900 W Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90015 (map); 213-743-8800; lalivemarriott.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: An Iron Chef winner makes an also-ran of a burger
Want Fries with That? Pass; they're nicely seasoned, but nothing special
Prices: Market Burger w/side, $17; Surf and Turf Burger w/side, $25
Over the years I've reviewed a handful of burger creations by chefs that have competed on Iron Chef, but precious few have actually walked away as a champion. Kerry Simon is the only one to have won a burger battle. Back in 2005 the man known as the "Rock 'n Roll Chef" stepped into kitchen stadium and bested the (intensely likable) Cat Cora in a burger battle. Iron Chef may not necessarily be a great predictor of a chef's prowess, burger or otherwise, but certainly an Iron Chef burger champion warrants a closer look.
Along with his first Los Angeles restaurant, Simon LA, the Iron Chef champion has been plying his burger trade for a number of years now in the restaurant factory that is the Las Vegas casino industry. With his success, it's no surprise that he got the nod to open his restaurant LA Market in the JW Marriott at the $2.5 billion gamble that is the L.A. Live entertainment complex (it's about as Las Vegas as LA gets). When Simon was asked what his favorite dish is at the soaring lobby-cum-restaurant space, he was quick to answer, "The burger." I see why he'd say that, but after a recent lunch I had there, my reply might be, "Not so fast."
Simon offers up an array of build-it-yourself options (the burger gets its own section on the menu), but since I wanted to see just what flavor combinations an Iron Chef burger champion would devise, I started with the eponymous LA Market Burger. It's an eight-ounce Angus chuck patty with Bravo Farms white cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, balsamic grilled onions, lettuce, and tomato on a grilled brioche bun. Not groundbreaking, but certainly a worth a taste.
The patty I got was woefully overcooked, disappointing since I take my burgers medium rare. On the upside, the beef was really flavorful, the grind was medium coarse, and there was detectable juice despite the sad, gray center (the fat content had to be around 20 percent). The toppings were a plus; the bacon was crispy and surprisingly not overpowering and the white cheddar fought to save the overcooked patty from fatlessness. Even the balsamic onions played a solid role with a surprisingly pronounced, yet pleasant tartness.
Unfortunately, the brioche bun couldn't help but be a brioche bun. Even grilled it was noticeably flaky and sweet in the way that undermines so many fancy-pants burgers. It also was too big for this burger, weighting the bun-to-meat ratio in its favor. The overall effect was that of so many high-priced burgers: great ingredients that don't add up to anything more than a good burger.
I also tried the most excessive of the burger options: The Surf and Turf Burger. On this oversized plate of excess comes 12 ounces of that same Angus chuck topped with lobster tail, Bearnaise sauce, frisée, and tomato, again on a brioche bun.
This time the excess won the day. The 12-ounce patty not only came out properly cooked, but the added meat balanced the huge bun much better. Along with that, the buttery lobster was a sweet and deeply pleasing complement to the burger. (Yes, it feels a little like the chef is bribing me, but it worked.) I'm not sure the frisée and tomato need to be there, but they weren't distractions either. I was definitely taken by this burger, and if you made me eat a burger lunch with you at LA Market I'd suggest we split this burger.
That said, I wouldn't want us to order the fries with it. They weren't as crispy as I'd like, although I did enjoy the choice of salt and pepper as seasoning. Homemade chips are offered as a substitute.
Based on balance, I'm hard-pressed to sound any burger alarms for Simon's burgers. When a restaurant is charging in the mid-teens for a burger, there's little room for anything below "excellent," and the more basic burgers fall short. Of course, if you're looking for a little Vegas-style excess you could do worse than a huge, lobster topped burger; you just have to willing to pay for it.