Ashland Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Price: $17 (before tax)

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, this is some rococo shit.

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

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

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

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

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

Total: 83.60 / 100.00

The Independence

IMG_3209There are a few major gripes people have with Santa Monica. First, parking is hell. Second, it’s not really close or on the way to anything (except, like, Malibu). And third, when you go out, you kind of find yourself running into the same kind of person over and over again. Like, I get it. You went to [insert Pac-12 school here], and were in [insert Greek organization here]. Yeah, no, I’m sure it was an awesome experience. And yeah, that’s a sweet button down. It definitely looks better on you than it did on the last three guys I saw it on. In this bar. Sure, I’ll wait here while you go talk to that girl. Yeah, no, I’m sure you “crush all kinds of ass.”

Okay. Maybe I’m getting a little bitchy. But prides of snowflake-unique bros and lady-bros aside, no one should be heard to say Santa Monica’s food scene isn’t absolutely killer (and also in the process of exploding), because it totally, totally is. Even if burgers aren’t your thing, you can go have some southern-kissed French food at Kris Tominaga’s up-and-comer Cadet (get the rabbit and thank me later). Go to aestus and learn why all the patrons at the Royce miss Alex Ageneau. Or go to what is now an old standard, Rustic Canyon, and be assured that yeah, Jeremy Fox still has it. Or just go to Sidecar Donuts (soon, my little ones…soon) and reflect – with warming self-satisfaction – that everyone waiting in line at Dunkin’ Donuts is as idiotic as they seem. And then eat some fried dough and forget what you were thinking about.

That brings me to The Independence. It’s a trendy new spot in Santa Monica. Located at the corner of Broadway and Second (right where the incalculably sacrilegiously monikered Buddha’s Belly used to be – good riddance), it’s a sprawling, modern restaurant-bar with all the touches one would expect of a spot this hip – one wall is plastered with violently colorful murals, and another consists entirely of windows. It’s bright and fresh, and just trendy enough to make you feel cool but not out of place. Vibe aside, it’s got plenty of culinary cred; Tom Block manages the menu (you might recognize the name; he was the creative nucleus over at BLT Steak too).

As new on the block as The Independence is, the burger has already generated considerable buzz. So obviously, I was drawn there like a carnivorous moth to a delicious, umami flame. Tessa, Alexandra, and Julia made me look really good while I ate it. Which reminds me: if this review seems a little less detailed than usual, it’s because I was really busy being mortified at the terrifying, occasionally scatalogical text messages Julia and Tessa sent from my phone. Don’t ask. It’s personal.

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yeah, the burger.

The Place
The Independence
205 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401

The Order: Angus Burger, medium rare

The Price: $16 (before tax)

The Burger
At the risk of being way, way, way too meta, the burger here kind of reminds me of the guys in Santa Monica that I was bitching about earlier. It was an imitation of something else. At its core, it lacked identity. For a restaurant called The Independence, I was stunned by how much this burger seemed to be trying to emulate one of its Santa Monica counterparts (rivals?). Of course, that’s not an indictment in and of itself. Imitation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love it, for instance, when H&M imitates my favorite designers for a fraction of the cost. Or when LL Cool J imitates a naval criminal investigator. Or when Demi Lovato imitates a musician. Okay, so I actually only like one of those things.

Sorry. Got a little sidetracked there. I was talking about the imitation game that The Independence play with their burger. It’s not a photocopy, by any stretch, but the inspiration of Father’s Office is clearly present in this burger.

Background for the unschooled: Father’s Office is the most famous burger in Santa Monica (and Culver City, for that matter). The citizens of that fine town will cite that burger as one of the crowning virtues of their city. Father’s Office, they will assure you, is the best burger in Los Angeles. Who cares that it’s cramped? Who cares that there is no actual wait staff? Who cares that you have to hover around people’s tables like hyenas waiting to steal fresh kills? Not Santa Monicans (Santa Monica-ites? Santa Monicansans?). They will stand by that little shop on Montana so fervently that they won’t even go to the one in Culver City (which, parenthetically, is way bigger and way less frustrating and way easier to navigate and also identical from a quality standpoint).

Suffice it to say, it’s hard to blame them. But this isn’t a review of Father’s Office. The point is, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the new kid on the block (which is funny, because Tom Block…get it?…never mind) is trying to get a foothold by way of imitation. Like I said before, this is no culinary Xerox; there are enough differences between this burger and the one at Father’s Office that no one could accuse The Independence of straight-up pilfering someone else’s idea. But the inspiration is clear. It’s kind of like when bands put stickers on the cover of their record saying, “If you love [insert impossibly popular band here], you’ll love this!” They wrote their own songs, sure, but they stepped into the stylistic shoes of another artist. This burger clearly was designed in the tall shadow of the Office Burger.

Okay, I think I’ve established where I think they were coming from in conceiving this burger, so let’s talk about the burger itself now. There is complex, nutty gruyere delicquesced atop (not within) the harshly charred Angus patty. A coppice of bitter arugula sits in a thick bed beneath the beef, concealing a den of slithering French onions. The bottom onion bun is coated with what they call an herb aioli (but which, really, is pretty much just mayonnaise).

The flavor profile of this burger is odd. It hits hard with bitterness on the front end. The sharp cut of the arugula dominates early, and bleeds into the harsh grill-char of the patty. That bitterness gives way not to the soothing nuttiness of the gruyere, but rather to the sharp, soupy onions. Whatever complexity (not very much) is in the aioli is lost behind that dominantly bitter front-end. The cheese and interior of the patty save the finish; earthy gruyere melting into the tender, juicy Angus. The burger leaves the palate much more gracefully than it enters. The finish was good enough to make me forget that harsh introduction and keep on eating.

Holding everything together was that onion bun, which was an interesting choice given the flavors at work in the burger itself. While I’m all for using non-traditional buns, I don’t know if I back this choice. I think a chalky ciabatta would have neutralized things well. A brioche would have been even better, offering a complementary buttery sweetness that was conspicuously absent from this burger’s flavor profile. The onion bun, though moist, was kind of redundant from a gustatory standpoint. It was a dim echo of the bold French onions that were so present. In one sense, you could make the case that it was consistent with the rest of what was happening in the burger. I don’t really see that as a virtue, though. It didn’t add anything, even though it really could have.

This burger skewed too far toward the brash, bitter end of things. It lacked balance. It’s a rare example of a situation in which the execution actually was superior to the conception. The idea was brought to fruition pretty much perfectly…it just wasn’t a very good idea. It did too much of the same thing – here’s something bitter, then here’s another thing that’s bitter, and then here’s something that’s sharp but not acidic enough to complement the bitterness. Then cheese.

To the extent that The Independence is seeking to emulate Father’s Office, they aren’t doing a bang-up job. They’re incorporating some of the same stuff (gruyere, arugula, beef), but they don’t seem to realize that those are dangerous tools to work with (okay, maybe not the beef), tools that require judicious balancing and careful maintenance. The Office Burger isn’t good because of the ingredients; it’s good because the ingredients are well-harmonized and purposefully proportioned. That wasn’t the case with this burger. This burger felt like someone ate Father’s Office and said, “Yes, that’s good and seems easy; I too will use those ingredients and make money.” Sadly, it’s not easy. The Independence would have been well-served to live up to their name a little bit more. They’re losing the imitation game.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.90 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.70 / 10.00
Value: 5.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.10 / 10.00
Bun: 7.30 / 10.00
Patty: 8.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.40 / 10.00
Balance: 7.60 / 10.00

Total: 76.50 / 100.00