615 N La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90036 (map); 323-254-9138; cubemarketplace.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A bold, yet refined burger that is among the best in Los Angeles.
Want Fries with That? Yes, please. A series of experiments by the chef led to a potato ribbon that delivers a precise crispness.
Prices: Burger and fries, $15; truffle burger and fries, $18
Notes: There is a private room that sits between the kitchen and dining area that is perfect for a special occasion that demands special food.
I've resolved to honor this iconic year of 2010 by trying to eat better burgers. In the range of New Year's resolutions, eating more delicious hamburgers does not, at first blush, seem to hew to the tradition of self-sacrifice in service of self-improvement. But for a burger reviewer who has tried upwards of a hundred different patties in the last year, it is, at the very least, a challenge.
With that in mind, I headed to Cube in West Hollywood. I've eaten at Cube a number of times and haven't once had a meal that was less than excellent—more than once, I've tasted a dish that sent me into eye-rolling delight. It boasts one of the most meticulously sourced ingredient libraries (and store shelves) in the city, but more than that, chef Erin Eastland has turned the dynamic menu into one of the better explorations of regional Italian cooking I've come across.
If you are looking for a black truffle sauce from Visso or a superlative olive oil from Abruzzo, you can pull either off shelves that surround the dining room, or you could just order one of Eastland's restrained appetizers. The offerings, both from the menu and the marketplace, have a museum-like curatorship; rather than endless options, you get a selection of the best ones. Of course, I arrived looking for a burger. And, oh, did I find one.
Love at First Burger
My first encounter with the Cube Burger was topped with Quebec cheddar and arrived with Hollywood starlet appeal. The perfectly rounded bun, set against what can fairly be described as potato ribbons and a succulent round of heirloom tomato, was dead sexy.
The first bite was the stuff of burger dreams. The rich, pliant bun squished with softness and crunched with a slight toasting. The beef crumbled with a griddled crust and a finer than expected grind that—despite my usual preference for coarse—matched the voluble and nontraditional blend. The patty, 6 ounces of short rib and hanger steak, had a brash beefiness that was unquiet in the best of ways. The charred shallot added a sweet note that balanced with the bite of the cheddar.
After devouring half of my burger—so quickly I barely got to take a breath—I added a touch of the surprisingly good chipotle ketchup. If the cloying quality of commercial ketchup isn't your thing, this might be the version that convinces you that it's the proper condiment for a burger. The sweetness is balanced with a subtle Scoville heat that layers flavor into the overall profile of this burger.
While Cube Burger is immediately recognizable as a high-end offering (if only from its price tag), the menu reads simply: "house brioche, choice of cheese, charred shallots, crispy potatoes, chipotle ketchup." There isn't a mention of the Quebec cheddar, or the Piedmontese beef from Marconda's Meat Market to be found. I imagined that this because the expert sourcing is woven into the cooking process, rather than trumpeted for impression.
As it turned out, I didn't have to speculate. A while back, I discovered that Eastland and I were separated by a single, proverbial degree—in this case, my most important one. I asked the love of my life to contact her friend, Eastland, so that I might watch, up close, how this burger creation comes to life.
Behind the Scenes
Eastland is the kind of chef that seems to defy stereotype. She is shy and diminutive (even now, seven months into pregnancy). Her watery, blue-green eyes brighten when she interacts with her staff, rather than sharpening with command. The kitchen feels like an easy collaboration, not a dictatorship (though, to be fair, I didn't watch a service in action). She walked me through the preparation of the Cube Truffle Burger.
Eastland went to work on the 6 ounces of short rib and hangar steak that comes from the trimmings of two signature dishes on her menu. She was quick to mention that the ratio of each is both a secret and the creation of her boss, Alex Palermo. Palermo is a restaurateur, to be sure, but Cube is the fruit of his fortunes, not the source. He became a major success in the fresh pasta business when a college project married his business sense with his passion for food.
The raw beef, with the color and sheen of sushi grade tuna, got mixed with a black truffle sauce from Visso and then is gently formed into a round. The griddle gets a quick spray of oil and then down it goes. Eastland and I looked at each other for an awkward moment and then I asked, "What next?" She pointed to her timer and said that it was three minutes on each side and then in the oven. No smashing or constant flipping? No. Eastland understands that cooking, in its execution, is simply chemistry and physics, not a magic act; no grandiose flourishes needed. Her restraint and meticulous technique prove more imaginative than the parade of excess that seems to have overwhelmed the restaurant scene.
Some Stilton was added to this one before it headed into the oven. When done it was gently perched on the house made brioche bun. The final product came out looking as beautiful as I'd remembered. The addition of the truffle certainly adds a little Italian earthiness to the burger, but I'm not sure its necessary. The beef blend has so much to say on its own that I found myself more intrigued by the original, less-dressed version. Still, with the rich bite of the Stilton, it was a delicious mouthful.
A Resolution Fulfilled
I awoke to this new year determined to find new and better burgers and, as luck would have it, I started off in spectacular fashion. I was so taken with the burger at Cube that I am surprised (even with myself!) that it hasn't been bandied about more often when talking about the best in the city. Eastland's burger is a beautifully executed take that manages to merge the best impulses of fine dining with the quotidian pleasure of this classic sandwich. Happy New Year, indeed.