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

The Tasting Kitchen

IMG_3169The Tasting Kitchen is a Venice mainstay. It’s grown up from its humble beginnings of handwritten menus and a perennially exhausted but always good-natured staff. It bears mentioning at the outset that while a lot of things have changed (for the better, I might add) about Casey Lane’s shop, the service remains absolutely top-notch. Our experience was pretty fantastic (except for an awkward incident with a waiter getting a little snappy with a busboy within earshot of our table).

ANYWAY. The Tasting Kitchen probably is best-known (aptly) for its tasting menu, but its burger has been a quiet staple on the menu for a while now, and I felt compelled to investigate. Rob and I went there on a bro-date, and when we weren’t too busy falling embarrassingly in love with one of the servers there, we ate the burger.

The Place
The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Venice, CA 90291

The Order: BCC Burger (braised bacon, chile chutney, cheddar), French Fries, Japanese Goldrush (Nikka Malt, lemon, honey).

The Price: $17 for the burger and fries. $16 for the cocktail.

The Burger
The Tasting Kitchen’s bill of fare features a diverse array of dishes, running the gamut from traditional (they do a pretty straightforward, slow-hot bucatini all’amatriciana) to more adventurous (grill-charred octopus with earthy Roman beans and brash ‘nduja). Their burger would probably best be characterized as non-traditional. It eschews the conventional toppings in favor of a more minimal approach, but each topping seems to be tailored to bring maximal flavor. Besides the cheese and the (substantial) patty, there are only two things between the rustic buns: a thick, all-business slab of braised bacon and a roasted chile chutney. An unobtrusive aioli was served on the side.

After a little bit of a wait to get things started, there wasn’t much time between courses. The burger came out just after our appetizers had settled. The meat was of obvious quality, and was well-prepped for cooking. The patty was thick and juicy. My main complaint is similar to the one I expressed about the patty on the griddled cheeseburger at Ledlow: it was way undercooked. The meat was essentially rare, and with a patty of that size, two problems result. First, the bottom bun got soaked through – especially since it was much thinner than its counterpart on top. Second, being so undercooked, the meat didn’t cohere well, and the patty kind of fell apart on us while we ate. It tasted good enough, but it wasn’t easy to eat.

The chile chutney was a brave addition, and was given serious prominence. It was smoky and rich, but without a lot of other flavors to complement it, it sort of stuck out. Out there on its own, with nothing to blunt its fierce roasted boldness, it was sort of a lonely renegade on the burger’s flavor profile. The braised bacon, however, was a masterstroke. It was a thick slab of pig, salty and rich, but gorgeously marbled and decadent. It didn’t blend particularly well with the chiles, unfortunately. Had the chutney been a little sweeter (like one customarily would expect chutney to be), it would have played beautifully off the flavor of the bacon. As it was, the burger featured two toppings – one fine, one fabulous – that didn’t quite mesh together. Adding the aioli didn’t achieve much. It cut the richness of the bacon a bit, and didn’t blend particularly well with the chutney. Frankly, the sauce didn’t seem tailor-made for the burger. It went better with the French fries (which, for the record, were stellar).

The bun was great. It evoked a sourdough, being far less eggy than a brioche. The bottom bun was a little thin, which drew extra attention to the fact that the patty was undercooked. Saturated with juices and blood from the beef, it quickly got soggy and flimsy, like wet paper, and lost a lot of its delightful texture. It was a shame, because it was, on its own, quite a wonderfully-crafted bun.

Much like the restaurant itself, the burger featured a wide variety of flavors coexisting side-by-side. That’s cool, but it’s also kind of the problem with the dish. The ingredients didn’t come together in such a way that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The BCC burger presents a few different textures and tastes, but the union doesn’t feel necessary or inevitable. It’s far from conventional, but that alone didn’t make it unforgettable.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.80 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 6.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 9.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.40 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.90 / 10.00

Total: 80.80 / 100.00