170 O'Farrell Street, San Francisco CA 94102 (map); 415-983-0281; fleurdelyssf.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A series of surprising missteps at this Top Chef Master's burger resto made me want to say, "Pack your knives and go."
Want Fries with That? Yes! Fast food-style and very well-wrought.
Prices: Black Angus Beef Burger, $9.75
Notes: Despite a substandard burger, the place does a brisk business (at least on the weekends). If you must go, get there early or embrace the wait.
A recent weekend found me in San Francisco to attend a friend's wedding. Normally, hearing the words "You're Invited" makes me sigh and take out my checkbook, but this occasion was genuine cause for celebration. Not only was the groom my dear friend from college and subsequent roommate during our adult(ish) years that followed, but also a weekend sojourn "up north," as we say in Los Angeles, meant an excuse to eat as much as the three days and my gluttony would allow. As it happened, celebrity chef Hubert Keller had recently opened the San Francisco outlet of his mini-chain Burger Bar—and just minutes from my hotel, no less.
I headed over to Union Square searching for a Macy's. For some reason Mr. Keller decided to open his restaurant on the six floor of the department store. Despite the questionable location, I walked with purpose and high hopes. Watching and reading about Keller's culinary journey had made me think that this could be a chef who knows how to handle his patties. When I came upon his explanation of how he approached his burger restaurant, I knew I had to try his version. Keller said,
We knew everyone loves burgers, but we wanted to offer something new. What if we re-imagined burgers and applied our fine-dining culinary training to create the best-tasting burgers possible? We would take them seriously because, we noticed, burger lovers take the subject seriously. Very seriously.
Well, Mr. Keller, as it happens, yes we do. I'll take mine medium rare.
The Alsatian-born Keller has been a well-received fine-dining chef since he opened his flagship restaurant Fleur de Lys. While Keller garnered celebrity chef status from his restaurant and even an invitation by Bill Clinton to be the guest chef at the White House, it was the burger that brought him mainstream fame. He opened the first Burger Bar in 2004 inside the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas and was, not surprisingly, a huge hit. He followed it up with another outlet in St. Louis and a successful burger cookbook. Then TV folks came calling in the form of a public television series and a turn on Top Chef Masters. Now, for better or worse, Keller's broad smile and easygoing, mulletted mien are icons of the burger world.
You get to the restaurant by entering the Macy's from Union Square and taking the elevator to the six floor. Of course, I managed to miss this entrance and had suffer through perfume samples and endless escalators, but if you avoid this mistake it's an easy entry (if fraught with the urge to make jokes like "2nd floor lingerie, 6th floor burgers").
The restaurant space itself is unremarkable in an upscale casual sort of way. It reminded me of a dressed up Chili's or maybe a "sleek" airport bar. That said, if you can grab a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows you immediately get a look at what must have sold the restaurateurs on the space. The view of the city and Union Square below is truly lovely, even if Manny Pacquiao's huge head watches you eat your burger.
I ordered the Black Angus burger with American cheese. This was an easy enough decision for me and my simple tastes, but if customization is your bag, you can fill it up here. Keller offers endless permutations of toppings and a number of different meat choices.
The burger arrived looking straightforward diner-style: a large, ovular white plate, burger, fries, and some lonely veggies. I tried mine as a meat, cheese, and bun affair. The beef, which is said to be sustainably raised Country Natural and ground fresh daily, was very nicely cooked with a hefty crust and a pink middle. If anything, they probably erred on the underdone side as I noticed that slimy quality of raw meat in a few bites.
There was plenty of juice from the patty, but it lacked both seasoning and character. There was a particular lack of salt, and the beef had that somewhat mild flavor that can occur with grass feeding (It's actually probably a lack of intramuscular fat). I noticed what looked to be a few mustard seeds in the crust of the meat, but they didn't add any distinct flavor. Even though the cheese helped bring a little fat to the party, the beefiness of this burger was sill desperately lacking.
The bun looked like a custom job. Sprinkled with flour in what might be a nod to Keller's roots, it looked lovely, but missed the mark. The was a graininess that made it more crumbly than my soft and spongy preference could appreciate. The overall impression that I was left with is that this celebrity fine-dining chef made a burger that was just ordinary.
I have to admit, I was rooting for Keller's burger. I watched him on Top Chef Masters and found his smiley sincerity charming. He seems to really care about food and the role it plays not just in our day-to-day enjoyment of life, but also the ways it organizes so many memories. His comments about burgers made him seem aware that one needn't be committed to fine-dining to take food seriously. I mean, look at this video and try not to like this guy. Alas, it seems I like the man more than his burgers. There isn't anything unpleasant about the burger at Burger Bar; there just isn't anything special about it. At least it comes with a view.