11648 San Vicente Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90049 (map); 310-470-1539; tavernla.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: One of LA's best chefs makes good on her reputation with a very good burger.
Want Fries with That? Yes! These fries are browned and herbed and delicious all over.
Prices: Burger (with side), $17
Notes: Perhaps to insure that the rest of the menu isn't reduced to a list of side dishes, Tavern won't serve you a burger at a table from 7 p.m to 10 p.m.
One of the things that makes my affair with the hamburger an ever renewed and renewing love is that I never find myself contriving a reason to have one. None of the artifice of measuring time or the concomitant folly of manufactured meaning disguised as celebration is demanded to make it apropos. It is the anti-special occasion food, a quotidian meal of convenience that was hard won through generations of human trial and the errors of industry. It is our atavistic impulse to feed on protein, fat, and salt ground up and served on a bun.
The robust, foursquare simplicity of the dish confounds many chefs who try to remake this classic. The years of training can lead many to see problems where there aren't any. It's not simply a physician's impulse to over-prescribe, but rather neglecting to ask if anything is wrong in the first place. You can't heal the healthy. Forgetting the basic appeal of the dish—its balance of flavors and textures—may lead a chef to add complication, not add complexity.
So when chef Suzanne Goin, one of Los Angeles' (and my) favorites, opened Tavern with her partner Caroline Styne and decided to showcase her burger, my ears and appetite perked. Goin has enjoyed heaps of success and praise with her restaurants Lucques and A.O.C. Normally a trip to one of her eateries feels (and costs) like a special occasion. What makes today special? Nothing in particular. I'll have mine medium rare.
Walking into the gray front room of Tavern, it's clear you are going to pay a little more for just about everything. Tables and (not so comfy) banquets look designer, and the minimalist bar is the kind of spare look that's full of expense. Through a curtained doorway is the payoff—the back dining area and its greenhouse-like feel has to be one of the most attractive dining rooms in LA.
When ordering my burger I notice the none-too-subtle attitude that seems to develop in the staff of many of these high-profile Los Angeles eateries. When a young manager happens by and finds out that no one has come to my table, he deigns to take my order. When I ask for a half and half order of rings and fries he inhales deeply through his nose and says that they don't normally do that, but he'll do it for me. Not only do I find this con man technique of cadging my gratitude unseemly, "half and half" is an order listed on the menu. Right after forgetting to ask me what temperature I'd like my burger, he strides off to attend to the eminently more important tasks of his day.
Just before I decide to leave my Hollywood dreams behind and move to a friendlier city, the rest of my meal is served to me by a truly delightful woman named—wait for it—L.A. Tavern, it seems is rife with coincidence. Maybe my screenplay will sell someday.
My burger arrives on the expected shiny brioche bun. In fact, this one glistens with extra flare and when I pick it up I find out why. The bun is dabbed with a little fat (probably clarified butter) to give it an extra glow.
The toppings alongside look as pristine and delectable as a high-end house salad. I sample them on their own. The pickles are perhaps the tastiest iteration I've come across. They have the crunch of a new pickle, but a more pronounced vinegar kick that is balanced with sweetness. They'd work as a stand-alone appetizer. The tomato is luscious (due to our recent heat wave) and nicely seasoned. It's the pleasure of a restaurant making something better than I can imagine myself ever doing—even when it's just a pile of burger toppings.
I decide to try the burger sans toppings first and am rewarded for my choice. The meat is a Niman Ranch grind and while we've heard things aren't what they used to be up in Alameda, it's still a great place to source your beef. It's a rich and clean beef taste that has gotten a hefty amount of seasoning so as to cut right through the clunky, brioche bun. Goin chooses Fontina for the cheese, which melts nicely and isn't an overpowering flavor, although I'm not sure it adds the creaminess that I imagine was part of the motivation for choosing it.
The burger looks to be about eight ounces of beef that gives off a hit of intense fat. It tastes as though much of this is due to an additional swath of butter or oil (on the bun and perhaps on the patty itself). It's a nice effect, but I find myself wishing for a looser grind that would help the beef flavor step forward. Still, the overall mouthfeel is fantastic and the patty is cooked to a perfect temperature. When I try adding the toppings, I find them, and my burger, better on their own. The burger's juiciness and fat seem out of step with the added texture (and water) of the toppings. I'm content to eat them as a salad.
The french fries are deeply brown and flavorful. Goin throws in an earthy and noticeable dusting of salt and herbs that turns a dish that I am sure I know how to make into one that I couldn't make nearly as well. Again, it's the pleasure of a fine restaurant. The onion rings, on the other hand, are a strangely uncomfortable dish. They don't seem to have fully figured these out as they are a stab at a higher end ring, but the look is sloppy and the taste is foiled by a oiliness that seems as though they should have been drained longer.
Ultimately, Goin and Styne have created a restaurant and burger that is a worthy (if pricey) destination. As they've shown before, Tavern manages the not-so-simple contemporary impulse to make the rustic elegant and the formal casual better than most of the competition. Their burger is a manifestation of this impulse, but at $17 it is, for most, something to be enjoyed occasionally. Truth be told, the timing of my visit to the newest restaurant of one my favorite chef's wasn't accidental.
Today is my birthday and I wanted a special place to review. But that impulse is out of step with what is great about burgers. They are reminders that what is basic to our lives is what is best in our lives. Today isn't special—every day is. I have my health, a life full of love, and the comfort of the hamburger. I'm lucky to have all of them...everyday