11938 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City CA 91604 (map); 818-506-0777; laureltavern.net
Cooking Method: griddled
Short Order: Yet another gastropub, yet another high-end burger that is too clever by half
Want Fries with That? No thanks. Both the regular and steak varieties get a heaping of seasoning that overwhelm the spuds
Prices: Old School Burger, $8; Laurel Burger, $9; Hickory Burger, $9
Notes: Mon. to Fri., 4 p.m. - 2 a.m.; Sat. and Sun., 12 p.m. - 2 a.m.
The bar opens at 4 p.m., but don't expect to get an order in, let alone a bite to eat before 5 p.m. or after 11 p.m.
Keep it simple. There are many variations on the idea that simple is a quality to be revered: Occam had a razor, Da Vinci determined it the ultimate in sophistication, and Charles Mingus saw it as the path to creativity. It's a beguiling concept, but perhaps it's one that, like most axioms, is only true from a particular vantage. Do I want my wine to be simple or complex? Or my loves? And since I mention love, how about my burgers? Perhaps the answer to all of these is: both.
This conundrum seems to be at the heart of the recent fascination and proliferation of the gastropub. Ask about them in Los Angeles and I can rattle off a half-dozen names before you can say "microbrew." Despite their history being rooted in drink, the measure of these modernized pubs is their burger preparation. In some respects the burger has become a sine qua non of their realization. Without a signature preparation of the classic American sandwich, the gastronomy recedes into the landscape of the English pub.
I decided to make a journey to a recently opened and, by all accounts, successful iteration in The Valley—Studio City, to be more exact. On a strip of Ventura Boulevard just East of Laurel Canyon Boulevard sometimes called "Sushi Row" sits Laurel Tavern. The menu offers three different burger preparations. I tried them all.
When I arrive at Laurel Tavern on a rainy Saturday afternoon the place is buzzing with birthday parties and daytime drinkers. Celebration and drink during the day—perhaps I've found my spot. I take a seat on the wood banquet and take in the place. Brick, air ducts, and lighting fixtures are all exposed. The patina on the floor is store-bought. There's plenty I can say about the just-add water "atmosphere" of the place, but it seems unfair to get down on the place just because it's new and wants to seem old. I remember my adolescence.
Ordering is done at the bar off the meticulously-scripted chalkboard menus. It's a way of shunning the restaurant identity and announcing, "We're just a simple bar that happens to serve some food." That, and it's the way many of the successful gastropubs do business. But there's a problem: From my seat I can neither see the menu, nor talk to the bartender. Not so simple. I get the overworked bartender's attention and put in an order for a Hickory Burger (cheddar, caramelized onions, iceberg, hickory sauce) and a Laurel Burger (Gruyère, caramelized onions, arugula). The former is a take on the classic Apple Pan preparation, while the latter a reworking of the most successful not-really-a-burger burger from Father's Office. I also order a side of regular french fries and an order of steak fries. I take my number and my Coke and head back to my seat.
The burgers arrive on durable, paper-lined aluminum plates—again, a signature of the simple. Unfortunately, they are annoying to use as plates. The tall edges get in the way every time I grab my burger. That may not count as complex, but it doesn't feel like the height of simplicity. I take on the Laurel Burger first.
It's beautiful to look at. A gleaming, perfectly round bun sits atop a healthy, eight-ounce portion of meat (ground fresh daily). This one requires two hands. The first bite is oddly bland—there is so much going on here, but the tastes don't find synergy. There is plenty of juice and obviously a suite of condiments, but they don't blend in any particular direction. The burger is woefully overcooked, but—believe it or not—that doesn't rate as my number one complaint. The onions are the real culprit in this caper. They are cooked past the pleasing crunch and aroma of a fresh slice and short of the sweet, smokiness of proper caramelization. They are, well, almost slimy. I take a few more bites to see if I can pick up some of the notes from the Gruyère, but it has melted into submission (a danger with this and many cheeses I find on fancier burgers). I tap out. Time for the second burger.
The Hickory is perhaps less attractive at first glance, but I've always been one to enjoy the discovery of what lies beneath. The first bite of this one is an immediate improvement. Cheddar works better, as does the crunch of the iceberg. The Hickory is certainly more flavorful, but is hamstrung by those aforementioned onions. The hickory sauce, which we know can find relevance on burger (Apple Pan), falls flat on the Laurel's iteration. Another overcooked patty and a listless dressing turns my simple burger into a complicated mess.
The steak fries offer chance at redemption. They are described thusly: "Handcut, homemade fries lightly coated in hot pork fat and seasoned with fresh black pepper and sea salt served with a side of our top secret hickory sauce." Sounds good, right? Sadly, no. I love a salt and pepper potato chip, but the effect of the coarse ground seasoning on these steak fries overwhelms the sweet notes of a the potato. That thin layer of pork fat simply makes me think of pork rinds sans the pleasurable crunch. As for the "secret" hickory sauce, they can keep their secrets. The regular fries are seasoned with a smoky, savory salt mixture that distracts from an otherwise nicely made fry.
It doesn't add up. Laurel Tavern clearly cares about their food. Despite the owners disclaiming "gastropub" status, you can't put Burrata with Heirloom tomatoes on your menu and claim the food is an afterthought. In fact, I'd wager the chef went to great pains trying to put a stamp on the menu. I decide to head back for one last burger to see if I was the one making things complicated.
When I arrive at around 4:30 p.m. I met with already lively group of drinkers and the reality that Laurel Tavern won't serve me a burger. The kitchen won't even take a food order until 5 p.m., let alone feed you. I and, as it turns out, most of the patrons put in our orders exactly at 5 p.m. and wait around as the kitchen deals with this contrived slamming. I don't quite understand the thinking on this one. Is obeying this rule making things simpler or more complicated? I order the Old School Burger, which is simply meat, ketchup and bun. Simplicity itself. What could go wrong?
The burger takes its time getting to me (apparently there are some complications to that 5 p.m. system), but it arrives looking like the beautiful, simple sandwich I want. The first bite is a wonder of juice and bun. The bun is a beautiful reworking of the classic—perfectly rounded and possessing the texture of brioche without the brioche's delicacy. The bottom half soaks up the moisture of the burger nicely. The meat is tasty, but again overcooked. Three for three—not a good sign. The simple ketchup topping oozes of the burger. That's too much even for a ketchup champion like myself. As I get to the middle of the burger I notice an uncomfortable hit of seasoning—there's a collection of pepper in the middle of the bottom half of the bun. They've seasoned the bun! It seems Laurel Tavern can't resist the extra flourish.
Ultimately, my burger experience at Laurel Tavern was a disappointment, but not without didactic value. They get many pieces right. The meat demonstrates good quality, but is undermined by a tendency to overcook and (I suspect) an overzealous smashing technique. The fries are nicely cooked, but the added fat and seasonings weigh them down. Even the simplest burger gets too much added to it. Overcooked, overseasoned, and all in all, overdone.
The lesson is, "Do just enough." Keep it simple. The problem becomes figuring out how much is enough. That is to say, there is no stable definition of what simple is. Even as I write this, the reality of my complicating a simple burger review is apparent. What is it that makes for a great simplicity? I imagine it's complicated.