A Hamburger Today
Meditations on the Perfect Burger at Comme Ça in Los Angeles
8479 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood CA 90069 (map); 323-782-1104; commecarestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: This heralded burger lives up to the hype. A truly beautiful rendition.
Want Fries with That? Yes! Expert execution and lovely presentation.
Price: Burger and fries, $16
Imagine the perfect burger. The notion is compelling, but giving it shape is likely to initiate all manner of frustration. What kind of burger? When am I to eat it? With whom? The idea is clear—the reality is blurry. This is the fundamental paradox of trying to think in terms of perfection. The act of adding specificity diminishes the glowing beauty of the general.
This complication didn't thwart the New York Times from determining just what burger perfection looks like. For them, David Myers' restaurant Comme Ça serves a burger that the New York Times deems the incarnation of the ideal. As it turns out, the restaurant is just a short drive from my home. I have the perfect idea for lunch.
Comme Ça is Myers' second restaurant in Los Angeles (he now has three with a fourth on the way). It's a casual, upscale brasserie that shows off the value of years spent under the tutelage of Daniel Boulud. Myers and Comme Ça's executive chef Michael David both worked under the heralded chef. David's French technique is often mentioned on the short list of Los Angeles' best, but his burger bona fides were beefed up in New York; he boasts membership to the team that developed the burger at db Bistro Moderne. The result has been one of the most talked about burgers in the country.
There's been so much hype that one can barely imagine the reality living up to it all, but luckily my plate arrives with a beautiful, and very real, burger.
The plate strikes such a simple and elegant note with its flute of french fries and glistening smile of a cheese-smothered patty on a stark white plate that I get that small chill of anticipation that precedes an awaited gratification that you know to be inescapable.
And then it arrives—a rush of beef, fat, and salt that sends me into paroxysms of perfect, primitive pleasure that could only have been wrought through thousands of years of civilization. Well, almost, perfect. There is a mass of iceberg lettuce bathed a creamy, slightly spicy dressing that disturbs the otherwise beautifully balanced flavors. The effect is that of a wide wale of coleslaw dripping over the burger that strikes me as out of place. A few more bites confirms this—off it goes. I am left with a simple, yet highly refined sandwich of meat, cheese, and bread.
This refinement isn't an exercise in pouring high-end ingredients into the mold of a classic. This burger is born of the repetitive process of creating a dish that both adds and subtracts in search of an ideal form. The beef is described as Certified Angus, which doesn't really signify anything, but tends to be a flavor that is bold, and rich, and probably what you think of when you try to summon the taste of beef.
It's molded into a hefty patty that must come in over eight ounces and has the bulbous shape of a pub burger. This is usually a cause for complaint from me as I find the shape resists proper cooking, but after the reputed 11 versions it took to hone his process, David found a way to cook his burger perfectly. He treats it like a steak, first searing it on a plancha (think Spanish cast iron skillet) creating what might be the best crust on a burger that's crossed my lips, then finishing it in a 375°F oven. Mine came out looking like an artist's rendition of medium rare.
The bun is an achievement of its own. It's called brioche, but the thick yet pliable mass is literally and figuratively made for a hamburger. The artisan behind this food art is Hidefumi Kubota, whom Myers brought over from Osaka to handle the baking at his first restaurant, Sona. They are now launching a bakery on the strength of Kubota's work. The bun is said to have gone through 13 iterations of its own before finding its final form. The result is a masterpiece and one of the best burger buns I've ever sampled.
The menu lists the cheese as cheddar, which is the final piece in this game of indeterminate signifiers. Of course, saying "cheddar" is just slightly more specific than saying "cheese," but the effect is no less distinct. The cheddar adds a creamy tang that brings a harmony of flavors in the understated manner akin to a bass line in a great song; it's the in-between that holds things together.
Is the Comme Ça burger perfect? Ultimately the very idea of perfection is what's slippery. It's notional without a way to find its place in the actual. It's an expression of longing; the way all desire is full of distance. So is it perfect? Yes and no. Let's call it almost perfect.