Editor's note: If you're a regular reader here, Kenji Alt needs no introduction. But here's one anyway: He's the dude who made the awesome Blumenburger and who went on the 8-burgers-in-12-hours marathon. He also blogs on Good Eater.
I'm firmly on the "thin and griddled" side of the great grilled-griddled burger divide, but I have to admit to a bit of local Boston pride in when chef Michael Schlow of Radius. Last year at the South Beach Burger Bash, his horseradish-slathered, crispy-onion-topped creation took the prize from my main squeeze (the salty, crusty, perfect-in-its-simplicity Shackburger).
One year later, still curious as to how this upset occurred, I emailed Schlow to see if I could get a firsthand look at the burger that bested my beloved.
If you've never been to this Boston landmark, Radius is no burger joint. It's at the high end of the high-end restaurant scale, and the burger is only available at the bar (at which it accounts for more than 30 percent of sales). You come here to eat Asian-tinged fancy French food like ponzu-glazed hamachi with summer truffles or day-boat scallops with morels and yuzu. But every extravagant restaurant these days needs its signature burger, and Radius is no exception—the exception being that Radius' burger actually ain't that fancy. In fact, you can even make it at home with barely more effort than it takes to make your regular old burger. It's all in the technique.
Watch as chef Schlow takes us step-by-step through the process.
First, you have to start with good meat. Schlow gets fresh ground chuck from Savenor's market in Boston, works in some salt, pepper, and olive oil, forms it into gigantic nine-ounce patties, then seasons them again with salt and pepper. Notice the coarseness of the grind and the large specks of creamy white fat. Things are looking good here.
Here's my big problem with grilled burgers: To cook a grilled burger all the way over an open grate, you need to use relatively moderate heat, or the exterior burns before the burger can cook through. The problem is, with a long time spent over an open grate, all that delicious fat melts and drips down, leaving you with a dried-out patty that's laced with the scent of burnt, vaporized beef fat. That's not good. But, wait, here's the good part:
Schlow solves that problem by using a two-stage process: The patty's placed on a ripping hot grill—this thing is hot enough that the burger gets nice deep, dark grill marks in just about a minute per side—just enough time to get a deep grilled flavor on the meat, but not enough time for the fat to really start dripping off of it. He then immediately transfers the burger to a waiting oven to finish cooking it through, sans the burning, vaporized fat.
This is one grilled burger I may actually learn to love.
"This isn't a fancy burger," Schlow says. "There's no short ribs or truffles on here. It's what I cook in my back yard." His choice of toppings seems consistent with his burger philosophy (has someone coined a contraction for that yet? Burglosophy?). Melty orange cheddar cheese, crisply fried frizzled onions, and a drizzle of a mild horseradish and black pepper-spiked mayo. As for the buns? Radius uses toasted brioche—generally a bad mark in my book, but as the Spotted Pig's everything-done-the-wrong-way-but-still-amazingly-delicious burger proved to me, there are always exceptions.
Turns out that a two stage cooking process is actually a three stage cooking process – after it's finished in the oven and topped with cheese, the Schlow-burger gets a quick visit to the salamander until gooey and bubbly.
Now for the fancy-restaurant tall-food plating. Watch Michael's hands as he plants the top bun on top of a massive tower of onions sitting on a not-so-vaguely sexual schmear of creamy sauce. Hey, Bobby: Your Crunch Burger's got nothing on this baby.
And now for something equally important: the fries. Like the burger, these things are an exercise in simple ingredients, and impeccable technique. "There's nothing special about the fries," says Michael. "Just a standard double-fry. Low heat to blanch, then high heat to crisp them up." If there's one thing that I miss most about working in restaurants, it's always having a hot fryalator on hand.
OK, OK. They're a bit fancy, after all—chives, parlsey, and thyme fancy, that is. I note that the cook is sure to make a few more than he actually needs. Another thing I miss about working in restaurants: chef's perks like extra fries.
Note to Michael: I beg to differ—there is something special about these fries. Perfect technique delivers some of the best fries I've ever had—closely rivaling those at Café Boulud (whose meh burger is easily blown out of the water by this one, as I'll soon find out). These are ultra-crispy on the outside, steaming and soft in the middle, not a hint of greasiness, very well seasoned (under-seasoned fries make me visibly shake with anger), not overpowered by the herbs, better-than-McDonald's-on-a-good-day fries. Let's hope the burger matches them.
Despite my innate indifference towards grilled burgers, I have to admit, this is one damn-good looking sandwich.
Michael's advice for eating this fat boy: First: Squish down the top bun with the palm of your hand the way that that weird girl in 2nd grade used to do with her peanut butter and banana sandwiches (you know the girl I'm talking about, right?). This will compress its massive 7-inch height into a more manageable 4.
Second: Get a sharp serrated steak knife (Radius uses the honeybee-stamped knives made in Laguiole) to cut the monsters in half, providing you with four convenient corners from which to take the first exploratory bites. If all went well, the centers should be a perfect, juicy, medium rare.
Third: Invest in a detachable jaw, pour yourself a cold beer, open real wide, and put her back. Make sure you have plenty of napkins on hand, because as Chef Schlow masterfully demonstrates, this one makes a mess.
So how does it taste? The meat does have the kind of compact texture that you get from pre-ground, massaged chuck, but in this case, it's not too bad. The olive oil certainly lubricates it a bit, and the gentle finish in the oven means that the fat in the interior is just beginning to melt, keeping things nice and juicy. I'd like to try this thing with meat ground to order.
The burger to bun ratio is spot on—the last bite of meat disappears with the last bit of bun. The brioche didn't bother me none. The usual too-airy, too-sweet, too-lightness of brioche all goes away when you press it down into a pile of crispy fried onions.
Another note to Michael, about those crispy onions: bag'em, sell'em, fund your burger joint with the profits. If people wait in line to try the greasy, stringy, anemic onions at Bartley's, wait'll they get a load of these.
And as far as special sauces go, you can do worse than horseradish mayo. Much worse. So final verdict? If even a hard-core griddle-man like myself can enjoy eating it, I can only imagine how a fan of the grill will take it. Not the best burger I've ever had, but quite possibly the best burger in Boston.
And in case you didn't catch it: Fries = phenomenal.
Let's hear it for the home team.