding what Fritzi is all about.  Succumb to it.  This burger may not be better than 85% of the menu at Redbird, but it is too good to be missed owing to proprietary hipster envy.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.40 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 8.90 / 10.00

Total: 91.10 / 100.00

Sunny Spot

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The 405 freeway is maybe best described as a piece of hell that Los Angeles chose to annex in 1964.  It (along with bananas-high taxes) is the price we pay for living in a sun-soaked paradise: a throbbing vein of gridlock, on which – at the best of hours – brake lights pulse rhythmically.  Quite often though, it’s worse, and the string of red lights in front of you looks like a fluorescent snake if you squint.

For those who live in Los Angeles, the 405 is a conversation piece.  When I meet friends for a meal in Santa Monica or Venice, inevitably I will describe to them either a) what a tragedy the 405 is today, or b) how I skillfully, creatively managed to circumvent the 405.  These topics are staples of the conversational diet in this town.  And they make us an easy target.

I recently spent a Saturday morning – and part of the afternoon – on the 405, driving to brunch at Sunny Spot.  My interminable journey through the gridlock (which, in familiarly epic largesse, spilled indulgently back onto the 101) found me listening to Loveless on repeat and texting my friend Bret with my car in park (and just to completely embody the stereotype, I’ll share that I was between Getty Center and Sunset – nightmare).

Unless you live on the west side, you’ll have to endure some version of this drive to get to Sunny Spot.  When you arrive, you’ll find a classically Venice exercise: peeling turquoise paint on which the name of the restaurant boldly is emblazoned in coral-colored cursive (think the colors of the key at the San Antonio Spurs’ arena circa 2000), a meticulously curated shabby-chic beachside dive aesthetic.  It tries hard not to try hard.

You’ll likely have lost your reservation by the time you arrive (assuming you had the foresight and misplaced optimism to make one).  So you’ll have to wait among aspirant screenwriters and armchair critics; almost impressively basic young women with protein powder-dusted boyfriends following close behind; post-surf stoners, desperately hungry and wondering why they hath forsaken Taco Bell.

It goes without saying that a tiny proportion of guests will be talking to one another.  After all, to our generation, a meal with friends merely means sitting at a table with other people who are also glued to their Instagram feed.  True to form, you’ll see the patrons of the restaurant being alone together, side-by-side but absorbed in Pokémon Go or composing sarcastic YouTube comments or adding this “memory” to their Snapchat story or whatever the intimacy-killer du jour is.

You’ll try and push this depressing portrait of collaborative loneliness out of your head.  You’ll get a greyhound from one of the surprisingly attentive bartenders (you won’t get a Bloody Mary, because they aren’t fantastic here, and you won’t get a mimosa because mimosas are sort of silly).  You’ll steep in the charming, faux-rustic atmosphere of the place, the loose and warm summer shade.  If you’re the type, you’ll lovingly muss your hair and frame a selfie or two.  You’ll wait longer than you should for a table, and do your best not to wonder if it would be easier to get a table at Providence than here.  Then you’ll remember that you should relax; it’s the weekend, and the weekend was made for wasting time.

The Order: Double Cheeseburger

The Price: $15

The Burger
The reason I bring up the 405 and the whole look of Sunny Spot is because I have to talk about them to talk about this burger.

The 405 is not just a freeway.  Well, on the surface it is.  It’s a few lanes arranged in a predetermined path, peppered by ramps every few miles.  But dig deeper, think harder, and you might be surprised with what you realize.  The 405 forces us to confront the ironic truth that, to get somewhere, we have to accept going nowhere for a while.  It wrenches us from the stupefying, swipe-right torrent of instant and meaningless gratification that occupies so much of our time and thought.  It pulls us away from the relentlessly interconnected world and makes us confront our own thoughts.  It demands the one thing so many in this generation lack: patience.

My point is that the 405 isn’t what it seems on the surface, and if you think about it in the right way, you can understand how sitting in traffic actually is a blessing, an opportunity for growth and reflection that has become vanishingly rare as our world becomes a giant touchscreen.  At the very least, it can show you that often times, there’s more to things than what you might see from a cursory look.

Sunny Spot is sort of like the 405 in that way.  If you weren’t looking all that hard, you’d see a beachy Venice restaurant with a gregarious color scheme.  You might miss the subtleties at play here.  Their brunch menu features standard items with haute tweaks.  Grana Padano in an otherwise unremarkable chop salad.  Crisp chicharron on the Cuban pork sandwich.  A sunny egg on the BLTA.

This is a place that quite clearly is trying to give you what you want in a way that’s better than you wanted.  They want to blend the familiar with the high-level.  It’s not just a beachside shack; it’s a place that is dedicated to the marked – if incremental – heightening of tastes.  This is admirable, and an especially tall order when your target audience is so often obsessed with the banal and unchallenging.

What I’m trying to get at here is the (weird, semantic) distinction between being complicated and being complex.  The 405 is complicated because it introduces logistical uncertainty in my life.  Because there are so many damn cars on it, I’m late for any plans that involve me taking the 405.  But the 405 is complex because it makes me feel something every time I’m on it, and exploring those feelings makes me think more deeply and more critically about the world around me and my interaction with it.

Sunny Spot itself is uncomplicated – it’s a simple enough formula of beautiful, precisely disheveled people and a milieu to match; but it’s complex because it seems to be at least attempting to subvert and refine the unsophisticated impulses of the very clientele to which the place – at least aesthetically – caters by subtly altering the familiar.

How does this distinction apply to burgers?  Well, it’s easy to make a burger complicated by fettering it with a slew of features.  But complexity isn’t about the number of variables in play; it’s about the depth of interaction between those variables, and it’s really about the way the thing makes you feel, what it arouses in you when you take a bite.  Sunny Spot rejects being complicated in hopes that it might achieve subtle complexity.

In eschewing all the traditional trappings, Sunny Spot is trying to challenge your preconceptions of what is indispensable on a burger.  Lettuce, tomato, ketchup: these are distractions.  Sunny Spot presents a burger with a spare flavor profile.  By reducing the number of ingredients, the goal seems to be to heighten subtle interactions rather than presenting an amalgam of various flavors.

This burger places two hefty patties smeared with American cheese front and center.  This centerpiece is rounded out with dijonnaise, pickles, and caramelized onions, all of which is sandwiched between two brioche buns.  Note that this hits every one of the basic taste triggers: sour (pickles), sweet (dijonnaise and onions), bitter (onions), salty (beef), and umami (beef and cheese).  This burger touches all the bases without giving too much of anything.

The good news is that this burger is efficiently conceived and executed.  It’s a competent exercise in lean construction.  But that’s all it is: just craft.  This burger clearly wants the diner to do the work of figuring out how these flavors are put together.  That doesn’t stop it from being good.  But it precludes greatness.

A great burger will give you a window into the mind of the person who made it.  It might even arouse memories, feelings, thoughts.  It will show you something or make you feel something.  The best food isn’t that which you can appreciate as a well-formed study in culinary craft.  It’s the food that enriches you somehow, connects with you individually, feels like it was made for you.  This burger will mean the same thing to everyone who eats it.  Few will abhor it, none will yearn for it once it’s gone.  It’s a pleasant, but eminently duplicable, experience.  As far as it goes, it’s great.  The problem is that it just doesn’t go all that far.

In this case, the distinction between complicated and complex is purely academic.  This burger is neither.  Relatively few ingredients interact in predictable, uninspired ways.  The beef and cheese overwhelm the flavor profile.  The brioche is a touch dry.  The dijonnaise and pickles are barely perceptible, so any subtle interaction between them is a whisper in a thunderstorm.  The onions are unevenly distributed on the patty, providing pockets of soupy bittersweetness.  None of this is offensive – in fact, the toppings themselves (especially the dijonnaise, oddly enough) are all quite good – but the ingredients simply stand side by side without ever cohering.  This is an orchestra tuning, not playing a symphony: the talent may be there, but the real show hasn’t started yet.

This burger was not made for you.  It was made for everyone.  It is always correct but never remarkable.  It will be good to everyone and great to no one.  Fairly, you may not care about the fine-grain distinctions between complicated and complex.  In that case, know this: you will neither regret ordering this burger nor crave it again.  But it won’t make you feel anything.  And it certainly won’t make you forget that drive.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.20 / 10.00
Value: 7.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 5.20 / 10.00
Creatvity/Style: 7.80 / 10.00
Bun: 7.80 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Balance: 7.30 / 10.00

Total: 79.20 / 100.00

1212

The Place
1212
1212 Third Street Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401imageSanta Monica on a summer weekend truly is an incredible thing.  The beautiful, sun-bronzed masses take to the streets in outfits carefully chosen to reveal the fruits of a winter spent in pilates classes, or of the paleo diet, or of thousands of dollars in Equinox membership fees or CrossFit classes, or of the latest juice cleanse.

 

When Andy Warhol – speaking about Los Angeles – said, “Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic,”  he might have been talking about Santa Monica.  “Plastic” doesn’t have to mean surgically enhanced.  It just means beautiful in a very banal sort of way.  There is an inhuman kind of beauty, a sort of perfection of the human craft, that you see a lot in Santa Monica (as opposed to, say, the intentional, contrived anti-beauty of Silver Lake).  The people there are, for lack of a better term, impossible looking.  Santa Monica is a simple enough cocktail: one part Free People shabby-chic; three parts Stepford; two parts Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue; a dash of pornish, self-aware sexiness; topped with a magnetic superciliousness.

The men want you to think their biceps and abs just happen to look like that.  They don’t want you to know it was Bumble & Bumble that gave them that hair, not catching waves as the sun rose.  The women want to convince you that they don’t think their Chloe is that big a deal – and in some cases, unbenknownst to them, it’s not – when in point of fact, it’s the centerpiece of their whole outfit.  It’s all about appearances.  Style trumps substance.  Sizzle trumps steak.

Another invective against poor Santa Monica.  But in my defense, my path to getting the burger at 1212 (a new-ish, trendy-ish, rustic but also modern, accessible but also fancy – aspirationally on both counts, by the way – small plates kinda, presentation-first installation on the Third Street Promenade) was blocked by hordes of these saunteringly basic sort.  They cross the street with such languid entitlement that, when the light changes and they become jaywalkers, their pace seems actually so slow.

So, if you decide to go to 1212, be warned: it may take you forty minutes to round one block to make a right turn into a parking lot (the left turn lane was blocked off without explanation by the Santa Monica Police Department, which spends most of its time making operating a motor vehicle in the city slightly less palatable than listening to him read this aloud, while you are made to watch the last forty-five minutes of this with no sound).  And if that was not enough, you then must navigate crowds of people so basic their pH is 15.

After all that – finally – you’ll get to 1212, and hope that the burger – for which you endured such tribulations – will be worth it.  You hope so hard.  I met Kelsey and Kate there.  After the ladies were done declining to dance with a gentleman who looked like a housing-insecure Colonel Mustard, we shared a meal.

The Order: The Burger

The Price: $15.00

The Burger
They certainly don’t want for effort at 1212.  This burger comes topped with black truffle gouda (really), bacon jam (really), a sunny side up egg on a sad ciabatta.  The patty is…well, who knows what kind of beef.  It doesn’t matter, right?  See how much other fancy stuff is on there?  Seriously, the beef is the weakest point of the burger.  The server recommended it cooked medium, which as a general matter, puts me on notice that the flavor of the beef is nothing to write home about.  This held true here.  The patty was bland and gritty, with only the stinging bitterness of char on the front end to confer any personality at all.

The “black truffle” gouda was similarly disappointing.  I put black truffle in quotations earlier because you’ll have to take their word for there being any black truffle at all in that cheese.  If you’re into this kind of thing, you know black truffles are in season, and you might be getting excited at the prospect of some sort of infusion or suspension or what have you.  Get over that.  This is gouda cheese.  There is no truffle to speak of.  There is not even the suggestion of truffle.  The cheese itself tastes fine, but it’s just gouda; the representation of it as something more is mendacious culinary clickbait, and it’s mildly infuriating.  What you’ll get is pedestrian, relatively blunt, pleasantly nutty and reasonably buttery gouda.  Nothing less, but definitely nothing more.

Beneath the bubbling blanket of gouda lies the bacon jam.  It’s more of a chutney than a jam – it’s too tangy to be a jam.  It’s got a strange ragu-like consistency.  It’s oddly sharp and almost sour, and is a reasonably unpleasant add-on.  It clashes with every other ingredient, especially the cheese, and ultimately feels like a try-hard feature that should have been excluded.

Then, there’s the sunny egg.  The egg itself is good enough, runny, smooth and soothing both in taste and texture.  It somehow manages to be the best thing about this burger and feel like surplusage at the same time.  Amid all the flavor noise, the textural complexity the egg adds another layer of confusion to each bite, which the burger lacks the theoretical or actual vitality to support.

The Burger at 1212 is a product of its environment.  It cares more about sounding good and looking good than it does about actually being good.  It’s ingredients are all fine, but none are particularly thoughtful.  It seems like a burger the chef imagines other chefs dream of serving (you know, a Cultured but Familiar Spin on a Classic), but it’s delicious in the same way the Beautiful People in Santa Monica are beautiful.  Each feature is well-appointed (I guess), but there’s an artificiality to the whole, a lack of genuineness that is facially annoying, but ultimately unsatisfying (at best) or downright repulsive (at worst).  Much like driving in Santa Monica on a Saturday, this burger is best avoided.

Oh, but the kale chips were pretty good.

The Ratings
Flavor: 5.90 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.70 / 10.00
Value: 4.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 5.10 / 10.00
Bun: 5.30 / 10.00
Patty: 5.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 5.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.00 / 10.00
Balance: 3.80 / 10.00

Total: 53.10 / 100.00

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