1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90401 (map); 310-393-7050; rusticcanyonwinebar.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: An obsessive, young chef puts together one of the best burgers in town.
Want Fries with That? Yes! Fresh cut and twice fried makes for excellent and straight forward fries.
Prices: Niman Ranch Burger (with fries), $16
Notes: If you are looking for the full treatment, ask for your burger smothered and you'll get a perfectly fried egg and thick-cut Niman Ranch bacon atop your already massive burger.
The truly seasonal and obsessively sourced menu at Rustic Canyon is a decidedly contemporary take that has its roots in the oldest traditions of feeding ourselves. That is to say, there was a time when every human menu was seasonal and locally sourced. These days, our food economy has been so thoroughly reconfigured by modernity that we don't find it odd to pay less for food driven, shipped, and flown thousands of miles before they hit our plates.
Now that we are slowly waking up to the perils of big agriculture and the pleasures of proximity, it's understood that part of a chef's duty is cultivation, even if only the kind that blossoms relationships with the best local farmers. Rustic Canyon's chef Evan Funke is perfectly suited to obsess over produce and just about everything else that has to do with his kitchen.
He started off on paths as disparate as masseur and the military, but found his life's work when a girlfriend's knife-wielding, Sicilian grandmother suggested he might have a gift for cooking. Whether it was kismet or just an offer he couldn't refuse, Funke made his way to Cordon Bleu here in Pasadena. From there he was trained, or as he puts it, "broken like a mustang," by Spago's executive chef Lee Hefter. Over the last year he's built a reputation on his fresh pasta (he apprenticed in Bologna) and an inventive Shepherd's Pie. That's all well and good, but I'm looking for medium rare and great.
The beef for Rustic Canyon's Niman Ranch Burger comes from the vaunted Alameda institution. It's an 80/20 blend that Funke has ground to what I would call medium. The Gruyere is cave-aged and the bun is the brioche-style from Rockenwagner. Usually just the mention of the brioche bun sends my eyes rolling in fancy-pants-fueled burger angst, but I've had this one before (at The Golden State) and know it to be excellent (mostly because it barely shares any similarities to most brioche buns). The wild arugula and five onion "fondue" (leek, Bermuda, Spanish, Spring, and Brown) that top the burger are, of course, from local farmers. The bread and butter pickles and herb rémoulade are made in house.
The burger arrives on a square plate, open-faced, and ready for action—I almost want to make out with the thing it looks so beautiful. Despite the mass of toppings, the strong, yet spongy bun manages to hold all of this deliciousness together. The first bite is first kiss headiness: The flavor of the beef, salty and juicy, is awash in a complex of fat and sweetness that is nearly pitch perfect. Even the arugula —a lettuce choice that usually steams into mushy submission—vanquishes me. Its peppery bite, along with the pickle, cuts the sweet of the onions. The rémoulade blends into the flavor experience adding yet another layer fat and desire. The meat manages to hold its own against all these flavors; salty and wonderfully griddled, it has an intense crust that crumbles into each mouthful.
I was so smitten by my first encounter with the Rustic Canyon, that I immediately set up a second date. This time I asked Funke to walk me through his process and he was generous enough to let me watch him prepare his burger masterpiece. The second time around I got the "Smothered" burger that comes with a fried, free range egg and some Niman Ranch, thick-cut bacon. Ready the defibrillator.
Funke starts off his rested, eight ounce patty with a generous amount of coarse Sel Gris (aka the good stuff) and a few turns of the pepper mill. The patty is seared in a heavily oiled cast iron pan and then makes its way to the bottom of the salamander broiler to bring the center to temperature. It's a steak's preparation, but when handling a burger of this heft, it might be exactly what you want to do.
The bun is toasted a golden brown and not buttered. When I question the lack of fat on the bun, Funke gives me a knowing smile and says, "There's plenty of fat in this burger." After a meticulous bit of construction (the onion fondue, pickles, and rocket take their places in this production), I see why that bun stayed dry. The bacon Funke pulls out is as thick as half a deck of cards and has been prepared confit; this bacon has spent its day bathing in duck fat. I chew an aspirin and giggle nervously. It's at that moment that Funke drops his bacon in...well, its too decadent to describe. Let's just say to add crisp he puts it somewhere deep that fries. The bacon is placed on a perfectly fried egg and I take a picture of what I can only imagine to be the subject of a guilt-ridden conversation with my physician.
The second time around, the burger doesn't disappoint. This time the rush of flavor and salt added to this "Smothered" creates a pleasure that is almost too intense. I feel wounded after just a few bites. It's fantastic, but I think it's a one-night stand. I'm married to the original.
Rustic Canyon's burger is, like the rest of its menu, a contemporary take on a very old tradition that manages to tease out the best from both. Funke has worked up a burger that is so thoroughly delectable that I've found myself mentioning it as one of the best I've come across anywhere. I'm so glad it's local.